Downtown Eugene

Saturday, May 03, 2014

A history of waste

I'm very supportive of a year-round, indoor farmers market in Eugene. Like our outdoor farmers market today, vendors there will sell all kinds of locally-produced foods. Because of the association with Saturday Market, other local goods will probably be sold there as well. 

This is probably the best next thing that could happen to the local Eugene economy. 

The Saturday Market and the Farmers Market are incredibly important incubators of local consumer-producer relationships, a role played since Saturday Market launched in 1970. 

Paul Ollswang's 1970 Saturday Market PosterThis is Paul Ollswang's original poster for the first Saturday Market. Most people don't realize that Eugene's market inspired Portland's market, which inspired Manhattan's market, etc. It was the revival of a natural idea at the right time, in the right place.

The butterfly parking structure is a good location for a permanent market, facing the park blocks. It's actually the original location of the Farmers Market downtown, which opened in outdoor structures there in 1915. A step-up was the building of Eugene's first indoor market in 1929, a community-built, extremely pretty salmon-and-terracotta building on Broadway & Charnelton.

This building is covered-up by a stucco shell today, and the City tried very hard to tear it down, along with surrounding blocks of businesses. It housed the Tango Center at this point, an organization that fought back, ultimately defunding Urban Renewal through measure 20-134 in 2007. This defunding is the reason for downtown's revitalization today: there were no remaining incentives for commercial slumlords to hold onto property waiting for a payday, so properties were sold to smaller developers. The Farmers Market/Tango Center building became Lord Leebrick Theatre (now the Oregon Contemporary Theatre). 

Basically, with the coming of Urban Renewal after World War II, our local governments developed a habit of wasting downtown. They destroyed a beautiful County Courthouse where the current one sits, a beautiful City Hall on Willamette Street, a Carnegie public library on 11th, blocks and blocks of small local shops … even the park block landscaping was far more beautiful in the past. Urban Renewal provides incentive to destroy, for its own sake -- not preserving the good, not destroying the bad -- just destroying. It indiscriminately destroys small businesses, schools, non-profits, small producers, local ownership, local jobs, pretty parks, pretty buildings, trees, people, etc. Its record is horrendous.

So, the butterfly parking lot is, once again, a perfect location for a permanent farmers market -- actually, Saturday Market was held upon this structure for several years.

But a few questions come to mind:

Why can't Lane County build this farmers market? Have they no responsibility to Eugene's downtown?

Why does the City need to trade half of the City Hall lot, of all things, to get the County to do the right thing?

Now, I've never been a fan of the 60's era City Hall. But, frankly, it's much better than most civic buildings erected since. It's open, it's humble, it's full of greenery, it has amusing artwork and fountains ...

It's also so 1960's … it's practically an art & design history lesson. It could have been enhanced and lovingly preserved as a "cool 60's" tourist attraction. But instead, it was wastefully, purposefully allowed to fall apart … an act of government-sponsored vandalism, in my opinion. With trivial improvements, it could have been made more sound, more livable, and a center of activity again.

At a time when the City, County and University all complain about a lack of money, they all exhibit a total addiction to their wasteful Urban Renewal habits. 

This City Hall could easily be converted into a useful, colorful and charming relic. But there's no imagination, just destruction, in the Urban Renewal mindset. 

We saw the City's wasteful lack of sensitivity and imagination during the battle over downtown, when, in an early attack, they tore down the Sears Building, a powerful structure that, with a few new windows, could have become a palatial community center. Instead, the City left a hole in the ground on the site, for years. And when the County finally built something there, it was the least-human new government structure in Eugene since the horrible new federal building.

So, by all means, get rid of the butterfly parking lot, and build a beautiful Farmers Market … but why tie that to destroying city hall? 

And why are so many millions of dollars continually wasted on plans for a new city hall that is never built? Where does this bureaucratic culture of waste come from?

I must point out that it's everywhere, not just in Eugene. 

We live in the United States, whose government has been the greatest obstacle to world peace since the end of the Second World War. Corporate-government collusion is anti-people by nature, supporting wealth and power. It only does something good when forced to. So, left to its own devices, corporate-government waste will constantly interfere with the possibility of good life.

I'll pick another example from local headlines, although there are so many ...

Imagine a student from a poor village anywhere in the world, witnessing the PR spectacle of allowing US students to graffiti a perfectly functional, expensive building, in preparation for tearing it down, to build an uglier, bigger, more expensive building, which students will be paying off for years to come.

This is the insanity of the destruction of the 1970's skylight wing of the EMU at the UO campus. Now, I'll admit that I watched this building during construction, and I was part of a very critical movement against modern architecture, and didn't like the elevated outdoor balconies, the odd-shaped rooms, etc. 

But, I always enjoyed the central open spaces, the light, the fact that it was always possible to host an event in a corner without really disturbing anyone … the student centers, the craft center, the ride board, the rental boards, the forum room with its wooden panels and carpeted step-seats, the giant pillow sculpture hanging several stories from an impossibly high skylight …  

It's not how I would design a student union, but it's certainly much better than the design that will replace it, which is bloated, hideous and senseless. 

But the worst part of this story is the sheer waste of tearing down the EMU Skylight wing. 

This is an expensive building. It's only 40 years old. It could stand for centuries. It functions perfectly well, once you start to hang out there. Why not fix it, conserve it, improve it, and restore it … instead of tearing it down? Why spend over a hundred million dollars to perpetrate this waste?

