Willamette Street Should Be Reconnected

Everybody seems to be talking lately about Eugene’s signature street. Willamette Street hasn’t attracted this much controversy since the town fathers tried to curtail the weekend habit of “dragging the gut” in the 1960s.

The South Willamette Concept Plan puts the street at the center of more housing density. Will it bring more urban options or a Soviet style of sterility?

In the middle of the proposed South Willamette Special Area Zone, the city’s traffic engineers are planning next spring to restripe Willamette Street, temporarily reducing the current four lanes of traffic, making room for bicycle lanes and (maybe later) wider sidewalks.

Will the “complete street” design attract more multi-modal users or drive motorists away? That’s what the year-long test is designed to measure.

Last week over a hundred residents flocked downtown to offer their suggestions about another hot spot on Willamette Street — Kesey Square and the so-called travelers who often commandeer that downtown corner.

Willamette Street deserves every bit of this attention. It defines the center of Eugene, joining east to west, urban to rural, butte to butte.

Better than any other urban feature, Willamette Street fulfills our founders’ original intentions. Eugene and Mary Skinner must have peered from their cabin on the knoll that would later bear their name, imagining a trail and then a road, heading straight south, then wending through the hills.

From where they stood, Spencer Butte marked the horizon of their ambitions. When we think of ourselves as a great city for the arts and outdoors, we’re relying on Willamette Street to connect them.

That same vision motivated Thomas Shelton and his wife Adah to build their “Castle on the Hill” in 1888. It’s the same vision that lured the Southern Pacific Railroad to build its train station in 1908, and then the New Deal’s downtown post office in 1939.

That’s how they imagined the city, and it’s the city we have today. Except for one little mistake we made about 35 years ago — a mistake we can fix now.

When we built the Hult Center and the Eugene Conference Center in 1982, we severed our signature street to give those buildings a plaza between them. We gave up driving directly from the train station and post office to downtown and the south hills. We thought it wouldn’t matter. We were wrong.

We’ve learned a few things since those dark days of urban renewal’s social engineering experiments. We’ve learned that people behave irrationally. Perceived barriers become real barriers, simply because people believe them. Two steps up or down make an entrance “look” uninviting. Tinted glass makes a storefront feel unwelcome. Walking malls don’t pull people from their cars — it locks them in, as they drive past.

Nobody ever failed to find their way to the train station from downtown Eugene, but thousands heard a tiny, pre-conscious whisper inside their irrational heads: “Why are they making this hard for me?”

You cannot measure those quiet whispers inside people’s heads. Only watch what they do. The thoroughfares of 6th and 7th Avenues move people through our city efficiently but not enticingly. The marvelous Eugene Japanese American Art Memorial, historically sited and thoughtfully designed, provokes more loitering than reflection.

Now is the time to admit our mistake. Jacob’s Gallery is slated to close in January, giving the city an opportunity to rethink the Hult Center’s east face, which was originally intended to be its “front door.” Directly across the not-yet-street, Rockbridge Capital recently paid $44 million for the Eugene Hilton. They plan to refurbish and reenergize the facility.

Two modest lanes of traffic between these two important facilities could make a huge difference for both. We can remove that fleeting and invisible “you can’t get there from here” hesitation from the next generation of Eugene’s irrational heads.

Once rejoined, the post office building will find its best new use. The train station won’t feel like it’s “over there, somewhere.” Visitors to the Shelton-McMurphy-Johnson House will surge. Returning to the river suddenly will seem easier. And Willamette Street will look again how the Skinners must have imagined it.

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