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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 11.5.2009

 

Flower Power

Can guerrilla gardening save downtown?

by Alan Pittman

Despite tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and four decades of staff work, the City of Eugene has failed over and over again to make much sprout downtown. But in a pit where city redevelopment efforts have wallowed for eight years without results, a new kind of green development grows.

 Seeds blown in by the wind sprouted cottonwood trees that have reached 20 feet high, climbing out of the pit of downtown’s despair to turn the blight green.

The success of those seeds at Broadway and Willamette have planted an idea. Could Eugene grow a better downtown the natural way by converting its long blighted pits and rubble-strewn lots downtown into gardens?

Vacant lot mud puddle reflects poorly on federal courthouse

 

Pits and Puddles

The city’s concrete approach to downtown hasn’t worked very well. Eugene’s Urban Renewal District has diverted tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money over the last four decades, but the city still calls downtown “blighted.” 

The pit near Broadway and Willamette was not so fondly named Aster’s Hole, after the developer who created it. In 1994 Ed Aster bought the historic Woolworth’s building after the five-and-dime with a soda fountain closed. The city offered various generous tax breaks for redevelopment to no avail. 

The Woolworth’s building stood vacant for seven years until 2001, when Aster tore it down to the basement to build a telecom switching center — basically a cement block with no real windows, customers or employees. But the deal fell through, leaving a vacant pit at the historic heart of the city. 

Developers Don Woolley and Tom Connor bought the building from Aster in 2002. The city offered big tax breaks and spent $5 million ripping out the downtown pedestrian mall at developers’ urging. But the pit remained. 

The city bought the hole in 2008, hoping Beam development of Portland would build something. But the economy plunged into recession, and Beam has been struggling to find tenants for a redevelopment project for more than a year. Fifteen years after a business last occupied the site, the pit endures.

A block away is the Sears pit, now filling with its seasonal slough of despond. The site hasn’t been functional for 20 years.

In 1989 Sears closed its downtown store and moved to Gateway Mall, one of many downtown businesses lured away by suburban malls subsidized by freeway infrastructure. In 1993 the City of Eugene bought the building. A bond measure to renovate it for a new library failed. 

In 2005 the city tore down the Sears shell to make room for a proposal by the Oregon Research Institute to build a new office building. But despite big city subsidies, ORI couldn’t raise enough money, leaving another vacant pit. In 2007 a development proposal by Tom Kemper of Portland fell through, despite subsidies and tax breaks. In 2008 local developer Wally Graff dropped a development proposal after building nothing, marking the fourth building scheme to sink in the pit. 

Recently LCC said it would perhaps like to build on the site some time if it can get the funds. But, like ORI, the community college now appears actually to have only about half the money it needs for construction.

On the other end of downtown, a gleaming palace sits in a mud puddle. The silvery $100-million new federal courthouse has for years failed to spark any redevelopment in the adjacent rubble-strewn lot. The city bought the land for $6.3 million and tore down the Agripac cannery as part of the federal courthouse project in 2003. About $8 million spent subsidizing a highway and roads through the area, grandiose city redevelopment plans and offers of big tax breaks have yet to result in any private redevelopment. Now the sterile shiny new courthouse reflects in puddles amid the rubble.

 

Government Gardening

With the recession threatening to make prospects of actual new buildings to fill the pits and puddles even more remote, the city could act immediately for greener growth. 

The city will collect 16,000 cubic yards of leaves off city streets this fall. Instead of paying a private company to take the compost, the city could simply dump it in the pits and puddles, creating fertile new soil. A few seeds and plantings and, voila, come spring the blight is replaced by an instant free garden.

Unfortunately, this appears unlikely. 

Eugene City Councilor Betty Taylor suggested that the city should fill the Sears pit with a garden a few years ago. But no one else spoke in favor of the idea, and the ugly pit was left for more years.

A quick and simple green solution could also be anathema to the city bureaucracy. City bureaucrats have created almost two dozen planning reports on downtown redevelopment in endless meetings over four decades, with little to show for the effort but dusty documents. City staff recently spent $2 million on designs and musings about a new City Hall building before scrapping the plans. 

