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Let’s Have an Invisible City Hall

February 21st, 2006 by dk

The two largest downtown construction projects contemplated for the next few years don’t involve Whole Foods. One is private; one is public. The private venture has stirred plenty of controversy. The public venture hopes to reach consensus before it hits the headlines. The talking points for each are short and simple enough, you can write them on your hand.

The Connor-Woolley-Opus project has brought enough recent controversy to delight water cooler manufacturers. The complaints or concerns can be ticked off as quickly as a struggling downtown retailer.

1. Cookie-cutter projects seldom work in Eugene for one simple reason: We don’t want them to. The tried and true may work everywhere else, but we prefer the “who’d-a-thunk-it” success to any off-the-shelf solution.

2. City government (read, us) will surely be asked to help make way for this ambitious downtown retail-office-theater-apartment-condo complex, directly or indirectly. That means public subsidies — whether for parking structures or tax credits or expedited plan review — without immediate and direct public benefit.

3. Even if the city wanted to help, the public coffers are not exactly full-to-overflowing. Every day the police chief and mayor pray that an earthquake doesn’t create one of those preventable-but-expensive Katrina disasters, with the police stuck in the basement of a creaky City Hall, just when we may need them most. Replacing City Hall won’t be cheap. If we build parking garages for developers, where will the money come from?

4. Even assuming the other three concerns are addressed and remedied, how can we be sure people will come? The Walking Mall was supposed to fix everything, but instead, it only made things worse for a very long time.

Write those complaints on your left hand, and now turn your attention to the public project that’s just beginning its rocky road to consensus: a new City Hall. This project has clearly stated values that were specifically approved by City Council last November. You can write these on your right hand.

1. Exercise fiscal responsibility.

2. Produce government efficiency.

3. Be user-friendly.

4. Embody environmental stewardship.

5. Enhance downtown.

6. Inspire civic pride.

7. Maximize use of City Hall public spaces by the public and access to government and its representatives.

8. Strive for simplicity.

9. Plan for the future.

That’s the entire list of what councilors want from the new City Hall, wherever and however and whenever it’s built. Assume with me now that both lists are true. That these factors really are what matter most to city government and that those really are the complaints people have with the Connor-Woolley-Opus project. No political correctness or schadenfreude allowed.

Do you have both lists written on your hands, private on the left, public on the right? OK, now put the two lists together. Again. Harder. Faster. Louder. One hand clapping may be the sound of wisdom, but when you hear two hands clapping, something’s just plain smart.

Eugene could have the first truly invisible City Hall if it occupied the second floor of the Connor-Woolley-Opus project, sandwiched between the first-floor retail and the offices and living quarters above. Years ago the DMV, in a fit of commonsense, rented a small space at the Valley River Center Mall, allowing people to do motor vehicle transactions along with their regular shopping. Isn’t that what government represents to most of us — one more errand to be run? Forget the satellite office; bring the whole city government machinery to where the people are.

A City Hall represented by “2” on the retail elevators would be the talk of the nation. Nothing could be more user-friendly. Nothing could do more to enhance downtown. Not only could people get a romantic movie and a marriage certificate without moving their car, they could believe that government doesn’t exist at all if that served their needs best. The city employees would be ready customers for the restaurants and retail below them every day.

Any public subsidies requested by the developers would now have immediate, direct and dramatic payback for the public sector. The money being squirreled away for a future City Hall could now in good conscience be used to help Eugene’s biggest developers do the biggest project they can imagine, and even a little bigger than that. And since the entire project would share the same footprint, the old City Hall can be preserved for a higher use that befits its heritage: offices for nonprofit organizations all around and a public theater space in the center, specializing in comedy.

An invisible City Hall might be the best we can hope for, at least for a while. An impressive facade and entryway has value that can’t be denied. But a facade can also be a barrier, especially if the people inside notoriously don’t get out much. We’ll have a better government, a more transparent government, if their place of work is invisible to most of us, but nearby when we need it.

Can public and private organizations work together this way? How much longer can we afford the right hand not caring what the left hand is doing? What other choice is there? Wash our hands of the whole thing?

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