The historic, lichen-covered wall of College Hill reservoir 607 stretches for an entire block on Lincoln Street. An aging plaque on the wall tells the story. It was constructed under the Public Works Administration as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and completed in 1939. “Non-disruptive” public use was encouraged. After eight decades as one of the most iconic and unusual public spaces in Oregon, it will soon go away.
The big, stately, historic reservoir on College Hill was never just a water tank; it has always been a place for Eugene residents to play on. Public use was part of the original design, and was encouraged by the city of Eugene and what was then the Eugene Water Board from the very beginning.
Even before it was in service, the city was seeking ways to utilize 607 for outdoor recreation and playgrounds. The Eugene Playground Commission proposed tennis and basketball courts, as well as playground equipment. When it opened in 1940, the top of 607 instantly became a popular place for kids on bikes. It still is.
In the 1950s, city officials again expressed a desire to develop the site as a playground, proposing $25,000 for playground equipment. In a bizarre twist, in 1962, the U.S. Office of Civil Defense classified, with Eugene Water Board approval, College Hill Reservoir 607 as a fallout shelter.
Soon, this classic structure will be decommissioned and torn down. Water quality and earthquake concerns caused the Oregon Health Authority to order the reservoir replaced or repaired by the end of 2023.
More than a water tank, by design, it has served as a totally unique public space for all of Eugene for over four generations. When it goes away, something distinctly Eugene will go away with it.
On a recent warm summer night, a neighborhood walk takes us around the perimeter of 607. It gets its name from the elevation of the surface level of the water in the tank — 607 feet above sea level. The entire EWEB water distribution system is gravity fed and, below 607 feet, the water pressure is insufficient to effectively run the system. Above 607, the water pressure is too high.
On this night, there are groups and families out enjoying one of the most unusual places in the entire Eugene Springfield area. The top of 607 is a vast open space unlike anything else in our community, or possibly Oregon. The 2.5 acre flat, paved surface is open to the sky with no trees or buildings to obscure the 360 degree views from the Coburg Hills to the Coast Range, and the night sky.
It’s the best star show in town, enjoyed for decades by thousands. On clear, starry nights, stargazers from the Eugene Astronomical Society (EAS) and their guests crowd around telescopes on top of 607 and peer up at the sky. These “star parties” are open to the public, and they are popular, as the society shares its knowledge and telescopes with the community.
Rollerblading is a popular activity on 607. We see kids and adults enjoying the huge, smooth, outdoor skate rink regularly. This night, there is a women’s rollerblade team practicing roller hockey complete with a goal net. Where else could they do this? Where else in Eugene is there 2.5 acres of smooth outdoor pavement open to the public — with a view?
Cars line Lawrence Street as people from all over the city arrive to enjoy this oasis on the hill. We watch kids riding bikes. This evening I see a boy riding his bike in the exact spot as in a 1940 black and white photo from the EWEB archives. There are people doing sword tai chi. Moms and dads with young children on bikes with training wheels stroll the perimeter. Kids on scooters glide by quietly.
On Lincoln Street, we admire the historic reservoir structure itself, built in the classic style of the 1930s New Deal era. In front of that iconic wall, on the lawn, we encounter a girls soccer team practicing ball handling, the reservoir wall standing in for a gym. During COVID, these kids had self-quarantined as a group for two weeks so they could practice outdoors together, here. A neighbor, a former soccer coach, recalls using the same space for countless practices.
When the 80-year history of public enjoyment of this big open space ends, it will be mourned by people from all over Eugene, not just College Hill. Any replacement tank, or tanks, will be concrete and round. The tops will not be open to the public. There will be no big open sky place to rollerblade or bike ride or gaze at the stars.
However, EWEB is not the bad guy here. Regardless of the historic use, EWEB’s first responsibility is to provide safe, clean, drinking water storage, not public recreation.
I believe the EWEB planning team recognizes the huge public loss when 607 goes away. They understand how unusual it has been to provide both water storage and public recreation at the same facility. They recognize that it has been used for a long time by a lot of people. They are honestly trying to take into account the historical uses of the site as they plan any new facility. And I am encouraged that EWEB is committed to continue public use on the College Hill property.
Tearing down that big open space on the hill will be a huge loss, not just for the College Hill neighborhood, but for the whole community. Eighty years is a long time to enjoy a totally unique public place and then have it go away. But nothing lasts forever.
So enjoy it while you still can. Visit that big open space on the hill. Stroll, bike, skateboard, stargaze, rollerblade, dance, picnic, practice soccer and enjoy it before it disappears forever to become one more example of how Eugene used to be.
Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton counties. Prior to that, he was a senior policy advisor to Gov. Barbara Roberts and district aide and natural resource advisor for Rep. Peter DeFazio.