I'll just pick one little victim, among all this carnage. There are a few lovely trees outside, that will be torn down soon, that provide great shade for study in the summer, and a kind of unusual connection to activity inside the building. It doesn't look pretty enough: there are too many concrete beams and bunker traps … but, like a few public buildings from the 60's and 70's, it's kind of idealistically-motivated, and it kind of works. And, as is common in the last 20 years of UO campus construction, it will be replaced by something far worse.

At the time this wing was built, as I've written about before, the University was experimenting with an extraordinary participatory planning process known as the Oregon Experiment. It was set in motion by architect Christopher Alexander in 1970, when the UO was reeling from student rejection of top-down planning. I don't think anyone could read The Oregon Experiment (Oxford, 1975) and come away with a desire to tear down big buildings and build bigger buildings. But that essentially describes the work of the UO planning office today.

Instead, here's the key message from Alexander's work: make small changes, fix the worst things, keep the good things, and use your heart to determine these things. Your heart will never tell you to tear down beautiful trees to build a concrete megastructure! You'll get a better structure if you follow your human side, and design around the trees.

There are larger issues raised by all this extraordinary waste.

About 10% - 20% of the people in Eugene are unemployed or underemployed. Another 50% desperately want to do something else. If there was any government body that carefully nurtured money, acted in the public interest, and gradually improved the environment and the economy, so that it was more local, self-sufficient, fun, humane, environmentally sustainable, free of cars and parking lots, etc., all these problems could be resolved in a few years' time.

Instead, the City's resources are continually wasted. These waste stories get reported, but people are fearful for their livelihoods, and so they don't make waves, and often disparage those who do. We unfortunately live in an economy of patronage and wage-slavery.

Take homelessness. It's a simple problem, that many cities have dealt with, through a simple solution: just provide housing to these people. It's not that hard!

It's the main thing people complain about in downtown's revitalization: "too many homeless people". 

Well, fix that. House them, and pull them in. Make them part of the solution. 

We have plenty of money to do this: just look at the waste!

Most people in Eugene know this, but for some reason we can't get candidates into office who understand this (well, two councilors do understand it, but they are an extreme minority).

If we want a unique Eugene, a sustainable Eugene, we must address this waste of people, money, property, nature and buildings, a waste at the heart of life here today. 

Yes, I know, it's a common problem all over the US … 

… but Eugene has a history of innovation … read these articles, if you need a smattering of ideas. 

And let's get to work eliminating waste.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Fight the Borg

Another giant out-of-town development conglomerate -- funded by the financial sector's collusion with the Federal government -- wants to land in Eugene, receive a property tax break from the City, build a huge-and-ugly apartment block, and extract as much local income from student housing as possible. This is part of the financial sector's continuing colonization of our lives.

The money these development corporations want is survival income for struggling, local, very small-scale landholders: the kinds of people who rent rooms and extensions in their houses. These people never get a tax break, from either the City or the Federal governments. And these local smallholders spend into the local economy -- so the downside, the cumulative economic ramifications of these out-of-town projects, is huge. Not surprisingly, nobody in City government calculates the downside of projects like this.

Certainly, when little Eugene struggled mightily to build a world-class university, by hand, over 140 years ago, none of those small-town idealists could have imagined this: a City government so insensitive to the local economy, that they'd give special privileges to huge absentee corporate landlords, rather than dissuade them from stealing business from harder-working locals. 

Unfortunately, this is the policy of many cities in modern times. This is how downtowns were destroyed, along with their diverse local businesses -- by shopping malls, by big-box stores, and by Urban Renewal, which serves large-scale corporate free-lunches at the public expense.

Local governments, dismissive of democracy, and lost within their internal pressures, have little concern for -- or understanding of -- public interest. They tend to believe it's the same as the wealthy and powerful interests within the city, and the giant corporations and government agencies outside of it. 

Instead, of course, local government's constituency should be the population at large. But unless the population speaks up (which they can, with as little as an email) it's very unlikely that the public interest will be served.

Eugene's City government, like that of many other cities, is trying to optimize for one thing only: future tax revenue. 

Tax revenue is a horrifically incorrect indicator of general public welfare. If I ran a totalitarian 19th-century company-town, with a population enslaved to sweatshops, with compliance enforced by city police, my City's tax revenues might be quite high! 

Not coincidentally, a focus on tax revenue leads to city policies that give away everything to wealthy out-of-town interests (and some large in-town interests), disenfranchising the citizens, and destroying broad local opportunity, in exchange for tiny increments in property tax revenue. 

Another thing the city is giving away -- its environment. Oh, this building might be "energy efficient", in some PR sense, but it obviously couldn't be more unnatural and disharmonious. It's completely lacking in properties that the majority of citizens consider a sign of good life and a healthy urban ecology.

The artist's rendering for this Core Campus building looks more-or-less like a Borg cube --straight from dystopian science fiction. It will land in downtown Eugene and suck up all the local revenue, impoverishing the citizens who work so hard to make life for student residents more interesting ... which they usually do because they are themselves graduates of the University of Oregon. That cooperative, pay-it-forward spirit is hurt every time a project like this is built.

This particular building is also strikingly out of proportion to its surroundings, and any human sensibility. 

