Downtown Eugene

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Occupy Downtown

One of Eugene's great political moments was the humbling of the City's destructive downtown Urban Renewal fund in 2007 (see previous posts). As a result, the fund's current co-investments are small, and, as predicted, the many bite-sized projects are aggregating into significant change downtown, with a diversified ownership of small developers and their smaller tenants.

Smaller investments create better physical spaces ... they allow for more human attention to detail, to people's feelings etc.

Unfortunately, good physical space isn't sufficient for good urban life. The space must be alive with human activity.

When investment in downtown focuses upon the creation of new rental space, rather than the creation of new social or economic activity, the change is out of order. Actvity should drive the development of new or modified space, not vice versa.

So, if you look around downtown today, you'll see lots of construction, begging the question: what's going into all this space? The existing inventory already sported more than its share of "for lease" signs.

One underlying factor in this problem is the existence of any kind of Urban Renewal fund. Partly, this is because these funds are restricted to the "previously successful", meaning those people who already have a robust business, or worse, people who already have a lot of cash. The more they have, the bigger the loan they can get. (And this is public money, raised from tax exemptions on properties within special districts, money that would normally go into the general fund.) The bigger the loan, and the wealthier the person, the less likely they are to even think of building anything other than "more space".  Growing a business or non-profit to fill the space? That's work for other people.

So, unless forced to do so, Urban renewal funds have nothing to do with the public good, despite public statements by the fund managers. Luckily, they were forced to do better in 2007. But they need better oversight. The funds are still almost always used for co-investment in the development of high-end rental space, or for expansion of successful businesses and institutions, often with unnatural results. In the end, somehow, the financial respectability of office space is considered greater than, say (to give a sample of desiderata from 2008's Downtown Together process): a community dancehall, a food cart incubation institute, a craft co-op, an artist-in-residence cultural center, a non-profit music venue, etc. But these are the kinds of projects that, because of their uniqueness and idealism, could gather real community support, be successful and sustainable, and make an exciting downtown.

Unfortunately, citizens don't usually try to seize and oversee Urban Renewal funds for public purposes. It seems too slippery and forceful a bureaucracy to tackle, and success really requires activism, aiming at a better functioning democracy. Instead, the funds are typically seized by the 1%, people with clout, who can invest millions in their projects, which tend to have very limited vision and community support.

I'm not trying to be gloomy here. This current renewal spending is a little better, as I said, because of the 2007 ballot measure. It includes a wider demographic than just the 1%. There are some small businesses getting loans. The citizens fought back, kicked out major slumlords, and brought in smaller developers, who will work harder to make their properties successful through local contacts. This is big step up.

But we're a long way from solving the problems of deadening development in Eugene, or almost anywhere for that matter. If the question is "how do we get continuing oversight", then participatory democracy is the answer, but that's very hard to achieve. So join the Occupy movement: they're working quite hard on improving democracy right now, and they're woefully underappreciated!

In the meantime, more local businesses and non-profits that would like to help bridge downtown's economic-to-physical development gap, should consider moving downtown, occupying downtown, and participating in the local democratic process there. With an increasing residential population, it's not a bad business move. And with a surfeit of space for lease, it should be possible to negotiate a reasonable long-term lease.

Moving what you do, to the downtown core, would help to move things in the right direction. Tell your friends. Talk about moving downtown. Build partnerships with people already there. Contrary to popular opinion, the more you talk about it, the more likely it is to happen.