The Town Square Sting

Eugene taxpayers have yet again been taken in by the big con of urban renewal 

Bait and switch: “The action of advertising goods which are an apparent bargain, with the intention of substituting inferior or more expensive goods.” 

The bait was attractive. They called it the “town square.” It included a beautiful Park Blocks area, a new Farmers Market Pavilion and a new City Hall. The park would feature an interactive fountain that children could play in. There would be a new covered stage. Curbless streets would create the feeling of a big open space. 

As bait goes, it was good. 

Our worn out old Park Blocks have needed upgrading and improvements for a long time. It appeared the time had finally come. Urban renewal funding promised to improve the park, build a new Farmers Market facility and visualize a new City Hall. But what if it was always just about building the new Farmers Market? What if the “town square” was just a sting?

The 1940 book The Big Con, by David Naurer, which was the inspiration for the 1973 movie The Sting, defines a store as “a carefully set up and skillfully managed theater where the victim (the mark), acts out an unwitting role.” 

Shills are the actors who help create the illusion of reality. In the film, the “store” was an off track betting club. For the town square sting, it was the public input events in the Park Blocks. 

Fifteen-hundred marks took the bait. The shills, called “town square analysts,” would consolidate all the input, saying “one of the goals of the outreach has been to really show how the Park Blocks can come alive with a new town square.” 

Like the other marks, I was sucked into the scam, it seemed so real.

And then came the switch. The city announced there was not enough money to do the town square. There was no money for a new performance stage, or interactive fountain or for eliminating curbs. There was just enough money for the Farmers Market. The rest of the “town square” would be on hold, indefinitely. 

It was a classic bait-and-switch sting. And not the first time Eugene citizens were taken in by urban renewal, the biggest bait-and-switch scam of all time. 

In the 1970s and ’80s urban renewal funded the planned destruction of a working downtown. Historic buildings were bulldozed and turned into vacant lots and gravel pits. Our downtown was killed as Eugene repeatedly took the urban renewal bait and destroyed a working business district.

Archie Weinstein owned a popular surplus store at 666 Willamette Street. It is the current site of The Graduate Hotel. His historic building was condemned and bulldozed. He watched and complained loudly as his thriving business was transformed into a gravel pit and left vacant for eight years. 

In the 1980s, I regarded Weinstein as a crackpot. He railed against urban renewal constantly. Urban renewal was destroying downtown Eugene, and he correctly predicted the failure of the doomed downtown mall debacle. Even now, Eugene continues to destroy historic buildings to create gravel pits, parking lots and ugly gray boxes. 

Urban renewal is, and has always been, nothing but a bait-and-switch scam. It has never delivered on its promises. And it destroyed downtown Eugene.

I was reminded of Archie as I watched what happened to our own City Hall. It was torn down for no apparent reason, and with no approved plan to replace it. It became a fenced-in gravel pit for five years. It’s now an asphalt covered parking lot. 

As stings go, this was a pretty good one. I participated with more than 1,500 other marks, who supported the much needed improvements to the Park Blocks and a year round Farmers Market. I shop at and value the Farmers Market to support local farms and eat local food. I also value the Park Blocks. I don’t believe we should have to choose one over the other.

In the end, urban renewal shafted us again. What a surprise to learn there just wasn’t enough money to fund both parks and the market. Had I been asked to choose between a revitalized Park Blocks or a new Farmers Market, I would have chosen the Park Blocks. But, of course, we were not asked. Maybe a genuine public process could have resulted in both an improved Park Blocks and a Farmers Market Pavilion. But since the town square was never real, it was just a sting, and no one was really asking, we will never know. 

And the new City Hall? It’s a gravel pit. Archie was right.

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.