Most people correctly believe that Eugene's architectural peak was long before the decline in standards after World War II -- and that's true of the world in general. But Eugeneans are lucky to have a great natural urban ecology ... a profusion of trees and flowers that any city in the world would envy. Developments like this Core Campus cube, which is planned to be 12 stories in height, immediately disrupt any sense of harmony with nature, or harmony with the people who enjoy nature. The building sticks out like a sore thumb, towering over neighborhoods, and isolating its residents from their surroundings.

Most people don't know the local history around an important alternative to bad modern architecture. 

In 1970, protests at the U of O led to a number of democratic changes, including a world-renowned experiment in democratic planning and construction. The extraordinary mission statement of this UO initiative was published by Christopher Alexander and his associates in a book called The Oregon Experiment. This was essentially the main research project behind the best-selling book on architecture, or cities, of all time: A Pattern Language. Many of the patterns in the book are taken from the UO campus. APL is such an important book in modern intellectual history that it should be required reading here in schools, given its Eugene connection. (Just as an aside: the wiki was invented by an Oregon programmer for the purpose of publishing software patterns modeled after APL, thus connecting Eugene to world-changing events such as wikipedia and wikileaks.)

There are clear alternatives to this governmental-corporate collusion. Just as a start, the City needs to get its citizens involved in deeper democratic decision-making, to the level of line-item ballot referenda -- and the citizens need to make a clamor until this happens. Until then, it will just be business as usual, as big money comes to town, distracts our local sycophants, and slowly turns Eugene into a maze of massive concrete and glass, occupied mostly by struggling wage-slaves.

Also, a note on the Capstone colonizing housing development, right downtown. This is so offensive that I've actually heard people cry out, on site, "they've killed this part of Willamette Street forever!" There is no room for trees, and the building has no interaction with the street. It simply pushes up against the sidewalk, and creates recreational facilities for students inside, as if the building wasn't designed to sit downtown, but was instead intended for the middle of a desert. I hope this isn't a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

There was a citizen's movement against this building, but it gained insufficient momentum, since housing "of any kind" downtown was the rallying cry for many years. But, it turns out, we don't want just anything. Eugene's citizens lost the opportunity to leverage the tax break given by the City, which could have forced the developers to build more in harmony with its surroundings. Of course, there were many other ways to get housing downtown besides these kinds of private-public deals. 

Now what? 

It is possible to fight this sort of project after it's built. It's important to help incoming students to understand the stakes, and since their education is also colonized through student loans, this kind of town-and-gown alliance would not be difficult to achieve. With a successful housing boycott, across the country, Wall Street could be forced to abandon this investment, and perhaps it could be converted into low-income housing, and renovated somehow to improve the structures' negative impacts upon the city. 

The fact that people around the world are forced to deal with such situations, where corporations use city governments to directly attack citizens and the environment, is simply a fact of life. This could have been stopped. Until the people of Eugene regain control of their government policies, the situation is going to simply get worse.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Everyone appreciates the effort and care put into downtown by its new workers, commercial and non-profit, during the recent boom. Some lovely and touching stuff is emerging.

Again, the history is quite important: when Eugene's citizens united to defund urban renewal at the ballot box in 2007, they kicked out the heavies: large developers, commercial slumlords, and terrible urban interference by the City. As a result of the vote, ownership in the buildings broke up, empowering smaller owners, who partnered with others in energetic ways, to improve their spaces and create unique activities.

So I shouldn't be critical. This is an important and positive story.

But, although it's early days still, there is a kind of imbalance, which I think could correct itself, if enough people talk about it, and if enough people support others who want to fix the imbalance. 

I'm talking about: the old Diva space on Olive and Broadway; the empty spaces in the Lord Leebrick buildings; and the large unleased storefront across the street. These make Broadway between Olive & Charnelton seem quite unloved (especially compared to the jumping atmosphere between Pearl and Olive. )

Here we see a consequence of the ownership history of the block. It is still suffering from its past, when a single slumlord owner, who owned both sides of the street, was simply waiting, for years, to cash-out via urban renewal. Luckily this cash-out was prevented in 2007, but the block still suffers from the history. Interestingly, this is despite the block's hosting many innovative projects like The Tango Center,  DIVA, New Zone, Lord Leebrick, The Jazz Station, Helios, the Weekday Market et cetera. The other blocks on Broadway had a smaller-scale ownership history, so the energy invested in activity simply stuck more easily.

So, let's "make balance happen"! It's high time to "make an issue" out of this slow development between Olive & Charnelton. "Making an issue", out of an observation that anyone could make, will help spur a solution to the problem. 

Really, if you have an urge to create an activity in these spaces, you should knock on the doors of the landholders -- they might sell, further diversifying ownership. If this block could get popping, Broadway would have no "odd chasm" and could form a continuous, exciting urban fabric.

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.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Orders of Magnitude

The crowd gathered Friday, March 4 to celebrate the beginning of LCC's project to fill the Sear's pit on 10th avenue. It's all very positive: a local institution makes a concerted effort to bring its services to the heart of the city, along with housing, jobs, etc.

But at the ceremony nobody mentioned, and perhaps few people understood, that this project was only possible because the City was forced by the population to change its strategy towards downtown urban development.

