You Say Kesey Square, They Say Park Blocks

The issue of public space downtown became a hot-button issue in October

The southeast corner of the Park Blocks
[Update: This article has been updated to reflect that though the Downtown Urban Renewal District expires in 2015, the $500,000 earmarked to improve the Park Blocks will still be available. City officials originally told EW that the funds would sunset with the district but then clarified that was incorrect.]

Bring up the topic of Kesey Square and the importance of downtown open public space with city of Eugene officials and you can expect the conversation to be steered to the Park Blocks.

Kesey Square has problems, city employees say, including issues of design, the preponderance of “travelers” dominating the space, the simple fact that it’s flat and that people just don’t want to be there.

The issue of public space downtown became a hot-button issue in October after a group of local developers proposed to the city that they would like to purchase the public parcel of land at Kesey Square and put an apartment building in its place with retail.

The group — headed by Rowell Brokaw Architecture (the same firm that City Manager Jon Ruiz appointed to work on City Hall) and downtown business owner Kaz Oveissi — says it also intends to request a Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) and a loan from the city for the project.

Oveissi told EW in January that, if the City Council approves the project, they were hoping to start construction on Kesey Square this spring in conjunction with another building project across the street.

“What about the Park Blocks?” Councilor Pryor mused during an interview about Kesey Square in November. “Those were intended to be public gathering spaces.”

It seems, however, that the Park Blocks may be even more problematic than the city’s claims about Kesey Square.

The now-closed Toadstool Cupcakes overlooked the southwest corner of the Park Blocks

Just ask Larry Oswald, owner of Toadstool Cupcakes. Oswald recently closed his two cupcake shops in Eugene, one of which faced the Park Blocks at 868 W. Park Street. He recently relocated the business to Portland.

“It’s the worst place downtown to be,” Oswald said of the Park Blocks in a Jan. 11 interview. “When I read these stories about Kesey Square, I just had to laugh. What’s the problem with Kesey Square?”

He adds: “There’s a huge problem in the Park Blocks that is totally being overlooked.”

Oswald explained that in the southwest Park Block, the one closest to his store, 30 to 50 people — what the city might call “travelers” — gather daily. He said he saw abuse, drug use and public defecation. The city brought in Porta Potties, which Oswald said attracted more people.

The condition of the Park Blocks, however, is not the only reason Oswald is moving his business.

“One of the main reasons that we did leave is the plans for the four-story building going in the parking lot,” Oswald said of the building going in next door. “We’ll be in a construction zone for over a year,” adding “it was going to be horrendous for business.”

Oswald is speaking of the new development — 33 E. Broadway — being built this spring in the narrow parking lot across from Kesey Square by the Rowell Brokaw Architecture and Kaz Oveissi group, the group who would also like to build on Kesey Square. Oswald said he found out about the 33 E. Broadway project in the newspaper.

As for the Park Blocks, in the three years Toadstool was open, Oswald said he didn’t see the city do much to address the problems. “I saw it get worse and worse and worse.”

So what is happening with the Park Blocks?

“We haven’t been given any directives to go develop a new plan for the Park Blocks right now,” Craig Carnagey, the city of Eugene’s parks and open space director, told EW in December.

The Park Blocks fall under the management of the Parks and Open Space department, but Carnagey said the department cannot re-design the site without a directive from the City Council. Currently, Carnagey said his department is working on a more holistic approach to all city parks and open space.

“It’s a big system,” adds Carol Burke, the Parks and Recreation System Plan program manager. “At this point in our process, what we’ve been doing is going out to the public and saying, kind of open-endedly, ‘How is the system working for you?’”

Burke continues: “In the community feedback we’ve been hearing, we’ve been hearing themes around — we need more basic amenities: restrooms, benches and trees for shade.”

But Carnagey adds, at least anecdotally, he does hear safety complaints about the Park Blocks. He said there have been successful programming efforts, but design issues need to be addressed.

“I think we all recognize the need to do something around the Park Blocks both in terms of design and behavior,” Carnagey says. “But right now we don’t have a clear directive to do anything specifically with the Park Blocks, and we’re not making a plan.”

A diorama of the Park Blocks in 1915 at the Lane County Public Works building

Burke says the Park Blocks need a combination of programmed activities and redevelopment design.

“I know that the community and the city have been talking about doing something with the Park Blocks for decades,” Carnagey says. “I just don’t think there has been this culmination or apex of will to do it. It feels like we may be getting there right now.”

Councilor Pryor, even though he said he prioritizes investment in the Park Blocks as public space more than Kesey Square, also noted the Park Blocks need help.

“If you look at the Park Blocks, they’re not that great,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have good public engagement space.”

It may seem strange to some that the city is dismissive of Kesey Square, but encouraging of the Park Blocks, which seems to suffer from similar problems, only more intensely.

A Eugene citizen asks the Eugene City Council to keep Kesey Square a public space

The Eugene City Council held its first work session and meeting about the Park Blocks and open space downtown Jan. 11; no decisions were made except to gather information. Several councilors noted that the Park Blocks are extremely underutilized and that the surrounding businesses literally have their backs to the square.

Councilor Alan Zelenka said that the butterfly lot detracted from the Park Blocks dramatically, adding that the city should look at downtown’s needs for parks and open space, including Kesey Square.

“It seems what we’re doing is piecemealing this,” Zelenka said.

For five-plus years, the citY has had access to $500,000 in Urban Renewal funds for improvement and rehabilitation of the Park Blocks. The Urban Renewal District expires in 2017, but the $500,000 will still be available. The city has told EW that technically, if the City Council so desired, it could vote to open up Urban Renewal to make Kesey Square eligible for funds as well.

The city of Eugene is accepting RFEIs for Kesey Square through Jan. 15. In February, the City Council will consider options for Kesey Square including “Sale or lease for private redevelopment of the parcel; public investment to improve the use and appearance of the parcel; take no action.”