If Downtown Plan Gets Thwarted, Blame Sheila

Published Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Eugene likes to go its own way. When federal transportation rules collided with Eugene’s “Right Turn Permitted Without Stopping” signs, the feds threatened to cut off road funds destined for Eugene. Register-Guard columnist Don Bishoff was still on the watch then, and he blew the whistle on these strong-arm tactics. Congressman Peter Defazio read about it and got the rules rewritten. Eugene kept its signs.

“I don’t usually remember much about past columns, but I do this one because it was probably one of the few I wrote over 38 years which led to common sense ultimately triumphing over mindless bureaucracy,” Bish recalled this week.

Unnoticed then and still is an even quirkier Eugene road sign. Westbound drivers at 3rd and Mill are greeted with a stop sign utterly unique to Eugene: “Left Turn Permitted Without Stopping.”

LEFT TURN ALLOWED

Eugene reserves the right to turn left without stopping. That is as it should be. But sometimes the left doesn’t stop to think.

Liberals in most places love urban renewal districts. They accomplish many things that liberals love. They strengthen the urban core. They redistribute wealth. They mitigate blight. They consolidate car trips and support mass transit. They reduce sprawl. They leverage and control private investment. They concentrate government actions for tangible results.

It’s usually the mall-building suburban capitalists and the low-tax libertarians who oppose urban renewal districts. Business types are often quick to give up on downtowns as seedy cesspools of immorality. Averting one’s eyes is the most cost-effective solution. But here in Eugene, Dave Hauser from the Chamber of Commerce is the treasurer for the “Yes for Downtown” (pro-20-134) campaign.

The campaign against Measure 20-134, approving an extended life for the downtown urban renewal district, is being led by a faction within the left. Nobody could question the progressive bona fides of such liberal stalwarts as Eugene City Councilor Bonnie Bettman and the editorial board of Eugene Weekly.

The Chamber of Commerce champions a revitalized downtown, while the city’s alternative newsweekly opposes the funding plan. Eugene’s political alliances require an “Alice in Wonderland” looking glass. Things just get “curiouser and curiouser.”

You have to respect George Brown from The Kiva and Gavin McComas from Sundance Natural Foods, who worry that the proposed development will bring competition to their businesses. Greg Bryant would like to keep his super-low downtown rental rates for The Tango Center. Even Paul Nicholson has made bicycling a “way of life” and his livelihood. They have “skin in the game.” Their liberal ideals can be tempered with economic pragmatism. But what about the others? The “ideological left” is harder to understand.

I’ve asked why these progressives dislike progress. I’ve listened to them. I think it comes down to muscle memory and Sheilaism.

Most of what ideological liberals point to as accomplishments from the 40 years since the “Summer of Love” are bad things they have prevented here: a nuclear power plant at the confluence of two rivers, highways that might have divided neighborhoods and gobbled up greenspace in the south and west, a federal courthouse looming over 5th Street Public Market, etcetera.

Lacking the funding and political power, Eugene’s ideological liberals have mostly earned their keep by throwing themselves in front of tanks and bulldozers for the past two generations. For that they deserve our gratitude. But now, with a progressive mayor, a sympathetic city council, and an interim city manager, they have the assets in place to push their own agenda. But still they mostly thwart whatever momentum appears to be gathering. Why?

Robert Bellah coined the term ”Sheilaism” in 1985 to describe what happens to religious fervor when “the purpose-driven life” is overly personalized. Sheila Larson (a name he made up) still wants to be a good person, still has a code of ethics, but it’s no longer connected to a sacred text or an observing deity. It’s personal — and unpublished. Sheila abides by Sheilaism. Sheilaism is good for Sheila, but it doesn’t build community.

Nobody but Sheila knows what are the codes of Sheilaism. Often Sheila doesn’t know herself until something “doesn’t feel right.” At one point, there were five liberal groups opposed to the plans for the West Eugene Parkway. One was concerned about wildlife habitat, another for the larger ecosystems provided by wetlands. One opposed the sprawl they believed would follow. One believed auto traffic should not be encouraged. A fifth was concerned about its impact on bisected neighborhoods. When the good becomes the enemy of the perfect, that’s Sheilaism at work.

Measure 20-134 represents Eugene’s downtown at a crossroads. Will we turn without stopping? Will we turn without stopping to think?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is the former editor/publisher/owner of Comic News and . Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.