Urban Design

Making Eugene great again

Suddenly it’s springtime in Eugene for city design with new projects popping up all over. We have new murals, a reborn Civic Alliance Park for kids and soccer fans, and an expanded Market District. A fresh face marks the Franklin Boulevard entrance into the city, the university and downtown. High rise apartments and a billion dollar research facility are rising along our forgotten Millrace. 

We have a transformed Hayward Field — with a certain attitudinal swoosh — for the 2021 World Track and Field championships. A new riverfront park and plaza offers a centerpiece for the long sought redevelopment of our EWEB riverfront. A town square rises out of the restoration of our Park Blocks, featuring a commanding site at the north of the square for a new City Hall. A new permanent home houses the Farmers Market on the same site where it all began. And on the old City Hall block, a new Lane County Courthouse is soon to become the heart of an expanding downtown governmental center. And a Kesey Square called — wait for it — Kesey Square!

Inviting the world to come to Eugene has kick-started the city into putting its best face forward on multiple fronts. But when you examine the project list, as varied and distributed as it is, you can’t help noticing that one key city design category and one key developmental strategy have gone missing.

The missing category is the civic design of the public corridor places through which people and especially tourists receive their primary experience of the city.

The missing strategy is an experimental rehearsal with temporary urban design investments and arrangements that, if successful, could enhance our future. Think of this latter as a smaller-scale World’s Fair strategy, where we use our spotlight occasion to lay some groundwork for desired improvements in the city.

The Seattle World’s Fair, for example, left a large civic legacy: a Seattle Center, a monorail, Space Needle, science center, opera house and much, much more.

I’d suggest a legacy-oriented focus on Willamette Street and 5th Avenue, two connecting corridors with special meaning in our city. Willamette is our signature civic street, our butte-to-butte main street, the prime meridian that divides us into east and west. 

With the new riverfront development, 5th Avenue becomes our main historic street connection to the river. Together the two form an L-shaped connecting corridor system, uniting Willamette Street’s southtown to midtown to the downtown north-south corridor (with all its key places and transportation services) to 5th Avenue’s east-west passage to the riverfront. 

Upgrading the quality of these corridors and the addition of a colorful electric tram system would really bring them to life. Moreover, it would set them up as especially desirable locations for urban density development. A tram-serviced central city would take pressure off downtown parking. Allocating more higher-density housing to a Willamette corridor could help other parts of Eugene retain more of their desirable suburban qualities and aid in our concern for affordability.

Both longer-term and shorter-term kinds of experiments are being suggested here along with the belief that this is the time to hide some poles and wires and show more pride in our public streets. The idea of adding a tram system is admittedly a horse before the cart, sex-it-up-and-they-will-come proposal. But we’re not talking Space Needle magnitudes here. And it could set us up to serve our own corridor developmental needs while adding some pizzazz and panache to the visitor experience.

The shorter-term experiment is a proposed dress rehearsal. I suggest that we lease both the downtown U.S. Post Office building and the EWEB office building for public use for a suitable period bracketing the 2021 event. The Post Office could help us rehearse what it might be like to have it as our Lane County History Museum. The EWEB building exhibits could show and tell the world about Eugene as a great city for the arts on the Willamette River. 

We could, of course, take down those shows after everyone goes home, but if we could find some way to keep them as “World’s Fair booty,” they would make a wonderful legacy. It would become quite ordinary to be able to ride the tram from the train or LTD Station to watch soccer at Civic Park or travel from one downtown museum to the other on the river.

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.