Another Agent Orange for downtown gardens is the city’s and conservatives’ opposition to public space. The city has busied itself removing places to sit downtown, and city plans show staff view parks and other public space less as an improvement than as a nuisance that attracts people they consider undesirable weeds.

Simple gardens could clash with city planners’ grand illusions for never-realized buildings to fill the pits and puddles. To address that concern, the gardens could be temporary and replaced by buildings if developers ever actually have the money in hand to definitely build anything. But that approach could worry the city bureaucracy. The people may come to love the gardens more than the city’s development plans.

That’s what happened with an urban garden in South Central Los Angeles. There the city’s fight against citizens to destroy a community garden for a corrupt warehouse development scheme was made into a recent award-winning documentary, The Garden

 

Guerrilla Gardening

If the city fails to act to beautify its long derelict property, fed up citizens could arm themselves with agricultural implements and storm the blight with guerrilla gardening.

Guerrilla gardening has deep roots in America. Johnny Appleseed was perhaps one of the first. When the economy crashed in the 1890s, urban citizens formed vacant lot associations to grow food. World Wars I and II saw Liberty and Victory gardens sprout. 

In the 1970s rebels seized derelict city lots in New York City. Originally, the city opposed the effort to beautify and grow food on the rubble it had neglected, but the government came around and eventually supported the community gardens. The N.Y. “Green Guerrillas” now boast some 600 community gardens and a motto of “It’s your city. Dig it.”

The guerrilla gardening idea has spread around the world to hundreds of other cities from Bucharest to Brisbane where citizens don’t ask for official permission before they take subversive action to beautify their cities. “Guerrilla gardeners,” according to a popular book and website by the same name, throw “seed bombs” of packed soil over barbed wire fences before rains and deface desolate traffic islands with flowers in the dead of night. 

Vigilante gardeners have come up with special handbags and attaché cases with holes in the bottom to auger and drop plants in degradable pots. Sleeper cells attack blight with “shock and awe plantings” of tulips, daffodils and lavender. They plant their improvised horticultural devices with care, seeking species and locations that will thrive with sporadic clandestine waterings or pirated sprinklers.

Most modern police departments have reacted with amusement and tolerance to the acts of beautification vandalism. But that hasn’t always been the case. 

In 1969, then California Governor and later President Ronald Reagan sent in thousands of state police and national guard soldiers to destroy the “People’s Park” garden in Berkley. The police fired shotguns that left one dead and scores injured.

Eugene Police have also reacted violently to pro-plant activism downtown. In 1997 Eugene police emptied every can of pepper spray they could find on treesitters trying to save old growth downtown from being chainsawed for a parking garage. 

Last year, police shocked an anti-pesticide protester in the back twice with a Taser while he lay face down with one or both hands behind his back. Federal Homeland Security officers who guard the federal courthouse, and apparently have way too much free time, called the police after spying on the small non-violent protest, ostensibly in fear that the “Pitchfork Rebellion” might storm their building blocks away.

Getting judges, elected officials and/or the media to come to a community-building planting party could help protect the civic-minded from police violence. In Los Angeles, a city councilor handed out ice cream to green radicals beautifying a traffic island. The L.A. guerrilla gardeners sport a logo of a bandana-clad rioter throwing a bouquet of flowers instead of a Molotov cocktail and have become media darlings, appearing nationally on ABC’s evening news. 

Guerrilla gardening could find fertile ground in Eugene, where green-thumbing noses at the blight establishment could mix into a natural resistance that will plant it to the man. Already a few activists have cleaned some trash out of Aster’s hole in the past and painted a construction fence with flowers and the words “Imagine thee pit ... a flourishing garden.”

But actually getting downtown to grow greener will require not just seeds in the wind but hoeing some tough rows. In the last few weeks, the city cut down the tall cottonwoods that sprouted in the Aster pit, revealing peeling paint, trash and a rubble of twisted rebar.