I admire Mary Spilde’s pluck. The president of Lane Community College has pursued an aggressive vision for burnishing her school’s presence in downtown Eugene, beginning with a successful bond measure campaign in 2008. She and the LCC Board of Directors have faced many choices between “make do” and “make good.” At each juncture, she and they chose the bigger, longer-term vision.
Refurbish the old Montgomery Ward building or seek additional funding to build new? Build a functional structure for present needs or design a signature building for the future? Economize on the construction or seek L.E.E.D. certification for sustainable design? Use only half a city block or add 200 housing units to fill the block and downtown’s biggest need? In each case, the latter (more expensive) choice has carried the day.
This week, Spilde explained her funding strategy simply. “We have $30 million in hand or promised — enough to build a remarkable 80,000 square foot facility downtown. I’ve asked the board to give me a couple more months to raise $4.5 million more to get us to our goal of 90,000 square feet.” She then rattled off five or six funding avenues she’s still exploring, as if she can list them in her sleep. She probably does — if she sleeps.
By the fall of 2011 or 2012, the deed will be done. The Sears pit will be filled, our downtown library will have a suitable companion across 10th Avenue, and the community will see that sometimes it’s better to stretch for that second bird in the bush.
An LCC board member was audibly corrected this week when he referred to the project as the school’s “downtown center.” “Downtown campus” came the instant rebuke from three different voices. You can insert a “center” into the shell of a tired retail store, but a “campus” will not fit. A campus has housing and open space, classrooms and rec rooms, a face to the street and a life after hours. LCC is planning a campus, not a center.
The city should follow Spilde’s lead, get a little pluck of its own, and plan a new civic square at 10th and Olive. Where right now we have a downtown hole, we can begin to make downtown whole. Follow me.
The preliminary designs for LCC’s downtown campus includes a prominent “front door” and plaza, facing south to form a couplet with the library. These two buildings will have similar shape and mass. Their uses are complementary. Both buildings will spill their inhabitants into the plaza to make a vibrant people place. The plaza will be designed so it can be closed to traffic during street fairs.
But the couplet has a third partner already in place — Lane Transit District’s downtown station. Again, the function complements the other two corners’ uses. Its open space could play well with the plaza envisioned, if only the fourth corner could be secured for public use. Four corners makes a square, but three corners doesn’t make anything at all.
We must reclaim The Atrium as public space.
The building already belongs to the city of Eugene. It currently houses the planning and development department, along with a couple of related private businesses.
Old-timers will remember Cinema 7, Oregon Repertory Theatre, the Willamette Valley Observer, DeFrisco’s Pub, and Mr. Moto’s Coffee. Although it never stopped being a public space, the public no longer has reason to go there.
“Well, it was certainly more interesting back then,” recalls “Stone Soup” cartoonist Jan Eliot. “I began my love affair with newspapers there. I worked in the production department at Willamette Valley Observer.” Many good things began at The Atrium.
Repopulating The Atrium with small-space retail, handcrafters, entertainment, and start-ups will extend the mission of LCC’s downtown campus, square the corners for continuous learning, and confirm a college town’s commitment to “pluck, not luck.”
Only with all four corners can each “two-bird stretch” feed from the other three. Add a little foresight and we’ll have more than four sites. A public square at 10th and Olive will mirror and modernize the heritage of our Park Blocks.
Taken together, people will mistakenly believe we planned it that way all along. If we move quickly, we needn’t correct them.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but these ideas are his own. Kahle writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.