The Turning Point Downtown?

The Park Blocks and Kesey Square

When people come to Eugene for the 2021 World Track and Field Championships, they will, like all tourists, spend a large majority of their time in our outdoor public spaces. The most charitable way to describe our present situation is that we are not yet quite ready for them downtown.

A year ago last December people filled the LCC downtown center to express their revived hopes about improving our downtown park and open spaces and to let city officials know unambiguously that they didn’t want to sell Kesey Square.

The upshot was that we needed help with our open space planning, and so the city hired The Partnership for Public Spaces from New York City. For the past 30-plus years, the firm has developed and successfully applied the ideas of William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces to cities around the country and the world.

So PPS came, consulted and emphasized that we weren’t going to be able to realize our significant potential for vibrant and healthy downtown places until we came to grips with the negative social dimensions of our present situation. Successful placemaking, as they called it, needed to be understood as a socially driven, physical design process. Here is a partial critique of two of their proposals.

The Park Blocks

The PPS proposal for the Park Blocks is in happy agreement with the city’s most recent decision to restore the northwest Park Block and build a City Hall that crowns it along 7th Avenue. Their “big idea” here: to restore the Park Blocks to central importance as “the civic square for all Eugene,” overlaps perfectly with what has become our own idea.

We’d already made it easy for them by deciding that this was the right place for a more permanent home for our farmers and Saturday markets, and that it was time to retire the “butterfly” parking lot. On PPS founder-president Fred Kent’s first trip to Eugene, he looked down on the Park Blocks from the Hilton and said that this was where we should place our City Hall. 

More controversial are their recommendations for the existing Park Blocks. We’ve grown used to their presence as passive park space downtown, our pastoral downtown green. In a word, they recommend that this is the time to reassess their potential and change from predominately passive to much more active use: the West Park Block to be redesigned for families and children; the East Park Block to better support programmed activities and events. Keep the trees, they say, but open them up.

The social strategy behind this is to enliven our downtown spaces with more regular round-the-clock and calendar use and to design them to purposefully serve a wider diversity of people. 

The Park Blocks are great assets on market days, just as Kesey Square is just what is needed when events fill it with purposeful and passionate people. But our downtown spaces need to be transformed from empty, passive receptacles at non-event times and managed to become the social, political and commercial centers of our downtown living.

If there is an obvious missing element in the PPS plan, it is bathrooms. Ice cream doesn’t just go in one end and stay there. No one is going to bring their kids downtown to play in the East Park Block if there is nowhere to take them nearby. The Eugene Public Library, which now bears the brunt for those in need of bathrooms and shelter downtown, is just too far away and is sorely in need of help in this regard.

This is of course a basic need for everyone, but it is important not to forget to design for the retired and the elderly. Support for their growing presence and participation downtown should be much more present in the plan. They also serve who sit and watch.

Kesey Square

The PPS consultants said, “We’re going to call it Kesey Square,” and so should we officially and soon. Rumor has it that Dan Egan, of the Wildish Community Theater, is actively conspiring to steal the Kesey name and sculpture over to Springfield.

Here the proposed social strategy echoes the Park Blocks. The space needs to have a “24-hour” anchor, a built-in café or restaurant or beer garden, to keep it alive at non-event times. They show a number of examples where this has been done successfully, including possibilities for temporary cover.

The PPS proposal has essentially replaced the food carts, which reduce the impact of the high brick walls, with more permanent structures. The problem is that the carts can fill up too much of the square, reducing the center’s flexibility and use for events. The obvious answer is still to open up the flanking walls to connect and overlap business with the square.

What is wanted is a better balance between commercially active, penetrated walls and flexible inter or space for tables and events. The Kesey sculpture doesn’t want or need PPS’s remodeled base, but it could be moved a bit closer to the corner to help form multi-useful central space.

Resolving the zoning, right-of-way and fire code issues that are needed to make wall penetration possible and economically attractive to the owner could still use a bit of an outside push. But what are consultants for? I’ve heard of a New York minute, but never about New York timid.

Jerry Diethelm is a Eugene architect, landscape architect and planning and urban design consultant.

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