No one mentioned that LCC's project could never have been born if the City of Eugene planners, with the backing of people who stood to profit enormously, had achieved their destructive goals 4 years ago. The City tried to slip nearly $200 million to commercial developers and slumlords. They would have destroyed dozens of downtown small businesses, and the commercial project would have suffered a financial collapse mid-demolition, leaving us with even more downtown pits, and no money to fix them.

The community stopped this all-too-typical boondoggle with a 2-to-1 approval of a ballot measure to defund Urban Renewal, and as a result the City, suitably chastised, now contributes to construction projects in the millions, rather than the hundreds of millions.

This is a huge change of scale. The Beam project is in the millions, the new DAC project is in the millions, and the City's participation in the LCC project is in the millions. This is two orders of magnitude closer to a human-scaled incremental development strategy for downtown. That's progress.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Promenade

In every old city there's a street which the population pours onto, each evening and holiday, dressed their best, with a wide range of social motivations. It's an important, delightful, community-building exercise.

In modern cities, the Promenade somehow spawned the Catwalk. There are local runways and transnational ones, and they all invariably draw crowds. The one on Ken Kesey square in downtown Eugene, on August 18, 2010, drew as many people as could possibly fit into the streets -- on a Wednesday! The garments varied considerably in quality, but the models were all normal people, making the show much more about community than fashion.

In Eugene, designers are often associated with one of the many unique second-hand garment shops, which have a somewhat ideological bent, promoting reuse as an ecological good. These vintage shops are at the center of organizing fashion events.

Hoping to turn last year's audience into more of a fashion movement, and perhaps inspired by the revolutions in the middle east, the organizers are expanding from a fashion day to a fashion week this year. Here are the details, just announced:

First Annual Eugene Fashion Week

Paris? New York? Portland? They all have a Fashion Week & now Eugene will too! Over the course of 2 weekends Deluxe, Redoux and Kitsch will produce 5 shows. These shows will be grouped by design style and each will include an opening act/performance, the fashion show, a meet-and-greet with designers & hair/makeup artists, and a DJ or other entertainment. At each event there will be limited vending for the designers of that show. The main vending event will be at Cosmic Pizza on May 1st. The shows and locations are as follows:

4/22/11 Friday
Green/Eco-Fashion Show (on Earth Day)
Agate Hall

4/23/11 Saturday
Ready To Wear Show
Location TBA

4/29/11 Friday
Club-wear Show

4/30/11 Saturday
Avante Garde/Costume Show
Oak Street Speakeasy

5/1/11 Sunday
Vending Event
All Ages Show/Childrenswear Show
Cosmic Pizza

As usual, we will have numerous meetings beforehand to discuss details. Please pass this information along to anyone wanting to participate.
The dates and locations are below:

2/22/11 Tuesday
First Designer Meeting
7 pm at Kitsch

2/29/11 Tuesday
Model Call
6-8 PM at Oak Street Speakeasy

2/29/11 Tuesday
Deadline for Participation
Paperwork must be turned in to Deluxe, Redoux Parlour,
or Kitsch

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Downtown Music & Dance

With the fading out of The Tango Center sometime this summer, there's been lots of talk about the past, present and future of social partner dancing, especially as it applies to downtown Eugene.

From 1900 to about 1960, between 10% and 50% of the city's population attended partner dances every weekend in downtown Eugene.

But there's a problem in the comparison ... partner dancing was not only the major form of social dance, it was the major point of live music at the time. Even rock-and-roll was originally played for partner dancing, and the styling solo moves you'd show your partner eventually became the solo-dancers-in-a-crowd system that took over the dance scene worldwide.

The problem now is obvious, often in the same facility. Like a dozen now defunct downtown venues, the WOW Hall, in its current building, held regular, never-preempted social dances. These would not conflict with live music, because live music was intended for dancers. But today, in the same venue, dancers can't have regular partner dances at the WOW Hall ... they get kicked out because they are a vast minority in the social and music scene.

In some sense, The Tango Center tries to overcome this problem, by nurturing live music for dancers. It tries to do this in an educational setting, so classes before the dances can act as social lubricant for the dance, and raise the level of people's dancing.

After the summer, how might partner dance look downtown? Well, a few venues will hold some dances now and then, but perhaps the dancers themselves may start to explore music that was not meant for dancing. A Mood Area 52 or a Taarka concert will have a few Tango-blues-fusion couples hanging around in the corners. I'd say they're getting the most out of the concert ... so maybe this will catch on. But some venues will have to give them space to do their own thing on a regular basis, so they have enough group coherence to take on these experiments.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The West End of Broadway

Lord Leebrick Theatre just bought the building that houses The Tango Center. In a press conference, Lord Leebrick's artistic director said he was alerted to the existence of the buildings because the Tango Center went public with the troubled relationship with the landlords. Luckily, Lord Leebrick was able to buy the building for themselves: no landlord issues for them, ever again! Assuming the Tango Center can fit into some other space on West Broadway (although it's staying temporarily in the building) then this neighborhood will really start to become the thriving center of town it should be.

So, after revitalizing the block, and saving the affordable West Broadway arts neighborhood from destruction in 2007, The Tango Center has permanently saved the neighborhood. It may not get to stay there, but teaching 10,000 people to dance Argentine Tango, stopping Urban Renewal, saving a historic building, and providing a permanent home to DIVA and Lord Leebrick -- not bad for a six-year run!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Last Chance for Dance

The Tango Center in downtown Eugene is a unique institution with a perhaps not so unique set of problems.

