The story behind the Chamber of Commerce endorsement to privatize Kesey Square

The story of Kesey Square gets stranger and stranger.

Yesterday — Wednesday, Dec. 9 — the Eugene Chamber of Commerce announced its endorsement for the proposal put forth by local business people and developers to privately purchase Kesey Square — public land — and in its place build an apartment building with retail on the bottom floor.

This sent another ripple through social media as many see any endorsement as premature.

The city of Eugene announced that City Manager Jon Ruiz will be accepting RFEIs (Request for Expression of Interest), or in laymen’s terms, plans and proposals, for Kesey Square until Jan. 15.

So why did the Eugene Chamber of Commerce endorse a proposal now instead of waiting until all proposals were submitted to the city?

Eugene Chamber of Commerce President David Hauser tells Eugene Weekly that the Chamber of Commerce board voted on  Nov. 17 and are only now releasing the endorsement because of the publication of the chamber’s magazine.

Full disclosure: Eugene Weekly has been a member of the Chamber of Commerce since 2006, but EW did not vote on this endorsement. Only board members voted.

“This project approached us. We were already aware of it with Downtown Eugene, Inc.,” Hauser says. Downtown Eugene, Inc. (DEI) is a downtown business group. “The board discussed it and decided the project was compelling enough to get behind it.”

The Eugene Chamber of Commerce now staffs DEI, Hauser says. So essentially, because of the overlap between the Eugene Chamber of Commerce and DEI, the chamber seems to be endorsing its own project.

“Downtown Eugene, Inc. conceptualized the project through work we did with Pivot Architects and Rowell Brokaw architects,” Hauser says.

DEI originally asked and contracted Pivot Architecture and Rowell Brokaw Architects to conceptualize a project for Kesey Square about two years ago.

According to the DEI website, 2013-2014 board members (the most recent list online) of DEI include Kaz Oveissi — the businessman and de facto spokesman for the group who want to privatize and put a building on Kesey Square — John Rowell, who is one of the architects backing the same proposal, as well as Sue Prichard, wife of Hugh Prichard, who is an advising developer on this proposal project.

Hauser says when the board voted, they did not know the city of Eugene would be putting out a request for RFEIs, or other proposals. The city announced it would be taking RFEIs Nov. 30.

This came after the city of Eugene held an executive session — meaning closed to the public — Oct. 12 to consider the Rowell Brokaw group’s offer to purchase the piece of public property. The city of Eugene never made an announcement that Kesey Square was for sale.

Hauser says that while he hopes this project, which he calls the 2 E. Broadway project, to build on Kesey Square goes through, “If another project surfaces that makes that space a more compelling part of our downtown that would be great too.”

Meanwhile, Hauser says it wasn’t intentional that the DEI and Eugene Chamber of Commerce didn’t include business owner and UO senior instructor of finance Ali Emami in the process.

Emami owns the building that flanks the square and houses Voodoo Doughnut and NW Persian Rugs. Emami has submitted plans to the city since 1995 to open the walls of his property — walls owned by the city — to make Kesey Square more pedestrian friendly, comfortable and better for foot-traffic flow.

It remains unclear why the city never engaged with Emami. In response to questions, the city of Eugene has given EW no definitive answer.

Hauser says the board decided to back this proposal without looking at other potential proposals because it’s concrete and not just “an idea.”

Hauser also says that Kaz Oveissi and Rowell Brokaw are expanding their office building at 1 E. Broadway — north across the street from Kesey Square — to the parking lot adjacent to the building. They hope to break ground for the expansion in May, Hauser says, and wanted to start construction on Kesey Square at the same time.

“They could undertake the two together,” Hauser explains.

Oveissi has not responded to a request for comment.

Brittany Quick-Warner, director of business advocacy for the Eugene Chamber of Commerce, says 15 of 20 board members were present for the vote to endorse the project in November.

To see who is on the board for Eugene Chamber of Commerce, click here. To see who is on the board of Downtown Eugene, Inc., click here.

It should be noted that the Oveissi-Rowell Brokaw architecture group has been working on their proposal to put a building on Kesey Square for two years. The city announced it would accept RFEIs Nov. 30, with a deadline for submissions Jan. 15. That's only a 5-week period during the holiday season for other groups to get proposals in order.

City Manager Jon Ruiz will also be considering options to take no action at the square or for a public investment to improve the square — in other words, a city-backed plan.

Assistant City Manager Sarah Medary, however, told EW at the Downtown Solutions Forum Dec. 2 that the city has no plan for Kesey Square and has no plans yet to come up with a public plan for the square.

Where, then, will a public plan for the Kesey Square come from, if not from the city?

Find all of our 2015 coverage of the Kesey Square controversy here:
 12/10: "Support for Kesey Square Highlights Public Forum: Zane Kesey wants to keep square public"

12/3: "Voodoo Doughnut, Community Group want Kesey Square kept public"

11/25: "City to issue requests from private sector only for Kesey Square"

11/19: "Apathy Made Visible: The tale of one city square and the city that wouldn't save it"

11/5: "One Flew Over Kesey Square: Business owner’s plan calls for incubators and public space downtown, not apartments"

10/22: "Property Owner Offers To Open Up Brick Walls Of Kesey Square"

5/7: "Sometimes a Great Plaza: The quest to turn Kesey Square into a vibrant public space"

4/16: "Playing Offense at Kesey Square: Adapting a public space for people, not against people"

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