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One Flew Over Kesey Square

Business owner’s plan calls for incubators and public space downtown, not apartments
Ali Emami. Photo by Todd Cooper.
Ali Emami. Photo by Todd Cooper.

When Ali Emami steps outside his store on Willamette Street, he can look into the neighboring public plaza and see the statue of Ken Kesey. He says he remembers chatting with sculptor Pete Helzer in 2003 when Helzer was working on the bronze artwork officially known as “The Storyteller.”

Kesey is a part of Eugene’s unique culture, Emami says, and that’s something the city should be building on, not tearing down. When Emami was in high school in Iran, he says, he read Kesey’s books. Now, years later, he owns the two properties that border the iconic square that is a landmark to the famed Northwest author. 

Kesey Square, also known as Broadway Plaza, is seen as valuable open space by some and as an eyesore by others. Emami sees it as an area with potential, but unlike another plan recently put forth to build apartments on the square, Emami says he wants to keep the space open and make it more inviting. He has a concept plan calling for opening the brick walls of the square, and building a brewery and kitchen incubator, but he is up against a proposal that has been developing, unknown to him and most of Eugene, to build apartments on the public plaza. 

Emami is both a longtime business owner in downtown Eugene and an instructor of finance at the UO, with a doctorate from Oregon State. He owns Northwest Persian Rugs and Imports next to the square with his wife Forouzandeh Emami, as well as Forouz, The Salon, next door. In 2003, he purchased the building that now houses Voodoo Doughnut to the east of the square. According to documents he provided to EW, Emami first put forth to the city that one of the walls to the plaza should be opened in 1995. In 2004, he came back to the city with an even more detailed proposal. 

Standing at the counter of his rug store, with UO students periodically dropping by for office hours and to work on class projects, Emami pulls out a sheaf of documents — engineering plans, estimates for the price of glass and more. Emami estimated in 2004 that it was going to cost him $100,000 to open up the walls of the square. But he says the city told him if he went ahead with the project, because the square is public space, the improvements would be revocable and he could not put rain covers on the plaza’s land. That was too much money and risk for a project that could simply be undone, so Emami says he decided to wait.

But this fall, when he got wind of plans to sell Kesey Square to developers who want to replace the public space with apartments, Emami dusted off his old plans and put together a computer model and outlined a more up-to-date concept. He also went to the Eugene City Council Oct. 12 and asked to be included in any future Kesey Square discussions. Emami sent a letter to the City Council and city manager reminding them of the previous attempts to open the walls and asking them to consider him for purchase of the plaza as well, should the city decide to sell. 

Oct. 12 is the same day that the Eugene City Council went into executive session to “negotiate real property transactions,” and rumors began to fly fast and furious that the city was pondering selling Kesey Square to developers. 

On Nov. 2, the R-G posted a story, calling Kesey Square “troublesome” and detailing a plan by architects Rowell Brokaw, Kazem Oveissi (also a rug merchant) and others to purchase the public square and apply for a Multiple Unit Property Tax Exemption to build apartments and retail space on the land. A MUPTE tax exemption can last up to 10 years. Under Eugene’s MUPTE rules, developers could dedicate 30 percent of the units as workforce housing — housing with rents equal to or less than 30 percent of the area median income, which was $42,000, according to the most recent census.

When the plan was made public, many Eugeneans took to social media to criticize the potential tax break and the takeover of public space. Oveissi, who was traveling, was unable to respond to EW’s request for an interview before deadline. However, in the R-G story, developer consultant Mark Miksis says “the public plaza planned for outside of Eugene’s next City Hall ‘will add more than twice the space that now exists at Kesey Square.’”

City Councilor Betty Taylor tells EW it would “really be a big mistake for the city to sell that property for a building. There is so little [public] space left; I think there should be places for people to spontaneously sit down and talk.”

Eugene’s community development division manager Denny Braud confirmed to EW that a group, including Oveissi and Greg Brokaw, “has expressed interest in the property.” But he says, “No appraisal has been completed. If the City Council decides to move forward with the proposal an appraisal would be completed.”

Braud says that the “City Council hasn’t taken any action to proactively sell the property, but can consider proposals received by the city manager.”

Braud says the city has set up a time to talk to Emami about his proposal, and “if the City Council decides to consider a proposal, it would occur at a public meeting. The timing of the meeting would depend on when a proposal is received and the council agenda.”

Councilor George Brown, who owns downtown business The Kiva, says he is opposed to selling the square to any private entity. “Some people say that it ‘doesn’t work very well,’” he says. But “I would counter that notion and say that, when someone takes responsibility and stages a public event like a movie night, a Shakespeare play, a dance party or a political or social rally, it can work quite well.”

    However, Brown says if a council majority, “backed by significant community support, wants to diminish the public realm downtown by selling this property,” then City Manager Jon Ruiz should issue a request for proposals (RFP) so the council can evaluate all potential projects.

Emami’s proposal, which he calls a “sustainable public-private partnership project,” calls for opening up the walls of the buildings he owns at 941 Willamette and 20 E. Broadway, or, he says, creating a more inviting façade, in order to “create a viable environment for cultural, social and commercial activities in the square.” 

The concept plan calls for turning one of the buildings into a microbrewery incubator and having “frequent local and regional competitive brewing festivals” in the square. The other building would become a start up kitchen incubator with several small kitchens, allowing food producers a space to launch future restaurants and projects while also calling for food festivals and related events in the square. The drawings show chairs, tables and awnings where brick walls now stand, and the iconic Kesey statue remaining in the space it has stood for more than a decade.

Kesey Square’s tall brick walls have been blamed for making the space uninviting, and at the core of the complaints about the plaza are the “travelers” and unhoused who hang out there. “As a public space it’s too small; a cultural group will occupy it and other groups don’t feel comfortable occupying that space,” says Thomas Pettus-Czar, whose The Barn Light bar is across the street from Kesey Square. 

Mayor Kitty Piercy shares Pettus-Czar’s reservations about the current state of the plaza: “I dislike the abuse the square takes in terms of destruction of property, trash and refuse and violence.” However, she says, “I have long been a fan of opening up the walls that make Kesey Square difficult to use and program.” She says she has questions about how Emami’s proposal would pencil out, but “I appreciate the opportunity to have that discussion.”

Emami too finds some of the activities around the square problematic, pointing to a window of his store someone broke with his head, but he says that is a larger societal problem that needs to be solved, and pushing people from one corner of downtown to another won’t fix it.

“If the city wants to start building its culture,” Emami says, “this is the plan to do it.” The square, he says, needs vision and to be made inviting in order to bring people downtown. Kesey is Oregon’s culture, he says — Eugene’s culture.

Image from compter modeling for Ali Emami's concept for Kesey Square