The owners of the building have not given the Tango Center a lease for four years. This, by itself, would have made it difficult enough to keep the operation going, since it is very hard to maintain and improve a place when you could be kicked out in 30 days, at any time.

The Tango Center might have been able to organize its large community to buy its building, if it hadn't needed to fight twice to keep the entire neighborhood from being leveled. This catastrophic plan was launched once by the owners of the building, and then again by the City of Eugene. The last time, we had to organize a ballot measure to take funding away from the City's Urban Renewal district. We won that election easily -- no one trusts the City government to spend money wisely. And they are quite correct not to -- downtown is littered with craters where buildings should be. If the City had received the Urban Renewal funding it wanted, four City blocks would have been leveled, 25 local businesses destroyed, and in this economy, where OPUS and WG, the developers for those plans, are abandoning projects around the country, the downtown would have been flattened, and become a giant crater where no construction would happen for a decade.

But, somehow, through all this, The Tango Center still managed to hold the most amazing, life-changing dances. We hold 25 events a week and bring 1,000 people downtown each week. 10,000 people have taken Argentine Tango lessons in a City of 150,000. Over 10% of the population has partaken of some kind of event at The Tango Center.

We have one last chance to save the place. We're asking the City Council to buy the building, so that we can continue to hold all-ages dances, and so we can then buy the building back from City. Come to the Council Public Forum today, February 23, 2009, by 7:15pm, at City Hall, and speak your mind for 3 minutes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Web Strategy for a City

I'd like to suggest a city-wide initiative for Eugene, Oregon.

In these tough times, citizens and supporters can give our local economy a boost, through a deeper understanding of how the web works.

If we cooperate to reach our true potential, to contribute our lives and works to the global conversation on the world wide web, we will make Eugene an international heavyweight. If the following strategies are pursued by everyone, with very little individual effort, everyone will benefit.

All for one, and one for all

Web strategies always have an "act locally, think globally" quality. Typically a business, in one location, usually acting alone, tries to get the world's attention. But imagine the effect of all Eugeneans and their institutions acting together, providing better information to, and hosting more relevant online activity for a global audience. It pays to help the world, as we will see in a moment.

Let's start with the basics.

Local and Global Rank

An important measure of a website's success is its rank in Google search results for particular search terms.

As an example, take this blog. If you type downtown Eugene into Google, you get a third of a million results, but this blog is listed as result number two or three. That's pretty good ranking, but that's only a local search term.

Let's look at a local website doing well on an international scale. When you type Tango into Google, as of this writing, you get 47 million web pages. Number 41, out of 47 million, is The Tango Center in downtown Eugene. This high international ranking helps the Tango Center to survive, which in turn helps the local economy. Think of it like this: we're the 41st most common application of the word 'Tango', worldwide.

Our extreme visibility on the web helped locals and visitors to find us. It led artists, musicians, performers, organizers and instructors to collaborate with us ... people have moved to Eugene and attended the University of Oregon because our website gave them a lively and full impression of the local Tango community.

If every project in town had this kind of global presence, linking and referring to each other, the overall ranking of everything in Eugene would rise. I'll explain this momentarily.

Strategies to achieve rank are called "SEO" or Search Engine Optimization. Individuals, companies and institutions invest a great deal of time, money and energy to achieve a high rank, for certain search terms. This "drives traffic" to their sites ... in other words, more people visit, more often.

Not just metaphors

Google's engineers work continuously to automate the process of awarding rank to websites. A website's content must be relevant, and the site must be linked, in relevant ways, to many other well-ranked sites. I think of this as a "heft" given a site by other "heavy" sites, a bit like a spider's web re-shaped by dew-drops of various sizes ... or, if you've ever taken discrete mathematics: this is like a weighted graph. Google uses the metaphor of websites "voting" for each other with links, providing "winners" for certain content on the web.

So, a critically important web promotion strategy is to get other good websites to link to your website. For example, if the Register-Guard writes an article about your business, make sure they provide their readers a live link (not only text of the link, but something the user can click) to your business.

It's quite reasonable to cooperate with other websites in this way, for mutual support, linking to each other to form a kind of connected subset of websites. This cooperative group needs to represent real diversity of origin, and the references to each other need to make sense ... Google has analytical methods that can sense feigned diversity, and sense "link farms" and the mere "trading" of links between sites.

Act Now

So, citizens and supporters of Eugene, let's cooperate to improve our mutual ranking, our relevant contributions, and our international standing.

Follow these simple rules:

1. Get ALL of your good content onto the web.
2. Make sure all of your web pages always link to any relevant local content.

In other words, a community must put itself online, to be globally relevant. This means that everyone must get to know the strengths and diverse qualities of their community, write about them, and link to them as much as possible.

All members of the community must become more self-aware, and more generous with promotion of each other, online.

To effect our real-world economy, we'll all need to do our part.

Eugene has thousands of under-promoted world-class businesses, websites, stories, people, etc. To give us our due internationally, we only need to cooperate with each other.

