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Seven Controversies in One

March 15th, 2006 by dk

Now we see why Oregon never should have put all the English and philosophy majors in one town and all the pencil-heads and engineers in a different town 50 miles away.

English majors know that the answer to every essay question is “Yes, yet no.” Take nuance away from us, and we have nothing to show for our years at college. Any straight line is evidence of some undiscovered dots that still need connecting. Those who pay careful attention can follow all the twists and turns, but regular people can’t keep up. All those dots pile up in their heads, like Dewey Decimals before the System.

Right about now, we could use some of those math and troubleshooting skills down here in Eugene to step us methodically through the Whole Foods controversy — or controversies.

The G Group wants to bring Whole Foods to downtown Eugene. They have negotiated to build a 52,000 square foot store (with parking included) on the corner that is now marked by IHOP’s blue roof.

Whole Foods is Controversy #1. They are big. They are not local. They are not union-friendly. For some, that’s three strikes and that’s enough. But they are also green. They often support local growers. They pay fair wages. They are judged to be a good employer by people who measure such things.

Large steps for downtown Eugene will require housing. Housing requires groceries. And most people want more choices than our favorite local grocers can provide. If you want people to live downtown, not just sleep there, they will want to buy groceries within walking distance. Would a Safeway be better?

Not everyone will be walking to this complex. Whole Foods has already met its own needs with two levels of parking incorporated into their design. But city planners have long wanted structured parking on this end of downtown. Building something now and near the Whole Foods complex jumps on the coattails of the grocer, makes it an anchor for a new retail hub that could then spread like an ink blot until it connected with the resurgent 5th Street Public Market.

Parking is Controversy #2. Any admission that driving is what most of us do is seen by some as an abdication of our responsibility to build now for a post-peak oil world. Today’s parking garage is destined to become tomorrow’s skateboard theme park. Planning for anything else is seen as irresponsible.

Not only do most people prefer to drive when they shop, they also prefer not to walk even half a block before shopping. The land adjacent to Whole Foods is owned by Jim and Ginevra Ralph. But the city owns a plot the same size across the street, just north of The Shedd. The Ralphs are willing to swap plots, so they might one day expand further and build a music school beside their concert hall and administrative offices.

Back room deals is Controversy #3. Have the Ralphs been given special treatment? Should we all be asked whether we want to swap land with a private owner? Of course there’s no longer any back rooms in the cramped City Hall. The Ralphs have been open and direct about what they want, why they want it, and what could happen if they get it. There are no secrets there. But that hasn’t stopped some from wondering.

City staff has proposed that the Whole Foods developer, Gerding Edlen from Portland, be given also the contract to build the adjacent garage (with retail on the ground floor.) To expedite and support the project, staff has suggested this contract be granted without competitive bidding. Gary Pape has had to recuse himself from voting because his son works for the contractor.

Call Controversy #4 the expeditious pace. This deal has been brewing for over two years. Why the sudden hurry? Is somebody hiding something? Is there a pea under a shell that we’re not noticing?

Is the no-bid contract a sweetheart deal? Does that amount to a public subsidy? Is the parking garage itself an inducement for a big company to come to town and threaten our smaller grocers? Public subsidy is Controversy #5. If our tax dollars are being used, why can’t we have a say in what they accomplish?

But who can say with certainty what all this will accomplish? Wild Oats came to town and found they couldn’t compete, even after buying up the largest local competitor. Other downtown revitalization plans have failed in Eugene over the years. Are we throwing good money after bad? What will be the unintended consequences? Will our local grocers survive? What about our local farmers? The uncertainty itself is Controversy #6. How can anyone be certain they know this will be good for downtown and good for Eugene?

Finally, Controversy #7 is change itself. Wooing a large corporation to set up shop downtown will certainly bring change. But will it be change for the better? What’s so bad about how things are right now, anyway? Do we really want things to change?

The answer as we all know is “Yes, yet no.”

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 michele Mar 16, 2006 at 7:43 am

    So, Hi there.

    Thanks for sharing your opinions on your blog page. I enjoy your well written thoughts and whole-heartedly agree with much of what you say…

    1. I hope your writings are forwarded to
    city council
    The RG
    Anyone else who can influence decisions
    1. How about syndication? (of the non-Eugene articles)
    Your articles are better written (in my humble opinion) than many.

    The more people exposed to your easily readable, entertaining and illuminating style, the better our nation could become ( a lofty statement, but absolutely true.)

    Please keep up the entries. I imagine many look forward to them-I know I do.

    From the sunny south-M

  • 2 BillThePoet Mar 19, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    I agree with Michele. dk should be syndicated more often. My first national discovery of dk was in a column called, “Loose Ends,” which ran in the Sun Herald of south Mississippi. Needless to say, they didn’t know what to do with him down there.

    As much as I love his accessible prose, he could use a dollop of liberty in this piece. If you don’t want Big Crunchy (Big Box meets Granola)in your neighborhood, don’t sell to them, or don’t buy from them. But don’t get all Soviet on their butts.

    They’re trying to use some of the ever-shrinking space between mandatory and illegal, just like the rest of us.