To Build or To Buy?

After completing the Farmer’s Market Pavilion and Plaza, the city once again turns its attention to City Hall 

Mayor Lucy Vinis

When Sarah Medary started working for the city of Eugene in 1996 as a parks maintenance worker, one of her tasks was to tend to the landscaping around the old City Hall on Pearl Street. Now, she’s the city manager, and she has a different task: find a new home for Eugene’s City Hall. 

The Eugene City Council hasn’t conducted city business in a permanent City Hall in 10 years. Now, after completing the $9.3 million Farmer’s Market Pavilion and Plaza downtown, the city is turning its attention to the absence of a City Hall. While a new City Hall is included as a part of the city’s “town square concept plan,” as of right now, its future is unclear, and instead of building a City Hall, the council is considering buying one, a decision causing some tension as the city looks at its current Lane Community College location.

So, why doesn’t Eugene have a City Hall? In short, it’s because the council chose to tear it down.

From 1964 to 2014, Eugene’s old City Hall was on Pearl Street, two blocks east of the site of the new Farmers Market pavilion. In 2004, the city started work on a City Hall master plan, and over the next several years, the council considered several potential upgrades for City Hall, including building a new one at the existing City Hall site, building at the site of the “Butterfly” parking lot, and potentially buying the EWEB administration building to use as City Hall. 

Ultimately, the council chose to tear down City Hall and build a new one at the existing site. The project budget was $15 million.

The last of the old City Hall came down in 2015 while the city conducted its business at the Lane County Public Service Building. Medary says that when the old building came down, the city had a design in place, had hired a contractor, and construction was set to break ground.

But after the teardown, the city learned price estimates for the building had soared to $25 million, and planning stalled. 

Then, in 2018, the city swapped the old City Hall site for the “Butterfly” parking lot site with Lane County. According to Medary, part of the reason for the swap was the city’s vision of the greater Park Blocks area as a home for City Hall and the Farmer’s Market Pavilion, as well as the county’s need for a new courthouse space. The city drafted a concept plan for the entire project in 2019, which included preliminary designs for a new City Hall north of the new Farmer’s Market Pavilion and an interactive fountain and performance stage on the Park Blocks. 

The city used Urban Renewal funds, aka tax increment financing, to build the pavilion. But a 2016 Urban Renewal plan amendment prohibits the use of these funds on a new City Hall. 

When project costs for the Farmer’s Market pavilion jumped to $9.8 million, the city no longer had enough funding to cover the Park Blocks improvements and City Hall, leading the council to move forward with the pavilion and put the other projects on hold. 

Now, Medary says plans have been paused indefinitely for a City Hall north of the pavilion, a space that remains an empty gravel lot, despite City Hall’s inclusion in the 2019 concept report. 

Medary says the last time the city discussed designs for building a City Hall, price estimates for a 31,000 square foot building were “probably in the $35 million range.”

According to the city’s acting communications director Cambra Ward Jacobson, the city has $13.9 million in a City Hall reserve account.

In an April 22 interview, Mayor Lucy Vinis told Eugene Weekly that whether or not City Hall would be built near the pavilion was “very much an open question right now,” and that the council has not discussed what might go in the lot instead of a City Hall. 

The first question for the council, according to Medary and Vinis, is whether or not the city wants to continue its use of Lane Community College’s Mary Spilde Center downtown. Vinis says the city has the option to negotiate a continued lease with LCC or even negotiate a purchase agreement, at which point the LCC building would become the new City Hall.

“The first question for council will be: do they want to proceed in negotiations with Lane Community College and stay where we are, rather than use that north part of the block for a City Hall,” Vinis tells EW. “If they make that decision, then that north part of the block could then have another purpose. We could decide to do something else there.”

The council discussed the city’s lease with LCC, which ends in November 2023, during a May 25 work session. After Councilor Randy Groves inquired about the possibility of a purchase, Medary said LCC had indicated the school would be “very open” to a long-term lease option.

Several councilors said they would be interested in exploring long term options for the building, including Councilor Matt Keating, a former LCC board member, who said he would “enthusiastically welcome” further conversations about purchasing the building. Vinis agreed.

“Given how long this City Hall conversation has gone on, I’d like to see us move forward on something which we’ve actually already made significant progress on in terms of this building and our investment in this building,” Vinis says. 

According to Ward Jacobson, the city paid about $14,500 a month in the first year of the lease and about $16,000 a month in the second year of the lease. Beginning Dec. 1, the amount will increase 3 percent per year.

