Kesey Square: Up Against The Wall

Nobody believes that Eugene’s Kesey Square cannot be improved. The southeast corner of Broadway and Willamette marks the center of our downtown and it deserves at least as much attention as the now-vibrant blocks surrounding it have received.

We often fail to focus our full resolve on outdoor urban spaces for one simple reason. The weather conspires against us. Just when our concern about rampant activity begins to gain momentum, rain seems to fix the problem for us. Then we worry that inclemency is the bigger plight, but the sun returns before we finish assembling our soggy solutions.

Some are suggesting we could solve our outdoor community space problem by making the space not-outdoor and not-community. That will certainly address the immediate issues, but does it represent the optimal solution for our central urban plaza? That’s the question at hand.

Both Mayor Kitty Piercy and City Manager Jon Ruiz have extended their hand to anyone who might have a way to fix the problems that occur on that corner.

We should start (and maybe end) with those two blank brick walls that define the space. Robert Frost was right: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The ground-swell under the Kesey Square walls are political and commercial. We’d like to see them spilled in the sun, if only we could know what would come next.

Seattle last month cleaned up its famous chewing gum wall, leaving China with no competition in the “Walls That People Travel to See” category. If we can solve our wall problem, the square problem may solve itself.

The buildings behind those two walls belong to rug merchant, business professor, and downtown stalwart Ali Emami. He’s had his rug store on Willamette Street for decades. In 2003, he bought the building that houses Voodoo Donuts. But he doesn’t own the walls we stare at from the Kesey statue. Those were built by and belong to the city of Eugene.

Emami has talked to the city about breaking through those walls and building small storefronts that would open onto the plaza. He’d like to see that corner showcase incubator-style businesses offering downtown workers and visitors food, drink, and handcrafts. Think of it as an everyday Saturday Market.

But there’s a problem. The city cannot give a private developer permission to break through publicly owned walls without retaining what’s called “revocability.” Emami won’t invest heavily if the city can later require that it all be undone.

It’s a developer’s version of a chicken-or-egg puzzle. Store owner wants to be certain his investment won’t become worthless. City wants to protect the public’s interest. Both sides are right. Both have something to prove. Both stand to benefit from the other’s success. Here’s how it can be done.

The city could sell Emami an option to purchase a strip of land that borders his buildings, giving him complete control over those walls — but for a limited time and with certain conditions. The option agreement could be set to expire after a few months if Emami’s proposed incubator build-out is not already well underway.

If Emami completes his project on time, he would then be allowed to buy those strips of land and the walls built on them for a fair price. The city’s revocability clause no longer would swing like Damocles’ sword over his project.

If Emami fails to build out his vision, the purchase option would expire and the city would retain ownership of the entire plaza. Other offers and solutions could then be pursued. No options currently under consideration would be eliminated — only set into a certain sequence.

Maybe micro-retail can’t animate that square in a uniquely Eugene way, but the area’s nearest property owner thinks it can. He deserves a chance to convince his skeptics that he’s sincere and capable.

Let’s see Emami’s back-of-the-napkin business plan. If it works, let him poke through those walls and get started.

Yes, this will slow things down a bit. But if the delay is only through this rainy season, I don’t think that’s asking for too much patience from us.

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