Kesey Square Cannot Be Replaced

Building on the square is not smart urban planning

A number of letters and comments have appeared recently regarding local developers’ proposal to solve the traveler/transient problem in downtown by filling Kesey Square with a five-story apartment building. Downtown Eugene Inc. and the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce have both come out in favor of this closing of the commons and privatizing of our public land.

But, as it turned out at the Mayor’s Downtown Solutions Forum on public space last week, the large crowd that assembled did not want to lose Kesey Square or the opportunity to improve it as vital urban public space.

They spoke up for more public space development in downtown, not less, and they called for not just more spaces, but for the recognition of the need for a variety of kinds of public spaces that enrich the urban experience.

We were given a presentation that declared there already are a lot of “open spaces” in downtown. Yes there are — mostly in spaces without buildings such as open parking lots, transit uses and engineered (not designed) streets and walkways. Senior City Planner Nan Laurence, who presented this overview, cited examples such as the corner next to the new Lane Community College campus downtown and the wide sidewalk along the new library. These are simply spaces without buildings, not active and participating “active urban open spaces.”

Another noted the potential urban open space of the proposed plaza at the “new” City Hall. The proposed plaza there will not be an active open space. It is an ornamental public space unto itself. Compare it with other such ornamental plazas in front of city halls in other cities. There is usually no one there and no reason to congregate there. Replacing Kesey Square with the proposed City Hall plaza would just amount to trading apples for oranges.

Active open spaces require immediate contact with buildings and they form a partnership with the adjacent uses so they can stimulate and support each other. Kesey Square, at the main intersection of our downtown, when renovated and integrated with adjacent uses, can be that active urban open space that developers would aspire to engage. It could or will stimulate much more future development than filling it up with a building that requires some subsidy (MUPTE) to be successful. Development of Kesey Square as an active urban open space would provide a subsidy in a much more meaningful way. That’s what urban planning and city development is about: providing stimulus for development and not just reviewing and jurying developers’ proposals.

Filling or eliminating Kesey Square is not good, smart or acceptable urban planning; it is using planning to alleviate a perceived problem. We have a city manager, Jon Ruiz, and City Council who are not trained nor versed in city planning. They are versed in political planning, consensus seeking and vote-gathering.

The build-over and eliminate-the-square developers have been discussing this possibility with the city manager for the past two years. And now to hurry  the process, the city has issued an RFEI (request for alternate expressions of interest) to review and present to the council that are due in five short weeks, giving the distinct impression that the train has already left the station. Again, this is not acceptable urban planning; it is closing the public realm and burying some unresolved social problems under a five-story building.

It appears by comments at the public workshop and in the printed media that this community has a deep interest in the matter. The Eugene City Council is the final decision maker, and they will make it based on the manager’s recommendation and pressure from their constituents.

I urge those of you who care about your downtown to contact your city council representative and share your opinions. Council members can be and are influenced by those they represent.

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— Otto Poticha

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