W2W: Eugene’s Pretty Good Idea

Eugene’s “Willamette to Willamette” initiative revives a pretty good idea that just refuses to die. It could become a great idea, but not if its organizers have their way.

The concept first appeared late in Ruth Bascom’s tenure as mayor of Eugene. Her preferred phrase in the 1990s was “Return to the River” — she saw the opportunity to join our city’s central business district with its central river.

Mayor Jim Torrey followed, less keen on downtown. “Downtown’s problem,” so the thinking went, “is that there’s too much of it.” A preferred solution began to emerge: concentrate the city’s attention and resources along a few key corridors. Make them so-called “Great Streets” — filled with urbanity, beautiful to behold, inviting to pedestrians.

Recent developments have focused on revitalizing the downtown core, master planning EWEB’s riverfront property, and building a new city hall for Eugene.

Now comes Willamette to Willamette, which seeks again to join the human energy that now swirls around Willamette Street with the natural energy that never stopped swirling just a few blocks away — the Willamette River.

Willamette to Willamette is a revival of the Great Streets concept, an idea whose time has not yet come. A premature embrace risks reducing a great idea to a pretty good one.

Nobody wouldn’t like it if Eugene returned to its river, and a Great Street would be the best way to get there, but that street won’t be Eighth Avenue, for reasons that won’t stop being true.

A Great Street must give everyone a great experience. Picture al fresco dining, quirky little shops, and people spilling in and out of the buildings along the way. Walking the length of the street becomes a pleasure, shortening the imagined distance from one end to the other.

Imagined distance is a crucial factor. Most don’t believe me when I tell them the distance from 5th Street Public Market to Kesey Square is roughly the same as from an average parking spot to the center of the Valley River Mall.

The trick is this: If people are directed or entertained, they’ll walk farther and more. Paris and Washington, DC, were designed to be seductively walkable. But it won’t work here, at least not yet and not along Eighth Avenue.

A string of government centers — city, county and courts all have Eighth Avenue addresses — cannot make a Great Street. Unless your civic buildings are so monumental that people will walk to gawk, people won’t want to go there. They’d rather shop or eat or drink.

Eighth Avenue offers what no other downtown street can right now: safe passage across Highway 99. But that could change before too long, once the EWEB riverfront project gets back on track. Fifth could be made attractive enough to enthrall pedestrians, and Brian Obie’s expansive vision for developing county-owned land on Sixth Avenue could include a safe crossing, as well as a strategic midpoint.

Midpoints are important when adding a pedestrian attraction to an urban landscape because people have to get back to where they started. Without a streetcar or other transit options, the experiences provided along the way must carry a double burden. If people don’t enjoy their stroll in both directions, they’re less likely to make it a habit.

So what can be done?

• Wait for a bit, hoping that Obie and EWEB get their redevelopment projects moving.

• Add pubs and cafes to the front edge of government buildings, with sidewalk seating along Eighth Avenue. Even gift shops would be better than empty lobbies with metal detectors to greet curious passersby.

• Redesign Eighth Avenue to include a safe haven for food trucks and other mobile vendors. Springfield is ahead of Eugene on this one.

• Temper our expectations, admit that the factors are not all there to make Eighth Avenue a Great Street, but in Eugene, we’ll settle for a Pretty Good Street.

The city is seeking feedback from residents about their “W2W” concept. Their outreach has occurred at Saturday Market and two brew pubs on Eighth Avenue, not in or near any government offices. Noted.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. The next W2W public outreach event will take place at Saturday Market on Oct. 24. An online survey and additional information can be found at www.eugene-or.gov/W2W