Renew Eugene’s Renewal Agency

My elder son had his first driving accident when he was ten. I was away on a business trip, on the phone that morning with his mother. Nathan was anxious to get to his first day of soccer camp, hectoring his mom to hurry up with her phone call. She knew that I often let Nate start the car in our driveway. What she didn’t know was that I always went to the car first, took it out of gear, and double-checked the parking brake.

My wife gave our boy the keys and he trundled out the door. What happened next wasn’t vroom-vroom, but crash-shriek! The car backed straight into our neighbor’s boyfriend’s new car. Nate’s name appeared in the neighborhood police blotter. His mortified parents hoped only that our 4th-grader wouldn’t turn to a life of crime.

I thought of that family story this week as Eugene is trying to figure out how to manage the sudden acceleration of downtown development. For about 40 years, Eugene tried to jump-start downtown’s progress with government incentives. Now that it’s finally in motion, the job of steering becomes suddenly important.

Starting a car is very different from driving one.

I don’t favor ending any of the financial incentives available to cities like Eugene. Instead, we must reimagine government’s goal from providing propulsion to providing direction. If anything, steering things to reach our desired destinations is more satisfying and productive than trying to move something that’s been motionless for decades.

Now comes the fun part. We can drive development toward outcomes we most desire, using skills we may have forgotten or never learned. You can hear the vroom-vroom. Let’s do what we can to avoid the crash-shriek!

This newspaper recently uncovered a deed restriction on the downtown space that’s still-not-officially-called Kesey Square. When it was given to the city in 1971 to make room for a smaller and wetter version of Fresno’s downtown walking mall, the deed stipulated that the land be “forever dedicated to the use of the public.”

The deed conveyed the property to Eugene from the Eugene Renewal Agency, which at the time included seven citizens with the interest and expertise necessary to guide Eugene’s urban renewal efforts. For several decades since, the Eugene City Council has doubled as Eugene’s urban renewal agency. Prevailing legal opinion asserts that the deed restriction can be modified or ignored by the current members of Eugene’s urban renewal agency, a.k.a. the Eugene City Council.

This is what I call shaking the wrong end of the rattle. When you don’t get the sound you expected, you shake it harder and harder. Instead of using the instrument in the way it was intended, you risk breaking it altogether.

The important revelation here is not that the why-can’t-we-agree-to-call-it Kesey Square has a deed restriction. It’s that we’ve stopped populating our urban renewal agency with anyone but elected officials. We should correct that misdeed before amending the deed.

Why? Because there’s only one thing worse than a politician who doesn’t understand the complexities of property development — and that’s a politician who does.

It’s not that building downtown is complicated or counterintuitive, although it is both. Successful development simply requires more patience than any elected official can afford. Successful developers never design to meet yesterday’s needs, because the doors on the architect’s drawing won’t open for another year or two. Two years to a city councilor is half a (political) lifetime.

There was no harm in giving our city council the keys to downtown development when nothing was going anywhere, but now that things are moving, the council should slide over and give more control to people who deal with these matters all the time.

Need proof? The members of Eugene Renewal Agency in 1971 opposed closing Willamette Street to traffic, according to the Eugene Register-Guard, because “they said the closing would have an adverse psychological effect on motorists attempting to reach specific locations in the downtown area.”

The time has come to renew the renewal agency.

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