Meeting Potential and Fixing Problems

Let's look at an example with much room for improvement: a page in the Register-Guard online version of Ticket:

(Register Guard Ticket for Nov. 28 - Dec. 2, 2008)

Every line in this calendar could have local links, which would help to increase the ranking of both the Register-Guard and each of the artists, groups, businesses, venues, non-profits, agencies and sponsors involved. Some are local, some are not, but that doesn't matter. Associating the name and link of a non-local group or organization with a local venue or organization will help raise everyone's profile ... and that's how page rank is supposed to work. When you type into Google something like "Tango eugene oregon", you should get both The Tango Center and the artists who've been there, whether international, like Cecilia Gonzalez or local, like Mood Area 52. By helping to connect others, we raise our own profile on the web.

So, everything we put on the web must be stuffed with relevant hyperlinks ...

The Long Tail

But we also need to get more of Eugene onto the web. The tactic of putting volumes of relatively historic or obscure material on the web, targeting smaller, niche audiences, is usually referred to as The Long Tail.

For example, it seems that none of Eugene's local papers or magazines are trying very hard to get their back issues onto the web. Recently, The Register Guard even reduced its online content significantly. This immediately lowered their ranking on Google, reducing successful traffic to their site, and reducing traffic to everything in Eugene they write about.

This is a fixable problem, however. With available labor, improvements in scanning software, and initiatives by Google to get more content online, we could have every issue of The Register Guard, The Eugene Weekly, The Oregon Daily Emerald, Eugene Magazine [update: Eugene Magazine now archived], all the TV and Radio stations, and all their predecessors, online, earning ad revenue and driving traffic to other Eugene businesses.

Let's look at the University of Oregon, a potential helper in this city-wide initiative. Improving the chances of an appearance in search results of any kind of research, would help our local economy. An example off the top of my head: the UO is a world-leader in developmental biology, due to the success of zebrafish studies. However, if I type developmental biology into Google, and look at the results page, "Oregon" is not visible. I see Guelph, Canada, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and Arizona ... dig a little deeper, and you can see that this is because those Universities spend a little effort, and no money to speak of, to collect some resources for the public and for their colleagues. The Internet is a place where being helpful makes you popular! As we do this, we will in turn make the UO, Eugene and Oregon, successful.

In this example, how would that be done?

Lengthening the Long Tail

Imagine many helpful pages on Developmental Biology at the UO, linked to pages by all the students and staff of the relevant departments, which would then link to all their local and non-local connections and interests. Imagine if local developmental biologists initiated more international online cooperative projects, such as open-source initiatives, social networks, and wikis for developmental biology. These are simple to initiate, and not hard to make successful, if we actually use our wide international influence to do so. All these nearly cost-free efforts would improve web content, while promoting Eugene and the University.

The same efforts could be made by every employee and student in the 4J, the entire staff of the City of Eugene and Lane County, and every organization ... we need to uncover everything ... and get the entire city, its interests, quirks, opinions, history, research, findings, stories, photos, videos and arts online, and cross-referenced.

Anyone promoting themselves would do this ... but if an entire city did it, its online businesses' sales would increase dramatically, its non-profits and institutions would receive more grants, its population would be retained more often for its technologically savvy and innovation, and it would be providing the world with better information services.

Remember, anything you do will help. You can start right now ... use the comments section of this blog to promote Eugene and downtown businesses, non-profits, and special people, to the world. If you have your own web content, scour it for potential links, as in the calendar example above. If you have no web content: why not? Eugene is full of people with something to say. Get a blog, get a website, start a Social Network (here's one of mine), or publish pages on MySpace, Flickr, Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, YouTube, Wikipedia etc. Create good web content, the best you can manage. Help your friends and neighbors to get online, show them what you've learned, think of new approaches, and, continually, link to each other. It's not only symbolic -- it will have a real-world effect!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Weekday Market

For the past few months, The Tango Center, at 194 West Broadway, has hosted a diverse market-dance-art-cafe event known as The Weekday Market. It's every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 10am - 4pm, with extended hours during the First Friday Artwalk and this Friday's Downtown Holiday Party.

The Weekday Market was inspired by the building it is in: the only building ever built as a farmer's market in Eugene. As such, we have a year-round local organic farmer's market inside, usually on Wednesday and Friday, in cooperation with Lane County Farmer's Market. At any moment you can find meetings, yoga classes, dance practice, art events, live music, DJ'd music, and the normal diversity of a university-town cafe ... professors, poets, students, downtown workers, artists etc. It has wifi, a performance sound system, one of the world's best social dance floors, and a cafe with constantly changing menu based on the farmers' local produce ... translated into an Ethiopian and Argentine menu. There's locally-roasted fair trade espresso, empanadas, mate, soups, artisan bread by Il Forno Pane, and a wide range of artists.

We soon start a capital campaign to buy the building, which we would like to restore to its former beauty. The year-round market would complement our successful evening activity, The Tango Center: a non-profit, all-ages, community dance-hall and exhibition space.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thoughts about the next Eugene Celebration

First thought: It's quite sad that the Eugene Celebration charges $12 for the public to participate. It should be an open event ... the vendors would earn more, and this would in turn pay for talent at the event. People voted with their feet ... the free Saturday Market was packed beyond belief, one block away from the sparsely attended Eugene Celebration.

Second thought: The vendors in the street have been organized in such a way, that the back of the booths face the actual storefronts in the footprint. This means that there are four paths through the closed off street:

Amusingly, the Eugene Celebration planners tried to block off the sidewalk traffic flow in front of the permanent stores ! ... but, quite rightly, the stores would have none of that, and removed the impediments to the sidewalk traffic.

