Downtown Eugene

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.