The Whit’s Secret Sauce

Whenever I’m introducing somebody new to Eugene, I make a point to take them through the Whiteaker neighborhood, gravely informing them that this is what we used to call our “bad part of town.” I point out the porch couches, usually reserved for smokers in households trying to remain tolerant of an admittedly dirty habit.

“Outdoor upholstery,” I tell them, “is a sure sign of trouble. You never know when there might be a drive-by pillowing.” You expect the unexpected in the Whiteaker. Folks in the Whiteaker embrace and enjoy the changes they see.

Talk to a random person on a sidewalk — and there are plenty to choose from, some more random than others — and you’ll hear pride oozing out the edges. “The Whit,” as they call their beloved neighborhood, has got it going on.

If you want a good peek of Eugene’s urban future, the Whit is it.

The Whiteaker’s success formula has a “secret sauce” that should be added to the soup as Envision Eugene contemplates our next two decades of growth.

That secret sauce is best described in the specifics, by people on the ground. “The Whiteaker neighborhood is a unique neighborhood,” begins Hop Valley Brewing Co. owner/partner Jonas Kungys. He wanted to expand his business and he’s about to explain what Ninkasi Brewing Co. and Oakshire Brewing already know. “It has special zoning that allows for the mixed uses that we require, which are retail for our tasting rooms, manufacturing, warehousing and offices.”

Micro-breweries with adjacent tasting rooms is the entrepreneur’s flavor of the month, but it could have been bike shops or pasta bars or a dentist who parks his office outside your business for a day of check-ups for your employees and neighbors. In fact, it has.

It’s easier to try something new in the Whiteaker because of what’s called a zoning overlay. It’s actually called the Whiteaker Special Area Zone, and it’s unique to — and in — Eugene. It allows industrial, commercial and residential uses to commingle. It’s hard to even call it zoning at all. It’s more like a lack of zoning. City planners tried this mixed-use strategy in this neighborhood with three small areas beginning in 1978. In the mid-1990s, they extended their hands-off zoning strategy to the entire neighborhood as an experiment.

Now it’s time to say it. Eureka!

If you want to sell clothing in the front of your space and manufacture clothing in the back, fine. If your neighbor wants to grow your organic cotton for you inside a greenhouse, AOK. And if his neighbor believes he can forge copper into zippers to keep your products 100 percent local, zoning regulations are not there to prevent him.

This mode of regulatory restraint has allowed the Whiteaker to experiment boldly with many odd combinations. Some work, most don’t. But one linear effect over the past few decades has been the growing pride of its residents. Whether they know it or not, the neighborhood attracts and keeps those who enjoy the surprises that come with experimentation.

Many of us want to share stability and sameness with those who live around us. We’ve learned to call this “neighborhood character” and it’s a good thing. Those who want “neighborhood character” typically don’t want characters in their neighborhood. But the Whit has shown that change can build character too.

Envision Eugene proposes that we focus most of our growth for the next 20 years along transit corridors. That makes sense, because those are spaces already shared by all of us, even if most of us are usually only “passing through.” Designated strips of high-growth density along transit corridors will have to find a way to co-exist with traditional neighborhoods, just a few blocks away. We’ll need a transition zone that buffers those neighborhoods, while still encouraging experimentation nearby.

City planners should use what we’ve learned from the Whiteaker zoning overlay. We know how to make certain areas especially welcoming to newcomers and the front line of our urban edge. All we have to do is tell zoning officials, “Hands off.”

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