The simple solution: the stores and the booths should face each other, creating two lanes of traffic instead of four:

Note the positive effect this will have on the celebration visitor:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

User-generated downtown

When we launched our non-profit public dance-hall, The Tango Center, one of our main incentives, was to provide places downtown where people could actually do something.

There's nothing wrong with going downtown to shop or drink, or take in a show or a movie -- but we wanted to see if we could successfully create a self-sustaining activity, by providing people an opportunity to learn from each other, and be creative with each other. Social dance, and Argentine Tango, seemed to fit the bill. But you could do it with almost anything.

There's another way to look at what we did. On the world wide web, the mantra for the last 10 years, or so, has been to encourage users to provide a website's content. "User-generated content" is populist, appropriately providing what the people want, because they actually did it themselves.

In the same way, a dance-hall provides people with the opportunity to create the evening they want. And each evening is, indeed, wonderful and different. There's a structure, but most great events need some structure: people can more easily express themselves in relation to something. Partner dances provide structure quite well.

So, an evening of dance is a "user-generated" event. At these events, everyione agrees, the most exciting stuff is on the dance floor, not on a stage or screen.

Maybe user-generated activity is the formula for a successful downtown. If organizers and entrepreneurs fill an area with opportunities for people to learn and be creative, then these activities will fill with people's energy, and get people out of the house, so they can test themselves, fulfill their own potential, and find their own meaning.

Citizens for Public Accountability has launched a series of meetings, called Downtown Together, intended to encourage new projects downtown. In order to try to bridge the gap bewteen a user-generated physical space, and a user-generated web space, the meetings are using software known as Urbanology, which is in the early stages of an attempt to create a networking and project community self-management tool, online.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Past vs. The "Too Small" Argument

When nurturing community, we generally try to:

1. preserve and enhance what we have
2. encourage community-based initiatives to solve community problems
3. recover the bits we've lost

Let's talk about #3 for a moment. There's a good standard argument, useful in launching this kind project.

When we launched the non-profit Tango Center, the criticism was made that Eugene was "too small" for a full-time partner dance venue.

At the time, we countered that, when Eugene was only a few thousand people, it had several crowded partner dance venues. At 150,000 people, it should be easy to develop a dance community of equivalent size. And it was.

Recently, during talk of a full-time, elected City Auditor position for Eugene, Portland's auditor interjected that "Eugene may be too small" to provide a pool of qualified candidates. However, he admitted, Portland has had an elected Auditor since it was smaller than Eugene. The past comes to the rescue again.

In a recent Eugene Weekly article about trams one City Councilor said "Our city is just at this point too small" for trams, to which another councilor "points out that Eugene had an extensive electric trolley system from 1907 to 1928 when the city was much smaller. 'Eugene had a very viable streetcar system when there were only 10,000 people here.'"

Plenty of people abuse the study of History at the "macro" level -- making specious arguments about leaders and movements etc. But the really useful history records the activities of everyday people in the past -- and these, if you can find them, provide a key, and excellent market research, for recovering the structures that support community.

In fact, there's nothing like a 100-year-old copy of the Yellow Pages, for inspiring new ideas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Peck of Park Patterns

A park, 1/4 - 1/2 of a block in size, across from the library, is a capital idea. But I've heard worries about its becoming a "problem". This is code for "poor people" and "youth". Hardly problems. We just have to make sure that everyone mixes well.

The Library Park provides a great opportunity for local economic development. Here are a few ideas to make this a lively public space:

Extend the library hours

There's no reason the library can't be open until midnight. The City could do a $5 "cover charge" for 9pm - midnight, and provide a band, to pay for the library staff. People would pay it. The Library Evening could become quite a scene ... lectures, music, literary circles, vendors, etc.

Extend the bus hours

Keeping LTD active later, especially on weekends, could pay for itself. Local venues & pubs can get involved in raising ridership, bus awareness and making the system easier to use. And, it could lower incidents of drunk driving.

Extend the Atrium hours

The ground floor of the Atrium is a terrific evening venue. Any number of local entrepreneurs would rent this space, charge a cover, and hold events there.

Vendors in the park

An incubation program for vendors, in collaboration with LCC and Saturday Market, would make the park a place to eat, snack and shop late into the evening. All that's needed is some rain shelter, awnings, arcades etc.

Vendors in the surrounding buildings

Arcades and awnings provide shelter from the rain ... if they are high enough, they allow sun through. Small shops, vendors and food providers can line the two sides of the park, and extend down the alleyway. This is a permanent market presence.

Benches, tables, chairs, awnings, fountains and amenities

Loose tables and chairs for people to sit. Fountains for people to splash around. Trees for shade. Bicycle valet parking for those willing to brave the elements. Awnings and tents to protect people from the elements.

Infill housing

We've identified a number of places to put housing on top of the surrounding buildings. And, of course, an affordable housing complex on the West side of the park, perhaps with a local CDC like St. Vincent de Paul's, with ground floor shops and a close integration with the park, would be ideal.

1/4 block of apartments: Student housing and affordable housing

The collapse of the speculative housing market doesn't mean everyone has a place to live:

a) Affordable housing -- the local St. Vincent de Paul is committed to developing affordable housing, and the site is city-owned.

b) UO Student housing -- the University continues to expand its housing on and off campus, but why not place car-less students (graduates, undergraduates, and their families) downtown? It's across the street from the fastest bus to the University, and would help to connect students to downtown.

