As the debate about Kesey Square’s future heats up, voices in favor of keeping the space public downtown are coming to the forefront, from a business on the square to community meetings sprouting up.
The outcry was prompted by a proposal City Manager Jon Ruiz passed on to the Eugene City Council this fall from private developers who want to purchase Kesey Square and build apartments in its place, with retail on the ground floor.
The group behind the proposed apartments — architects John Rowell and Greg Brokaw, downtown business owner Kazem Oveissi, developer consultant Mark Miksis and advising developers Hugh Prichard and Harris Hoffman — intend to apply for MUPTE, the Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption, if the proposal is accepted.
But a Kesey Square neighbor, Voodoo Doughnut — an early player in downtown’s revitalization since it opened shop in 2011 — has come out against privatizing the space.
In a Nov. 23 email, Voodoo Doughnut co-founder and owner Kenneth Pogson wrote to EW, The Register-Guard, Ruiz, Mayor Kitty Piercy and the City Council: “We at Voodoo Doughnut oppose the selling off of Kesey Square. With the new resurgence of Eugene’s downtown, it is more important than ever to save that or any public space.”
The email continues: “We have our problems with the square too, but it is more of a societal problem that won’t merely be fixed by taking it away and planting a building there. Please consider the overall public need, which includes open spaces and freedom of speech over the obvious quick buck to be made and the perceived answer to the vagrancy problem.”
Voodoo Doughnut is a tenant of business owner and UO senior instructor of finance Ali Emami, who owns the property whose walls flank two sides of Kesey Square. Emami has also been submitting plans and proposals to the city to open up the walls since 1995, but no action by the city was ever taken.
Pogson spoke to EW over the phone from Portland. “Part of our attraction for that unit is it’s right next to Kesey Square,” Pogson says of choosing the Eugene Voodoo Doughnut location. “That’s where we wanted to be.”
He adds that the downtown spot “was also part of our commitment to the town and not just the university.”
Pogson says he has always been a fan of Ken Kesey and the square’s statue. “I love the idea of keeping one little space instead of just throwing up another building,” Pogson says.
He also says that he is willing to work with Emami to open up the walls of Kesey Square if Emami’s proposal is accepted.
“I’ve had a really good relationship with my landlord,” Pogson says of Emami. “Why isn’t he being included in any of the conversations [about Kesey Square]?”
Meanwhile, about 45 people attended the Save Kesey Square group meeting Sunday evening, Nov. 29, hosted at Cozmic.
“I wanted to see a coming together around it,” says Gwendolyn Iris, one of the meeting’s organizers. Iris says she wanted to get a group organized before the city’s “Downtown Solutions Forum” Dec. 2 at the Lane Community College downtown campus.
Ron Pike, one of the founders of the Whiteaker Community Dinner, agreed. “My fear is if Kesey Square is turned from public property to private property it will never come back,” he says. “As a person who lives in the city limits, I feel a certain responsibility to other citizens to keep public spaces available and accessible.”
Many at this meeting expressed concern that the city was using Kesey Square as a “scapegoat” for the unhoused emergency in Eugene. Others said they worried that it would be a “major hurdle” to be heard by Ruiz, Piercy and City Council over the group interested in building apartments on the square.
Karen Alvarado spoke about the need for open space and open sky downtown. “The heart of the city is Willamette and Broadway,” Alvarado said. “Let’s make sure [the city] knows this.”
She referenced successful city parks and squares from Boulder, Colorado, to London. “Jeez, if they can do it, why can’t we?”
Kathy Ging suggested putting a community skills-bank booth in the plaza, while others proposed installing murals, public bathrooms, a solar charging station and a human-sized chessboard.
“The only thing that will save [Kesey Square] is if the city rezones it as public space,” Zachary Quale told the group. As it stands, the space is zoned commercial, a remnant from when a building stood there 40-plus years ago.
The Save Kesey Square group identified some goals to protect and improve the space: Ask the city to rezone the lot from commercial to open space; petition to stop the sale of Kesey Square; a monthly events calendar for the square; collaborating with the UO design students who have already drawn up plans for improving the space; identifying whether the square can become a national monument; and seating.
“Return seating to Kesey Square!” Alvarado said to hoots from the crowd. “You’re not just stopping ‘travelers’ from sitting at Kesey Square,” she explained, but also middle-aged and elder citizens who need a place to rest while out and about downtown.
Alvarado pointed to the back courtyard of the new beergarden. at 777 W. 6th Ave. with its food carts, tables, umbrellas and heaters as an example of how Kesey Square could function comfortably year-round with minimal investment.
Iris encouraged the group to start using the square. She will be hosting a free “Yule Fire, Feast and Ritual” event from 5:30 to 8 pm Tuesday, Dec. 22, at Kesey Square, to “share in food and friendship with our community both housed and homeless alike.”
As of Nov. 30, the city of Eugene issued an RFEI for the property (Request for Expressions of Interest, see EW story Nov. 25) with proposals due Jan. 15. See eugene-or.gov/BroadwayRFEI. The council will consider options for Kesey Square in February, including sale or lease of the property, public investment or no action.
The Save Kesey Square group is on Facebook.