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.