Ramping Up Controversy in Eugene

Our daily newspaper’s editorial board wondered aloud Sunday why nobody — count ’em, nobody — excepting the GSA itself, has stepped forward to suggest that a rampless courthouse might be preferable. The ramp solution is considered a “no brainer” because equal access is a cornerstone of justice and only a ramp can appropriately express such a commitment.

Breathless rhetoric aside, may we step back for a moment and consider the situation?

Designing a building is a complex venture, requiring years of training and experience. Designing a public building adds to this complexity the dimension of articulating the public’s values and vision. Designing a courthouse is more complex still — judges, juries, attorneys, defendants, and witnesses must all reach a single chamber room without accidentally bumping into one another. Who among us has stopped to consider all these dimensions?

Each of us can assemble scenarios where any solution will look silly, but the final decision must withstand the rigor of everyday life, in all its mundane generality.

A public building’s design ought to do the greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest time. Expressing openness to all from the front door increases the good for all, not just the alter-abled. Image matters. But if the symbol of increased access at the same time makes justice look ugly or serpentine or convoluted, we may all suffer to a greater degree. This is hardly a “no brainer.”

Our community prides itself in valuing accessibility, but the value isn’t absolute, regardless of our rhetoric. We are not really willing to do “whatever it takes” to make justice equally accessible to “all.” Again, rhetoric aside, we must acknowledge that there are limits to the expression of our ideals. The ramp will allow those in wheelchairs to enter the building together with the ambulatory. But once inside the building, ramps will not get those same people to the upper floors. The judge’s bench and the witness stand are often raised up a step or more, lest those in the courthouse seated toward the back find themselves unable to see. (We mustn’t discriminate against short people.)

We are hellbent on providing court steps access for people who can’t walk. But what about people who can’t breathe without an iron lung, or people who can’t be in the sun, or people who can’t stand to be inside any closed space? The line must be drawn somewhere.

I’m glad we are pushing for that line to move, always including a few more people. But we mustn’t congratulate ourselves for having the “right” and “pure” position against another group that “just doesn’t get it.”

Question authority, Eugene. But question also thyself questioning authority.

Is the elevator solution sufficient? Is the ramp a better solution than the elevator solution? Can another solution be designed that betters those solutions? I don’t know.

I do know that our unwillingness to allow other viewpoints to temper our own hurts us as a community. It’s no coincidence that ODOT’s highway signs inform I-5 drivers about the distance to Springfield long before Eugene gets a mention. Our “bad boy” image makes it more difficult to secure funding from a full range of government entities.

This is not the last building the GSA will site in the south central Willamette Valley. Will Springfield or Junction City or Cottage Grove look better, after we spank them into giving us a ramp?

The deafening silence about a no-ramp solution may have other causes than the one assumed by the editorial board. Lack of an opposing side doesn’t always make the issue a no-brainer. It may mean people aren’t paying attention. It may mean they are afraid of how their dissent will be treated. It may mean they find the tone of the argument unappealing. It may mean they are willing to defer to stronger and more qualified voices than their own. It may mean they don’t believe the other side is listening.

Eugene’s reputation is that of a town that “doesn’t play well with others.” We’re a passionate and idealistic bunch. This is usually good and much to be admired. But our slavish devotion to the politically correct can sometimes reduce us to a leftist version of the fascism, intolerance, and fundamentalism we think we are fighting against.

The GSA has agreed to review its plans and do what’s best for all citizens with its design of the new federal courthouse. If they spend the next month and a half exploring new solutions, we might do well to spend that time preparing to believe them.