In 2010, the City Council, acting as the Urban Renewal Agency Board, approved the contribution of $8 million in Downtown Urban Renewal funds to the Spilde Center project, according to Ward Jacobson.

LCC External Affairs director Brett Rowlett says there was “strong support” for continuing the partnership with the city at a May 18 LCC Board of Education meeting, but that the board had not discussed the possibility of a purchase agreement, and instead the conversation focused on maintaining a long-term lease. He says the current agreement is working well for LCC because the school’s enrollment is at an all-time low, and that LCC would like to maintain a downtown presence in the building. 

Other users of the building say the city’s presence has disrupted the building’s intended function: education.

Aliscia Niles, a faculty member for the Adult Basic Skills Education program at LCC, says that when the city moved into the building in 2020, the ABSE program, along with the English as a Second Language program , was moved to the fourth floor from the second floor upon returning from remote learning. She says that while the fourth floor has the same square footage as the second floor, the second floor was designed specifically for adult education services, with computer labs and tutoring rooms, and that the fourth floor lacks these features.

“Lane’s not following their own vision and mission around access, equity and inclusion in this process,” Niles says. “There isn’t any bigger equity issue than denying access to our most diverse students in their learning environment.”

Rowlett says the college “worked to ensure there would be enough classroom space to meet department [needs],” and that the college provided 10 classrooms, the number requested by ABSE. 

Niles also says the shift from educational use to office space undermines the integrity of future city and LCC bonds: voters in the LCC service area agreed to a bond that supported the Spilde Center as an education building, not as a City Hall. According to Rowlett, LCC used $9 million from an LCC bond passed in November 2008 to partially fund the Spilde Center.

“Why are we required to problem-solve the City Hall issue?” Niles says. “How is this on us, and why are we being sacrificed to solve the City Hall problem?”

At the work session, Councilor Emily Semple acknowledged that the building’s design as an educational facility could be problematic. 

“This is a fantastic classroom building and I think it was built really well,” Semple says. “But I think it’s a horrible office building.” 

The Spilde Center is two separate buildings and roughly half is academic space, where the city operates, and the other half is student housing. Several councilors questioned if a purchase of the Spilde Center would also include the housing. 

Despite the support for continuing the current City Hall arrangement, at least one councilor disagrees. Councilor Mike Clark of north Eugene told EW in an interview that he thinks the council should purchase the former Eugene Water and Electric Board administration building near the river to serve as City Hall, an idea he’s been pushing for 10 years. 

EWEB relocated its headquarters from the 100,000 square-foot riverfront building to Roosevelt Boulevard. In 2018, EWEB declared the building a “surplus” property — according to city code, this gave the city exclusive right to bid on the property. According to EWEB spokesperson Aaron Orlowski, the city manager initially expressed interest. 

Earlier in 2018, the city bought 16 acres of nearby riverfront property from EWEB, which is being developed into the Downtown Riverfront with a park and renovated Steam Plant.

But previous analyses from the city state that while the building would require “minimal renovation” to serve as City Hall, it would require city employees to “live with less than optimal functional layouts.” In April 2021, the city waived its exclusive right to negotiate for the EWEB property, and the utility  opened a public proposal process in May. 

Orlowski says the city can still submit a proposal on the property, and EWEB will consider the community and social function of the building’s future use. 

Medary says the city has not considered submitting a proposal to purchase the EWEB building. 

But Clark argues that the EWEB building is the city’s best financial option, because the city could use Riverfront Urban Renewal money to pay for what the reserve can’t. He says he thinks EWEB might sell the building for as low as $15 million. 

“At some point, the Riverfront District, the Market District and the University District will all be part of what is considered a greater downtown,” Clark says. “I can’t think of a better setting for City Hall than our river, especially when it’s so darn much cheaper.”

At the City Council work session, Medary did not provide an estimated cost for the purchase of the LCC building. 

Medary told the council she “would like to find more certainty with our lease” at LCC, pointing out that even if the council started construction immediately on a new City Hall, it wouldn’t be finished by the end of 2023. Medary said she felt a responsibility to have some certainty about the city’s involvement with the building before that date.

When the Farmer’s Market Pavilion opens June 4, the people of Eugene will enjoy a morning of buying fresh produce in a shiny new building. But next to the pavilion, the gravel lot will remain bare, waiting for a decision about what the future of Eugene’s town center will look like.

“The pavilion is a tremendous community asset, but it’s not a substitute for a City Hall,” Vinis says. “We still need a City Hall.”

Part 2 in a series on the downtown Park Blocks.