I knocked on the basement apartment door. The doorbell broke years ago, but knocking never stopped working. Gil Farsnow came to the door, dressed too comfortably for public. A salsa stain marked the beginning of his middle-age paunch. “Come in,” he said, waving with the hand that wasn’t holding a beverage.
Farsnow made a name for himself — some would claim that to be literally true — decades ago by submitting clever solutions for architecture terminal reviews at the University of Oregon. Although he pinned his work for more than a decade, no one ever met him and he never bothered to graduate.
“Success was not for me,” he admitted once. “I’m like a hunter who’s also a vegetarian. I’ll kill it — just don’t make me eat it.”
“Let me cut to the chase,” I said, feeling good about that segue. “We have a problem downtown with Kesey Square.”
“You have two problems,” he told me. “All the solutions proposed have been either too little or too much.”
I didn’t disagree, at least not so far. “First we thought the solution would be to get tons of people downtown, and we did that.”
“Too little,” Farsnow interjected. “You thought the actor-outers would blend into the crowds. That’s not how acting out works. But go on.”
“Police and some of the neighbors asked that benches and short walls be removed, because they attracted drug dealers and skateboarders. So we did that.”
“Too much,” Farsnow said, shaking his head. “Now who hangs out in that area? Only people willing to sit on the cold brick pavement. You’ve created a monoculture of nimble seat-sufferers.”
“You’re right,” I replied.
“What if the city added more benches than we have travelers? That might be worth a try. I doubt many people would circle Eugene as a destination because they heard they have good benches there.”
“We thought it would help to have Starbucks on the corner,” I continued. “More eyes on the street.”
“Too little — more eyes across the street is not the same. I can get closer to the wildlife at Sea Lion Caves.”
“OK,” I said, “What about making the area a city park? That would give police more control over curfew and smoking.”
“Too much — unless you can find police who will work for tips. You don’t fix unruly behavior by having more rules, unless you can enforce them.”
“So you must be in favor of the plan to build stores and apartments on that corner,” I suggested, knowing that assumptions are never safe in Farsnow’s sphere.
“Not yet,” he replied.
“What would you do instead?” I asked.
He folded his legs, settling in. “Step one: change its official name to Kesey Square. That’s easy, but important. Broadway Plaza was always a coward’s choice. No wonder you can’t solve the problems. Who cares enough to save something called Broadway Plaza? Step two: honor Kesey with your solutions. What would a merry prankster do on that corner, in this situation?”
“The two large, blank walls are a problem — we agree about that. Seattle just scrubbed its famous chewing gum wall. If there’s an opportunity here, don’t only look to a planner or a banker. Fix those walls and the pavement problems may fix themselves.”
“Ali Emami owns the buildings behind those walls. What can be done from the other side? Fill those walls with roll-up booths. Ninkasi no longer has interest, but what about other breweries? How many Saturday Market vendors would jump at renting an unfurnished retail booth by the day or the week?”
“How about Emami’s incubator restaurant concept, first drafted almost a decade ago — shared kitchen facilities with rotating cuisines? If housing fits the city’s priorities, can the apartments be built one door south, above Emami’s rug store?”
“If none of this will work, then sure — request proposals from developers, but do it with a prankster twist. List ten evaluation criteria on the RFP. Then stipulate that each proposal must break two of the ten rules and clearly state why.”
“Kesey could be square — when he was reading to children, for instance — but he was always Kesey. Square that.”
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.