Update: For coverage of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce endorsement vote, see our blog’s “The story behind the chamber of commerce vote to privatize Kesey Square.”
A young man stood up at the public Downtown Solutions Forum Dec. 2 at Lane Community College’s downtown campus and pointed to a map of downtown Eugene on the wall. The city had marked downtown public space in purple on the map. Only a few small squares and strips of purple appeared.
“There’s not enough purple!” he said to applause, calling for more public space downtown. That man wasn’t alone that night. The top five suggestions for downtown were: more public restrooms, more seating, more garbage and recycling bins, more shelter for the unhoused and more public space.
The city announced the public forum after controversy arose when the Eugene City Council held an executive session Oct. 12 to consider an offer for the private purchase of Kesey Square. The group interested in purchasing the public square includes architects John Rowell and Greg Brokaw, downtown business owner Kazem Oveissi, developer consultant Mark Miksis and advising developers Hugh Prichard and Harris Hoffman.
If the proposal is accepted, the group says it intends to apply for a Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) and build an apartment building with retail on the ground floor, effectively demolishing Kesey Square.
In late November, the city announced it would accept RFEIs (Requests for Expression of Interest) from “qualified development teams or an individual for the purchase/lease and redevelopment” of the square until Jan. 15. City Manager Jon Ruiz will also consider the options of public investment, or an investment from the city, to improve the use and appearance, or leaving the square as is.
Assistant City Manager Sarah Medary tells EW that the city has not developed any public plan for the square and that there are currently no funds available for the space. Only certain projects are eligible for Urban Renewal funds, or monies for a downtown district that expires in 2017 unless renewed by the city, and Kesey Square is currently not eligible for those funds.* However, the City Council could vote to make Kesey Square eligible for Urban Renewal funds in the future.
At the forum, Mayor Kitty Piercy, Medary and Senior City Planner Nan Laurence addressed the crowd, making a request for “no complaining.” They urged that the forum be used to discuss all public space downtown, not just Kesey Square.
For the forum, organizers set up 17 tables, each with eight chairs, in the LCC conference room. So many people showed up, however, that overflow crowds were directed to the nearby Atrium Building to work.
Each table was set up as a work group, moderated by an employee of the city, and prompted by a list of questions about public space. At the end of the night, a speaker from each group presented its top three recommendations for public space downtown.
In addition to public restrooms, seating, recycling and trash receptacles and more public space, several groups recommended a homeless center or a Cahoots office dedicated to downtown. Others called for enhancement of pedestrian and bike safety, and increased security on the street.
And while the city organizers steered the conversation to all public space downtown, the crowd circled back to Kesey Square. Many suggested making improvements to Kesey Square, from opening up the walls to planting a garden. Some suggested building a stage, starting a public calendar for the space and bringing in a manager.
City Councilor Claire Syrett closed the forum by saying the city would try the recommendations until something worked to improve downtown public space. No timeline was announced.
Zane Kesey, son of the late Ken Kesey and head of Key-Z Productions, also attended the forum, and he says, “Everybody there was kind of on the same page with loads and loads of great ideas.”
“When I think of downtown Eugene, the best times I’ve had in downtown Eugene, it’s been in that square,” Kesey says of Kesey Square. “The main thing to me is once you sell it, you’re never going to get it back,” adding, “you’re going to get rid of the iconic center of Eugene.”
Kesey says that he thinks putting a building on the square should be the last resort after a good-faith attempt has been made to improve the space. He also says he’s interested in the proposal of Ali Emami, the business owner who owns the property whose walls flank the square. Emami has proposed opening up the walls to make the square more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly.
“That’s a wonderful plan and I’d like to see the city get together with him,” Kesey says. Kesey, who started the Facebook group “How to save/change Kesey Square,” says he hopes to host another event at the square with the Furthur bus before the holidays.
“I think we’ll do some sort of outreach — caroling,” he says.
*Edited 12/11: This article has been edited to clarify that Assistant City Manager Sarah Medary told EW that Kesey Square is not currently eligible for Urban Renewal funds, and the Urban Renewal district is set to expire in 2017.