Citizens Want Public Square, Council Wants ‘Win-Win’

The night of Monday, Feb. 22, was a moment many have been waiting for since October, when the city considered the private purchase of Kesey Square in a closed executive session: For the first time, the Eugene City Council publicly discussed Kesey Square, aka Broadway Plaza.

The work session, and public forum that followed, illustrated a lingering divide between some of the city councilors and mayor and the requests from citizens to keep the square public.

Several citizens suggested ways to improve  the square like putting in a bike-share hub, painting the walls with murals or transforming the space into a leafy sanctuary. Jeff Geiger, a local writer and former grant writer and reviewer, volunteered to write community grants to improve the square.

The session began when the city’s community development division manager Denny Braud introduced senior city planner Nan Laurence and her Kesey Square presentation. Braud told the council the presentation should “really inform your discussion.”

Laurence’s brief presentation focused mostly on the buildings that had been on the site before it became a square in 1970, followed by a quick overview of urban design elements and proposals for the development of the square.

Laurence did not mention the 1971 deed — a deed that states the square must be “forever dedicated to the use of the public”  — when informing the council of the square’s historical context.

When asked about this omission, as well as how long she has known about the deed, Laurence declined to comment.

After Laurence’s presentation, councilors Betty Taylor and George Brown reaffirmed that they were “stunned” that the council would consider privatizing Kesey Square, especially after the deed discovery.

While Councilor Chris Pryor said: “I don’t feel constrained by a deed that was done as part of building a failed mall.” Brown countered Pryor’s point, saying the deed was not an afterthought, but a deliberate decision by city officials in 1971.

“I think this could possibly be a big time legal problem,” Brown said.

Mayor Kitty Piercy said she wanted a win-win solution. Councilors Zelenka, Pryor, Poling, Syrett and Clark said they were unsure of what to do with Kesey Square but generally agreed with Piercy. (Councilor Evans was absent.)

According to the mayor, a “win-win” scenario could consist of bringing together the 2E Broadway group — the group who wants to put moderate-income apartments on the square — with the proposals of Ali Emami — the owner of the buildings whose walls flank the square — that suggest opening the walls or adding housing on top of his buildings while leaving the square intact.

In a Feb. 23 email, Piercy wrote: “I suggest we could keep the space for public use and build apartments up above the surrounding buildings if everyone would work together and be creative.”

Regardless of outcome, council members told city manager Jon Ruiz that the process needs to slow down.

During the public forum, some citizens pointed out the ongoing absence of supporters who favor privatizing the square speaking at City Council meetings.

“I keep waiting to see hordes of people showing up in defense of the development,” Save Kesey Square activist Gwendolyn Iris told the council.

Out of 30-plus citizens who came to speak about Kesey Square Feb. 22, not one spoke in favor of development.

Jeff Geiger, also the co-founder of improv theater No Shame Eugene, says he found this absence troubling as well. On Feb. 16, Geiger invited blues musician Tommy Castro to sing at the square before performing at The Shedd. Castro sang a duet with Norma Fraser; both musicians spoke about saving the square.

“People unanimously spoke in favor of keeping the square public,” Geiger tells EW of the council meeting.

Geiger continues: “It seems obvious that there is another side to this discussion, and they are dialoguing with the council,” he says. “Is that format as accessible to the folks who want to keep the square public?”

Geiger and Iris wondered why people who want to develop the square don’t feel the need to argue their case in front of the council.

“Those who want to keep the square public should have the same access to City Council as the people who want to develop the square,” Geiger says. “The developers are in a position to court the opinion of the council and the city manager in a way that the public is not equipped to do.”

Geiger urged the council to appoint someone to manage the space (currently no one in the city is tasked with this); many others have volunteered to help program the square.

“This community is so flush with artists, good thinkers and people who can make things happen,” Geiger told EW after the meeting. “To think that your citizens aren’t capable of that is insulting.” Geiger says he wants all sides of the debate to have a transparent, constructive dialogue.

In other news, the Democratic Party of Lane County announced Feb. 19 that it voted in a resolution to keep Kesey Square public.

The council is scheduled to discuss the future of Kesey Square again March 14.