Downtown Eugene

Monday, March 26, 2007

The principle of continuity

City staff members visit with tenants on West Broadway, trying to convince them that they "don't belong there", because the district is "not dense enough" or "not valuable enough" or other such nonsense. People shouldn't be forced to abandon their neighborhood even during high demand, but here, we have low demand, and half-empty space, and they want to build more densely?

More insulting, is when the City suggests to tenants that they "move and come back", or "find a place in the new development". A suggestion which makes us "groundlings" roll our eyes -- how can you expect a business to survive such a move? Hypothetically, if lots of money was provided, it might be possible to compensate -- but it's terribly risky to take something that works, something that has adapted to a specific location, and move it. After all, 99% of all business ventures fail.

The principle of continuity is rarely understood by anyone who hasn't felt it in their bones -- the day-to-day struggle to keep your ship afloat. City officials are so indoctrinated by, and enamored with, futurist visions of destructive urban renewal, that they don't realize they've become a tsunami, wiping out everything in front of them.

Redevelopment: closed to the public

Purposely, there is no process for public participation in the City staff's plan to redevelop West Broadway.

First the City staff, without even the direction of elected officials, accumulated purchase options on occupied buildings -- obviously not something the tenants want. This forced the City council to initiate an RFQ process. The only people likely to respond to such a process, were developers in favor of demolishing the neighborhood and its businesses at public expense. The exception was my proposal, which was not just making a statement -- it was holding the door open for the democratic process it advocated. When the commitee decided to recommend two private developers, when the City staff recommended one (so they could shut out the public completely), and when the council finally decided on two private developers, they ensured that the only way to do anything -- either a suggestion or an actual proposal -- would be through private channels. The public would be accused of "circumventing the process" if it made suggestions directly to council.

City staff are very well trained to pronounce their undemocratic process "democratic", and the people at large, defending their money and rights, as "undemocratic". People in power fight against democracy at every turn, but use its rhetoric every day, and have done so for millennia.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Subsidized gentrification

When part of a city has been abandoned, and the Bohemians and working people move in, they often create a wonderful neighborhood. The demand for the neighborhood increases, values increase, the wealthy outbid the poor, and slowly the neighborhood, as it was, disappears. This can generally be stopped, but it's very hard work. In Eugene, 5th Street Market is an example: started by hippies, taken over by millionaire investors. Greenwich Village in Manhattan is a more famous example, but I think one of the best examples, is Venice, Italy ... built gradually for more than a thousand years, the Venetians themselves are now priced out by expensive hotels, and billionaires looking to display their art collections.

It's hard to stop. But a different trend, is when such gentrification is subsidized speculatively, by government. Subsidized Gentrification is the Eugene City staff's brilliant plan for West Broadway in downtown Eugene: take solid buildings, half-full with Bohemians, and before the process has run its course, before there is demand, kick out all the poor people, destroy the businesses that serve them, and roll-the-dice on a high-end mall.

There's a downtown group that's partisan to this kind of development, and its director recently wrote me:

"The real estate is too valuable for it to stay in the current condition"

I wrote back:

"If the cost of locating to the buildings is too high, as it obviously is, then the real estate is less valuable than expectation. When the demand increases, so does the value. That's very basic economics. When the demand is low, redevelopment can only happen with grossly wasteful public subsidy. This happens all over the country, and it's criminally undemocratic."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Flash: murmurs of subconscious guilt

Most of the council, mayor and staff of the City of Eugene is so indoctrinated, that they can barely imagine development for downtown Eugene involving the people already there. The clear exception is Betty Taylor, who is keenly aware of reality. But she only has one vote.

The local tenants were mentioned enough recently, however, that I heard murmurs, inspired by a mild sense of guilt, bubbling up from the subconscious of some councilors. Even Chris Pryor quietly mentioned "integrating with local business", by which, I believe, he really meant "preserving local business". But he didn't vote for the resolution Alan Zelenka made, which included a request from the (eventually two) selected developers, for their plans for existing businesses. Along with a long list of other details. This makes the staff work harder, which gives us time to protest, to modify the worst aspects of the City's initiative.

