Good Thing Government’s Cutting Corners

Sarah Medary crossed the street at lunchtime on Tuesday, June 7. As Eugene’s Assistant City Manager, she often leaves her office in the Atrium Building to go to public meetings at the Eugene Public Library on the opposite corner of 10th Avenue and Olive Street. Cafe Novella has the best nearby coffee and that was on her mind at the moment.

Work was beginning in earnest on Lane Community College’s Downtown Campus. Lease Crutcher Lewis had dozens of construction workers and plenty of heavy machinery working already against time. Chain link fencing had been erected to protect the public from the site, where hard hats and steel-toed shoes will be required for the next year.

Space and time are interrelated variables in any project as complicated as this one. Contractors have a compressed timeline to be able to open the doors in 2012, so every extra square inch of space increases efficiency and productivity. The sidewalks on Olive and 10th were both being closed for safety reasons, so the fencing simply squared at the street on the corner.

As a graduate of the University of Oregon’s Landscape Architecture program, Medary is trained to notice how people move in space. On this particular Tuesday, that movement was disrupted. Those walking between downtown and the library were being diverted. The northwest corner was closed to pedestrians. It was a small inconvenience, and an understandable one. But details matter in an urban context. They can build up quickly.

“I’ll bet I can get this corner back for the public,” Medary thought, loudly enough to be overheard. And so begins a small story of heroism, government speaking up for regular people, asking a business to sacrifice a little efficiency for the good of the public. Usually when government cuts corners, it’s a bad thing. Not this time.

Medary also serves as the Interim Planning and Development Director. She and other senior staff meet once a week in a first floor Atrium conference room known as “the fishbowl.” Those meetings are designed to keep everybody in the Planning and Development Department connected. They plan strategy, solve problems, but also simply share information — plugging cracks before things fall through them.

The following Tuesday morning, June 14th, near the end of their meeting, Medary brought her concern about the closed crosswalk to the management team. She suggested the city could pay for any additional fencing that might be required to open the corner to pedestrians. She asked Community Development Manager Mike Sullivan to look into it.

Sullivan walked directly from the fishbowl meeting to Senior Development Analyst Denny Braud’s office. “My notes from that meeting have a big asterisk there,” Sullivan reflects. “Sarah made the point that we’re doing everything we can to facilitate alternative modes of transportation, so reopening that corner for pedestrian use would be a good thing. I tried to channel Sarah’s sense of urgency.”

“Mike was all charged up,” Braud recalls. “We knew it was a really small thing, but that it mattered.”

Braud attends all the project manager meetings for the development, so he knew who to call. Lease Crutcher Lewis Project Manager Andy Dykeman took the call in his temporary office on Broadway. The request to give up that corner didn’t seem unreasonable, at least for the moment. Dykeman reminded Braud that at some point, all the sidewalks around the project will be torn up and replaced.

Both men understood this wasn’t a “someday” conversation. Pedestrians were being inconvenienced right then.

Dykeman’s office adjoins Site Superintendent Jeff Miller’s. He invited Miller to take a walk with him to the corner in question. “I don’t recall the details,” Dykeman admits, “but we would have walked to the site to survey the situation. At that point, Jeff would have walked over to two of his carpenters and said, ‘Gentlemen? Would you follow me please?’”

Braud confirms that the fencing was repositioned that quickly. “I know when I left work that afternoon, it had already been changed. I was kind of amazed.” Since the city contributed millions to make the project possible, maybe he shouldn’t be amazed, and we shouldn’t be either.

But somebody first had to notice and ask. Medary did both. After that, the rest was easy.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.