Eugene, We Can Do Better

Design Review: Riverfront Park Concept Plans

Like you, I’m looking forward to having a great new park on our downtown riverfront. I think we have a very talented team assembled to help get us there. Nevertheless, I was underwhelmed by the three EWEB riverfront park concept plans that have been proposed and hope they will receive a more thorough and professional review than the present public survey. 

I’d suggest reaching out to such groups as the University of Oregon landscape faculty, the American Institute of Architects Local Affairs Committee, and the city’s newly formed Urban Design Team.

After taking the survey, I’d characterize what I’ve seen and read so far as three park proposals made up out of a kit of park parts looking for an organizing program and concept. Survey questions such as, “Do you like amphitheaters or terraces, straight geometric shapes or curving paths, etc?” misdirect the kind of overall park review that is needed and brings it to a level of particulars before it’s made clear what those particulars are supposed to add up to. It’s like worrying about doorknobs before you know whether you need doors. 

The concept they are missing — or at best underemphasizing — is called “return to the river!”  

All three proposed plans look back at the downtown riverfront from Alton Baker Park. Looking back from Alton Baker Park, however, is just the opposite of a return to the river. Returning to the river comes from and starts from deep within the city. The concept plans need to be re-oriented to more strongly develop how people are drawn from the city and channeled through eastern and western park entrances, not to little river overlooks or modest amphitheaters. It is the arrival experience at the river that is elemental.  

Ideally, the emotional impact of return that is wanted is like the intake of breath you experience when arriving in Florence at the ocean, or if you lived in Manhattan, Jones Beach. To create that here will require some serious sculpting and terracing of the twenty foot high riverbank down to the cutting edge of a living Willamette River.

It will also require some reconsideration of the circulation to and through the terraced park, especially at the central open space connection. An impactful river connecting space wants to be more of a place you come to rather than one you are always going through. Because the park site is very narrow here, too many designated paths cutting through it just turns it into sliced bologna.  

There really is no eastern park entrance anymore.  The developer’s master plan replaced the riverfront access road in our city master plan with a road that now follows at the back of the site along the railroad tracks.  

When asked about parking and entering the park from the EWEB steam plant side at the public meeting, the consultant’s answered, “That’s outside of our contract.”  

And that’s the problem. There are at least three unresolved riverfront scale problems holding the riverfront park back from becoming all that it can be. A new pedestrian bridge is definitely needed to sew the two riverfront park sides together and complete the kind of pedestrian circuit that has become so successful and popular in Portland. 

This is a keystone element that belongs in the first phase of development. The bridge can serve to carry and hide the unsightly overhead high-voltage line. Whatever else happens inside, the steam plant’s roof would make a very powerful and desirable destination as a park prospect and river overlook.

And then there is the EWEB headquarters building. 

Like it or not, the riverfront sequence is and will always be dominated by the EWEB building, which happily is one of our finest designed public buildings. Most tourists assume and are disappointed when they find out that this is not Eugene’s public art museum. It already offers a much better plaza that embraces the river than anything proposed in the new concept plans.

If this were Portland, Vancouver B.C., or Seattle, there would be no hesitation in making this our riverfront OMSI, our public destination place full of vivid presentations of our riverfront’s industrial, millrace, transportation and agricultural history. We could include the arts and call it ARSI: Our museum of Arts, Riverfront, Science and Industry.  

It is already a public building, bought and paid for by us ratepayers. The reported board strategy of waiting until the project develops so they can sell it for more money is just another example of unimaginative, green-eyeshade, small-town thinking. 

Does anyone really want something like the headquarters of Pepsi Cola to be the signature figurehead of our downtown riverfront? A good many of those who advocate using EWEB for our city hall are doing so, not because they believe City Hall should leave the downtown. They just don’t want to lose EWEB as a public building and don’t know what to do with it. Inspired leadership is desperately needed to create an understanding of why the building is both physically important to the identity of the downtown riverfront and our cultural understanding of what a return to the river is all about.

So, come on Eugene, no more Capstones, cheap materials or narrow, crummy sidewalks. Let’s get this one right.

Jerry Diethelm is an architect, landscape architect and planning and design consultant. He is an emeritus professor of the University of Oregon’s College of Design where he taught planning and design for 35 years.

Comments are closed.