A Town Square Critique

Time to seize the opportunity downtown

This is a really big deal for downtown Eugene. After being buried under a parking garage for 50 years, what we once knew as our Northwest Park Block is about to be resurrected and reunited with our South Park Block as a new “Town Square.”

And sitting at the head of that Northwest Park Block along 7th Avenue is the site for our new City Hall. After hours of stakeholder input, we now have three Town Square concepts for review.

So, how does this teacher, who taught about the design of such civic places and projects for 40 years, review these proposals?

I start with the big picture and ask: Do the proposals get what I consider to be the biggest and most important things right? It’s not that the smaller stuff doesn’t matter. These are more easily remodeled, fixed and replaced.

But you only get one opportunity to set the larger pattern — to structure the main relationships. In Eugene it’s once every 50 years.

So the four big picture things I’m focusing on are: the strategic social program that is driving the project’s physical planning and expression; the creation of a new Town Square space itself; the relationship between the City Hall and City Hall site to this new central civic space; and the creativity and spirit of the proposal.

The Social Plan and Program

This project will become an expensive failure if it does not more carefully connect its physical planning and proposed ground patterns with the social needs and activities of the people it is trying to attract.

This is a challenging time for new open space planning in all our cities, not just Eugene. Forty years of neoliberalism, the starving of social services and endless war have pushed the casualties of this un-compassionate conservatism out into the public commons. It becomes harder and harder to overcome the fear of publicness in stakeholders that this has caused and be able to plan for a kinder time.

As the saying goes, if you can make a place attractive, useful and comfortable for children and old people, it will be a success. That means designing for a specific range of activities, and the people they’re meant to support must take precedent over abstract, formalistic and stylistic expression.

The earlier Partnership for Public Spaces report on the South Park Block provided a good example. They showed how the old, passive South Park Block design of Modrian rectangles could be remodeled in order to attract more specific and purposeful daily activity.

Having more people at more times doing more things in its public spaces is a concept that is critical to the success of the project, and both city and stakeholders should demand a more careful analysis.

The Town Square

Yes, the original Park Blocks were once our Town Square, and then they were sliced into four town squares by the extension of Oak Street and 8th Avenue. Today we have two left: the South Park Block and a piece of a third in the Free Speech Plaza in front of the Public Service Building.

Now, by tearing down the “butterfly” parking lot we get our Northwest Park Block back. This is our best and only chance to create a great downtown gathering space large enough and flexible enough to support major public occasions. This is the place to build the project’s namesake, the new Town Square, a signature open space that unites and gives its name to the project around it. This is the place for large celebrations, concerts in the park and direct democracy.

None of the three proposals seizes this opportunity? Why?

To create such a space, designers need to reverse the conventional practice of siting buildings that then create leftover spaces around them. Instead, first create the Town Square space itself and then site the objects (such as the Farmers Market) around it in ways that emphasize the primacy of the Town Square’s identity and integrity.

The New City Hall Site

Restoring North Park Street does more than just recreate the historic North Park Block. It creates the new City Hall site and provides important access to the City Hall’s southern entrance terrace, parking, cafe and public gardens.

If one widens the project frame to the north, it becomes clear that the siting of the new City Hall could potentially become a public gateway from the Hult and Conference Centers to the new Town Square. And from 8th Avenue looking north, we have the unique opportunity to site an exciting new public building as the crown jewel atop a new central downtown open space.

As I see it, this emphatic pairing of the new City Hall and Town Square open space is the project’s sine qua non. Miss this one and the rest slides into mediocrity.

Creativity and Spirit

Creative design thinking requires widening the frame around the whole Town Square project. The Partnership for Public Spaces calls this thinking about the relationship between the inner square and the outer square.

Successful, active, busy squares and plazas around the world all have active commercial and other connections with their edges. Here, we have to overcome 50 years of mostly turning the city’s back on our Park Blocks and parking lot.

I would be happy to be able to report that the perspective renderings of the three concepts inspire me. But they seem austere and empty.

One or two forlorn benches and some people lying on the grass don’t convince me that they reflect an adequate and strategically active — not just defensive — social plan. The portrayals of our new City Hall are pedestrian and banal.

Overall, I miss the spirit and artistry that gave us our original stage curtain at the Hult, the Saturday Market and Oregon Country Fair. ν

Jerry Diethelm is an architect, landscape architect, planning and urban design consultant and a professor emeritus of landscape architecture and community service at the University of Oregon.