Use your resources: The Tango Center, New Zone, DIVA, Bradford's, The Farmer's Market, etc ...

The surrounding small businesses, co-ops and non-profits are over-flowing with ideas, but are underfunded. They would all certainly take responsibility for programming activity, to connect the park to the rest of the Eugene community.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Boondoggles vs. nothing?

Portland's auditor recently issued a finding, that in Portland, areas with Urban Renewal funding have higher property values than areas without Urban Renewal funding. Even if that is your goal (Should it be? Why is expensive property a public good?), what kind of comparison is that? "Massive, wasteful spending" vs. "no spending at all"?

The problem is a lack of "political clout" among alternative revitalization approaches, to make a case for a comparison. For example, CDC's can efficiently create jobs with community-driven revitalization and incubation programs, but these are not compared with Urban Renewal. They should be. If you compared the economic benefit of government small business aid programs (all of which are gone now, like CITA from the 1970's) the efficiency of public benefit, as contrasted with Urban Renewal, would be extraordinary.

Having impoverished community-driven development in the past 20 years, Urban Renewal has eliminated the competition for tax money, freeing it for gentrification projects. Luckily, we can still refer all Urban Renewal spending to the ballot, but there must be organized opposition to do this. Most people aren't close enough to the City's schedule to know when it is possible ... but whenever you hear about "expansion of an Urban Renewal district" or "raising the spending ceiling on Urban Renewal", you can bet that someone is pushing to destroy some affordable neighborhood to benefit landlords and private development interests. If we all pay attention, and refer spending to the ballot, we can stop this horrific practice, in our respective Cities.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Decommissioning the Gravy Train

The organized opposition to the City's urban renewal boondoggle, was certainly fighting Urban Renewal in general. UR is a corrupt mechanism, chock full of anti-democratic legal protections, awarding privileges to certain property owners, and awarding contracts to a City's elite. With it, a "Gravy Train" mentality develops, where the rich and powerful in a City expect the Government to fork over money, regularly, for private work, unrelated to community interests.

Urban Renewal isn't the only mechanism by which governments provide luxury to those who already have it, at the expense of those who can't afford it. But it's a codified corruption mechanism, legally cocooned, and hard to defeat once in place.

So, we must get rid of it. Even the local daily, The Eugene Register Guard, which was for expanding Urban Renewal, is rethinking the Gravy mentality:

Voters in all parts of the city found reasons to oppose Measure 20-134. Those reasons were probably as diverse as the politics of the voters who united to kill the proposal. But the strong and widespread resistance to the council’s redevelopment plans, which had already been approved by the council before rumblings of a referendum led to a referral, suggests that the city’s leaders need to take care as they consider what to do next downtown. Given the Nov. 6 vote, it seems likely that Eugene voters would support a measure to eliminate urban renewal districts altogether.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A healthy garden

An Urban planner, without Urban Renewal funds, might very well ask: "Ok, the citizens rejected large-scale new development and redevelopment. Basically, it's too expensive, and the social cost is too high. But if that isn't the model for revitalization, what is?"

Essentially, a downtown is a garden. But, it isn't a garden meant to impress the neighbors. It is a garden meant to nurture a complete ecology. It enables life. It's a healthy garden, a part of nature.

What Urban planners do today, is bulldoze ecologies to create flashy new sterile gardens, with big expensive plants and no other life, at the public's expense. They do this for very unnatural reasons -- to support upward distribution of wealth.

In creating a healthy ecology, you don't dig up the plants and try to relocate them all the time ... you try to help the plants you have, and you preserve the healthy clusters and matrices of life that are part of their existence. You find the patches that need help, and you nuture them back to life. It is efficient to work in this way, building upon what you already have. The more work like this you do, the more life it attracts.

This is exactly analogous to a downtown. If you want to help bring something back to life, you start with the people who come downtown, and you provide more for them. You provide more for those who do not come. You don't disrupt anything: harm no existing buisiness, building, organization, event or demographic. In fact, do what you can to help them: help them do more of what they already do. Then the ecology you already have, will thrive.

People win one

By about a 2-to-1 margin, the citizens of Eugene voted against funding the City of Eugene's Urban Renewal disaster. There is no faith in government spending, and there shouldn't be. This Urban Renewal project was a boondoggle, intended to make wealthy people wealthier, at the expense of taxpayers and the resident businesses and non-profits, in the affordable district on West Broadway.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fashionable prisons

This is a conceptual drawing from KWG, the developer that has offered to hire themselves to the City of Eugene, to destroy the West Broadway neighborhood, and, apparenty, to build posh incarceration facilities in the heart of downtown.

Urban Renewal is a wealth concentration mechanism -- governments condemn neighborhoods and destroy lives, to provide taxpayer sponsored development projects to the elite. It's never good for people, unless people force it to do good. Urban Renewal is famous for "the projects", ghetto apartment housing for poor blacks kicked out of neighborhoods wanted by the rich. Nowadays, Urban Renewal funds projects targeted at the wealthy consumer. But the buildings are the same. By destroying real neighborhoods, and creating superficial buildings in which community is impossible, the tenants get to live impoverished lives of "luxury". We have to stop this nonsense.