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Kesey Square Decision: What’s the Big Rush?

A rendering of Kesey Square with apartments added above Voodoo Doughnut and Northwest Persian Rugs from ‘Option A’ of Ali Emami’s RFEI proposal. Emami says the square would remain public and the design of the apartments is flexible.
A rendering of Kesey Square with apartments added above Voodoo Doughnut and Northwest Persian Rugs from ‘Option A’ of Ali Emami’s RFEI proposal. Emami says the square would remain public and the design of the apartments is flexible.

[Update: This story has been edited Jan. 22 to include a response from the city of Eugene]

Slow down. That’s the message citizens of Eugene are emailing to City Manager Jon Ruiz, Mayor Kitty Piercy and the Eugene City Council about Kesey Square and its potential development into an apartment building by a local group, which could happen as soon as this spring.

Jan. 15 was the deadline for submission of RFEIs (requests for expression of interest) for Kesey Square.

“I am reading with some alarm the fast pace of decision-making regarding the future of Kesey Square. The renewal of downtown Eugene continues and it seems prudent to take time addressing the long-term use of Kesey Square,” wrote Libby Unthank Tower to Ruiz, Piercy and the council Jan. 5.

Tower is the new chair of the Oregon Arts Commission as well as the former manager for marketing and public relations for the city’s Cultural Services department.

The email continues: “Many of us have returned from the holiday break and Jan. 15 provides a very short window to address ‘alternative expressions of interest’ for this space. And, it appears from the outside that a ‘deal has been in the works’ with the proposed developers for some time.”

This letter is not unique: The Mayor, City Manager and City Council inbox, which is open to public records scrutiny, has been flooded during the past month with emails discouraging the sale of Kesey Square, including several requesting that the city of Eugene delay the Jan. 15 RFEI deadline.

The city of Eugene announced a call for RFEIs on Nov. 30, 2015, in which it sought “letters of interest and conceptual development proposals from qualified development teams or an individual for the purchase/lease and redevelopment of the Broadway and Willamette parcel.”

Some emails pointed out that the city announced the RFEI request on Nov. 30, only allotting five weeks over the holidays for interested parties to submit ideas to the city. The development group behind the proposal to build apartments on Kesey Square — Rowell Brokaw Architects, business owner Kaz Oveissi, developer consultant Mark Miksis and advising developers Harris Hoffman and Hugh Prichard — has been working on its proposal for two years.

Ruiz tells EW he decided to issue the RFEI. The city’s Communications Relations Director Jan Bohman says Ruiz decided to issue the RFEI after “receiving feedback from the City Council.”

Yet at least two councilors say they were unaware of where the RFEI came from. Councilors Betty Taylor and George Brown say they were taken by surprise by the city manager’s decision to issue an RFEI for Kesey Square.

On Dec. 11, Taylor wrote an email to Ruiz asking, “Who decided to issue an RFEI?” She concludes by stating: “I would like to know what tentative agreement has been made with the prospective developers and how long it has been in progress.”

When asked how at least two councilors were not informed about the origins of a decision to issue an RFEI, Bohman responded: “The communications with the council as a whole and with individual councilors can and does happen in a variety of ways. Regarding this topic, at least one specific communication that went to the full Council and the Mayor is an email from Assistant City Manager Sarah Medary.”

However, the Nov. 18 email from Sarah Medary to the city council, city manager and mayor discusses how the staff was already drafting an RFEI, rather than requesting a directive or “feedback” from the city council about what to do with Kesey Square.

From reading the email, it seems the goal of Medary and staff was soley to gather information about the potential purchase or redevelopment, but not to provide any information about another option: public investment in the square.

“Our objective is to provide council with information that can be used when considering the current offer to purchase and redevelop the parcel into a housing/retail use,” Medary writes.

Medary continues: “At this point, council has not given direction to surplus and sell the parcel, but it may be one of the options that council could consider given the current or other proposals. We hope to schedule a work session in January at which council could consider a range of options for the Broadway and Willamette parcel, including private redevelopment, public investment aimed at improvements to the plaza, or leaving the plaza as is at this time.”

At a Jan. 11 council work session, Taylor asked the city manager why the deadline for the RFEI was so early. Ruiz did not respond to this question.

“I can’t believe we would consider selling it,” Councilor Brown told EW at the council work session. “It’s not on the surplus property list.”

Brown adds, “Evidently it’s within the city manager’s purview.” Brown notes that in his seven years on council he’s never seen a request for an RFEI.

However, some say the city of Eugene’s charter language is murky about whether deciding to issue an RFEI is within the authority of the city manager, whose role is to be the administrative head of the city. The charter states that all power of the city rests with city council, essentially saying that the city manager must take marching orders from the council.

The charter states the city manager shall prepare and furnish all reports requested by the council.

The charter also states the city manager acts as business agent for the council for the sale of real estate or property. However, Kesey Square, as Councilor Brown points out, was never listed as surplus property and there was no call for bids.

The city manager position is not an elected position.

In spite of the five-week deadline, proposals have been submitted to the city, including one from Ali Emami, the business owner who also owns the two buildings that flank Kesey Square (housing Voodoo Doughnut and Northwest Persian Rugs). His proposal offers two options: putting apartments above his own buildings and keeping Kesey Square public or entering into a public-private partnership with the city to open up the city-owned walls of the square to make it more user-friendly.

The City Council will consider options for the square in February. A “Save Kesey Square” rally has been planned for 6:30 pm Monday, Jan. 25, at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in front of Harris Hall (125 E. 8th Ave.), where a 7 pm council meeting is scheduled; as of press time, 264 people are attending the rally, according to the event’s Facebook page.