Andrea Ortiz made a statement about these plans for downtown, and how they explicitly excluded the poor, rather than simply tryng to create a more inclusive and civil community on West Broadway. This made people think, but only for a moment ... it didn't translate into anything concrete.

It's very hard to inject ideas into the process of government. The only apparent approach is to be a wealthy developer.

A Plethora of Possibilities

The next time I submit a proposal to a government, I'm going to include more than one possibility.

The first thing that happens, when making a case for community-based solutions, is the combing of the proposal for something that will cause rejection. Modern governments just work that way. The spirit of the proposal is actually not important: the red herrings are.

So I made a community-based proposal that described a preference for putting some buildings into a trust. I wouldn't have even talked about the buildings, but the RFQ required some statement on the purchase options. The committee didn't want a trust solution, so they reject the proposal out of hand -- all principles were ignored: 1) the sufficiency of existing structures, 2) the lack of necessity to increase density, 3) the simplicity of filling the empty space, 4) the precious people whose work now fills half of the existing spaces.

I needed to list all the possibilities ...

A. The City could issue a policy statement, that existing tenants will not be kicked out, so that their work can continue, without constant threat of Urban Renewal.

B. The City could make loans available to large groups of guarantors of tenants, so they can buy their buildings and make improvements to them. Currently, City loans, like those of most banks, must have no more than 4 guarantors reponsible for the loan. This makes it impossible for a group of 1000 poor people, for example, to buy a $1 million building, because no 4 of them can afford to take on an additional $250,000 mortgage each. The system is skewed towards the wealthy, making community-based solutions extremely difficult.

C. Initiate a small grant program to groups proposing to move downtown.

D. Create a reward / recognition grant program to help existing groups to expand their activity.

These are simple, open-ended policies, which are easy to test, and are non-destructive. They would lay the groundwork for endless fascinating business and community projects in downtown Eugene.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What works?

The conditions are right. This is a very good time for a community-oriented plan for downtown Eugene's West Broadway. There are no viable alternatives for the long stretches of unleased space.

The City keeps asking for large-scale development, ignoring the tenants, who have worked very hard to survive downtown, and obviously don't want to move. Because the city keeps pushing this, the area stays vacant -- who would invest in something the city might arrange to tear down? The fear instilled in the tenants keeps most of the businesses and non-profits from being as successful as they could be, and prevents new people from filling the empty spaces.

The City rejected the local option, in the City-framed RFQ process. But, of course, this isn't the only approach to making positive things happen ... in some ways, it was the least likely approach. Because the RFQ process was launched by a broken system. And RFP's and RFQ's exist to decrease public participation in government, not increase it.

Probably nothing will happen in this current round development speculation. But since the process itself is negative, the tenants and those interested in a local solution to downtown need to do something about it.

We'll be circulating a petition to the City council, stating that development planning for properties occupied by tenants is harmful to downtown, violates tenants' rights to pursue their business in peace, without government interference, and is unsustainable because it wastes buildings, businesses, non-profits and public energy by planning to destroy existing downtown, for speculative fantasy. We will ask that the council stop such planning for occupied space, and provide funds to incubate local proposals for filling in the empty space.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Civic priorities

The City Council is even reluctant to ask voters, in a survey, whether or not to spend $100 million on a new City Hall. "They won't have enough information," the councillors protest. As if they needed any. No money should be spent on a new City Hall. No money should be spent on any new construction. There are other pressing matters.

Much smaller amounts of money, $1 million, could revitalize West Broadway. But that doesn't go far enough. The way West Broadway needs to be revitalized, the way the spaces need to be filled, must directly address all the civic priorities.

More or less, here are the real citizen priorities:

1) quality of life
2) accessible healthcare
3) jobs, and meaningful work
4) crime prevention
5) freedom & human rights
6) honesty in government
7) responsible businesses and citizens
8) education
9) sustainable, stable, peaceful society
10) ecological sensitivity

West Broadway, I've said before, is not so far from being a kind of "street university". It can go all the way in this direction, with just a little bit of help from the City.

The first things that needs to be created are incubators of actvity, to enable the citizens to gather and work together to work on civic priorities, and thereby draw community interest to the partly empty area downtown.

