The plaza at Broadway and Willamette (Kesey Square) has been around since urban renewal in the late 1960s. An old drugstore building was on the site and was condemned because of its unsafe condition. Located at what was then the “100 percent corner” of downtown, the planners of the now long-gone downtown mall decided to put a plaza there.
It was a bad idea from the start. The space is in the direct sun in the summer and always seems to be shaded in the winter. The brick wall around east and south sides of the square is freestanding and very thick at its base, making it impractical for a neighboring business to open out to the plaza to activate the space. The wall once supported a balcony that had no use and was eventually removed. The plaza once also included a huge fountain that was in the middle of the intersection.
The plaza has never worked, other than occasional special events, and has consistently been a problem. In the 1980s, Don Miles, an architect with the Project for Public Spaces, came to town, studied the area and suggested a greenhouse type coffee shop for the space. He explained that successful public places work because they are activated in some way.
Kesey Square has always been mostly a dead space that created more problems than it ever solved. Lots of things have been tried, including putting in seating and taking out seating on numerous occasions. Both approaches were very problematic. I worked downtown from 1974 to 2010. I observed the space constantly. Part of that time I worked for the city on downtown issues. It’s an undeniable fact that the space has been a detriment to the business and retail functions of downtown. Sadly, it has been a constant magnet for some people who behave in ways that make others uncomfortable. They exercise their right to free speech or engage in illegal activities that are difficult to correct. It’s been a recipe for hurting the commercial environment of the area — often leading to empty storefronts or marginal businesses.
The experiment of the plaza has lasted for 45 years and the verdict is pretty clear to anyone who honestly looks at the facts. There are other public spaces downtown that are much better, including the Park Blocks, the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza, the library and the closed street between the Hilton and Hult Center. Additionally, a public space may be included at the new City Hall.
The business environment downtown is stronger than it has been in ages yet it is very fragile. Kesey Square adds little and has proven to be a liability. The progressive thing is to move forward and not be stuck in the mistakes of the past. It’s time to let the plaza space be used for something better! — Richie Weinman