2) a active community clinic and healthcare action organizing center
3 & 8) street-level showcase-workshop-schools in many different fields
4) social service action teams
5 & 6) independent community media
7) mutual support resources
9) conflict resolution center
9 & 10) ecologically-oriented centers (appropriate technology, reusable products centers, nature awareness centers, etc.)

All of which improve quality of life. Just a fraction of the material implied here would fill West Broadway with self-sustaining activity. It would be essentially a service-center for community life --- well-placed, in the heart of town, in downtown Eugene.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

West Broadway, 1927

What was on West Broadway, 80 years ago? It might give us a glimpse into the actvities of a downtown that serves its citizens. Also -- just reading this little list makes one think of ideas for West Broadway.

On the Intersection of Willamette & Broadway:

Western Union Telegraph
JC Penny
Hoffman Hotel
Hargreaves & Lindsay (contractors)

Then, heading West:

Borroughs Adding Machine Company 68 W
Mathison Barber Supply 39 W
National Cash Register 43 W
Dunbar T N Co 82 W (tires)
Valley Printing Co 76 W
Ludford's Paint Store 55 W
Caswell's Variety Store 56 W (notions)
Oregon fire relief assn 37 W (insurance)
Emery Insurance Agency 37 W
Art Needlecraft Shop 45 W ("hemstitching business")
SOS Implement & Hdw Co 73 W (hardware store)

Pretty much ending with a large Auto Service complex on Broadway & Olive:

Bettis & Wyatt Super Service Station
Brakel & White Factory Service Station
Auto Lite Authorized Service Station
Bosch Authorized Service Station
Delco Authorized Distributor
Noth East Service Station
Remy Authorized Distributor
Exide Battery Service

Across the street from a General Store:

Haskell Market 904 Olive
"Groceries, Flour, Feed, Hay, Grain, Field and Garden Seeds, Stock & Poultry supplies, Fertilizers of all Kinds"

Data from the 1927 Eugene Telephone directory.

Unsustainable urban planning

A former Eugene City Councilor wrote me:

... our city administration's involvement precludes a real solution to the downtown's problem. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, they are committed to the big developer approach to "renewing" downtown ... our bureaucracy is not motivated by an interest in reviving the downtown.

The City is pro-construction and anti-people. This is true for City Staff, who try to convince downtown tenants that they do not belong there, and for most City Councilors, who don't like to discuss the 20 or so local businesses they are willing to displace downtown. When they were talking about pressuring landlords to fill the space downtown, to quote one in today's paper:

"Lord knows, the tenants might be worse than the empty buildings," said Councilor Chris Pryor.

I'm sure the tenants would appreciate that. It's the same kind of off-handed prejudice that makes the City Council dislike the bars that light up West Broadway at night, and dismiss busy arts-related projects as being economically unimportant, even though they have vast community support in comparison with a "Gap" or "Bed, Bath & Beyond". Any tenant is better than emptiness. If there's a problem, it can be dealt with, but the sheer desert-like quality of West Broadway during the day is the most important problem to deal with.

Unfortunately, they are still focussed on tearing down buildings, making the place even more of a desert.

New construction is pointless when the spaces are mostly vacant. New construction is supposed to meet demand, and there is none. It's very much the same irrelevant approach the City took towards opening and closing the street ... these things make no difference. What matters are the activities and the people in the area, not the amenities, the buildings, or the streets. Sure these could be improved, but the most important thing is relevant activity, people, organizations, businesses and events, forming a continuous fabric of life in a neighborhood.

I submitted a video to the city on this subject, as a response to an RFQ, so that they had to see it. But they focussed on the parts of the proposal they didn't like (buying and managing buildings, which is optional), and not on the fundamental points (1) no new construction is necessary (except in the vacant lots) and (2) there are actual people and projects in these places (3) if you want to revitalize downtown, support these and other community members to expand activty there.

Nothing is a greater sign that the city is insanely construction-focussed, than the unnecessary New City Hall, which should be stopped in its tracks by petition-initiative before it goes any further. A new City Hall is not a priority to the citizens of Eugene. Healthcare, jobs, education, quality of life -- these are important. It's possible to take take the money planned for City Hall, and fund new activity to completely address these needs, both downtown and throughout Eugene. Instead, they want to throw it away on unnecessary buildings ...