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Save Kesey Square Asks Council to Listen

[Update: This article has been edited to include information about a petition to Save Kesey Square.]

Before the Eugene City Council meeting Jan. 25, the chants and drums of the Save Kesey Square rally could be heard from the nearby Harris Hall, growing louder as more than 100 protesters walked from Kesey Square to the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza while a council work session was in progress.

Zane Kesey brought out the Furthur Bus, and ralliers discussed the irony of fighting to keep a public square named after a man — Ken Kesey — who was an advocate for community and openness. 

Crystal Webb of Occupy Medical, who is opposed to putting an apartment building on the square, said she thinks the City Council, city manager and Mayor Kitty Piercy underestimated the intelligence of the people and their willingness to fight for the commons.

The group chanted: “Improve the Square, Don’t Lose the Square.” That would become the common theme of the night, as well as accusations towards the Eugene City Council, Mayor Kitty Piercy and city manager Jon Ruiz of gentrification, classism, fear-mongering about Kesey Square and a lack of transparency.

More than 60 citizens signed up to speak in favor of saving the square during the City Council meeting’s public forum. The majority shared their fond memories of square — of meeting new people, dancing, seeing movies, participating in First Friday ArtWalk activities and hanging out with friends. One resident said he’d like to set up his bike repair business at Kesey Square. Zane Kesey, son of Ken Kesey, told the council he wanted the city to try everything to improve the square before even considering selling it.

Many speakers acknowledged that the square does need improvement, but should remain public. 

Even students from South Eugene High School’s Earth Guardian group — who have been coming to Council meetings for months to demand the council implement the Climate Recovery Ordinance passed in 2014 — also said they wanted to save Kesey Square.

Ashley Wright, owner of downtown business Emerald City Pedicab, said, “So I’m a 120 pound woman on a bike working independently late at night until 3 am. I’ve always felt safe in Kesey Square.” She said, “My band Samba Ja plays free shows, and everyone dances together here: people with a lot of money, street people, disabled or unemployed people, people too young to get into bars, people who don’t want to go to bars but still enjoy staying up late doing fun things. We need a space like that for these things.”

She continues: “Selling Kesey Square is just classism. I don’t want classism — I want dance parties.” 

One resident, Ryan Dristle, advised the council to slow down this process and do what’s best for the city, not just its wealthier denizens.

“Eugene is a unique beautiful place that can advertise to such and promote it as such but no one ever talks lovingly about that beautiful apartment building at the center of any city,” Dristle said to the council while the chamber filled with laughter.

Many residents said the city should prioritize addressing homelessness with a public shelter or more low-income housing rather than the moderate-income housing the 2E Broadway proposal to put an apartment building on the square suggests.

“The city administration is pursuing policies of stealing from the poor to give to the rich,” said Eugene resident Rose Patchett. “The Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption is a theft from the public. The prohibition of camping downtown and other places is also a theft from the public. Privatizing Kesey Square would be yet another theft from the public. We need low or no-cost public housing available for all, not luxury apartments.”

Gwendolyn Iris, who organized the Save Kesey Square rally, spoke about the need for public space and affordable housing.

“Why are we even considering selling city-owned property for median-income housing when we need housing that is affordable for the people who already live and work here?” Iris asked the council. “Selling a cultural landmark, a place that is important to people for multiple generations who grew up here, as well as people who moved here, because they felt drawn to our unique way of life is bad enough on its own, but to sell it for housing that won’t even fulfill the need for affordable and low-income housing that we have, that will in fact perpetuate the inflation of rents all over town and drive the very people who are the city away.”

Zondie Zinke, a Eugene mother of two, was one of the last to speak. She informed the council that she was a sexual abuse survivor. 

“Please do not privatize Kesey Square, and if you are going to do it, don’t do it in the name of vulnerable women,” Zinke said. Several public emails the city has exchanged with the public claim that women are being harassed in the square. She went on to share her experience at the city-organized Downtown Solutions Forum event Dec. 2 (See our coverage: “Support For Kesey Square Highlights Public Forum”).

“I’m confused as to why, precisely when Kesey Square is at stake, why would you hold a Downtown Solutions Forum and not specifically ask even one question to solicit feedback on Kesey Square, that you might look to capitalize on the large turnout at the event given people’s concern for Kesey Square, to learn what people want for public space more broadly” Zinke said. “However, to have held the forum and not have asked even one specific question about Kesey Square, well that is confusing to put it nicely; I  might go as far as to say it feels rigged — a clear avoidance of feedback of what is most acutely at stake.”

Zinke continued: “In fact at my table at least — I think all tables — my table was instructed not to talk about Kesey Square. Regardless, the people at the forum found a way around the rules and spoke about Kesey. As a result, as your publication of the forum’s findings do show, the number one priority identified for Kesey Square was to keep it public. So I ask you, why is the conversation still going?"

The results from the Downtown Solutions Forum are available at eugene-or.gov/3095/Downtown-Solutions-Forum. The participants answered almost universally that they want to keep Kesey Square public, and improve it with a publiccalendar, seating, amenities and a steward or manager to look over the space among other ideas.

After the public forum portion ended at the City Council meeting Monday night, several councilors responded.

Councilor Claire Syrett addressed the topic of the Downtown Solutions Forum. “The topic of Kesey [Square] was definitely part of the conversation. How on Earth could we stop it from being so? People want to talked about it and they did,” Syrett said. “But the mayor’s forum was actually organized before the Kesey [Square] question really started to get traction, so if we just made it about Kesey Square, that would have negated a much broader agenda the mayor was trying to get at about all of downtown and all of our public spaces downtown, including our sidewalks and various street corners.”

Councilors George Brown and Betty Taylor told EW that Syrett’s assertion that the city had planned the Downtown Solutions Forum before Kesey Square was an issue is untrue. An email from Mayor Piercy to city manager’s office employee Regan Watjus dated Oct. 11 — a day before the Eugene City Council went into executive session to privately discuss the 2E Broadway proposed purchase of Kesey Square — stated “Lets see if we can find a date and place for community forum re [sic] downtown solutions. And let's put together a meeting ASAP to plan for that. This should include outreach.”

 “I want to say this: Council has no plans to sell Kesey Square, and I know many of you won’t believe that and believe that the fix is already in,” Syrett said, later adding, “This council has not had any formal conversation about doing anything to the square.”

Just prior, Mayor Kitty Piercy addressed the chamber by saying, “Council hasn’t even had a discussion about Kesey Plaza yet, so you’re on time."

Councilor Brown countered Piercy’s and Syrett’s claim that the council had not discussed Kesey Square.

“Regarding Kesey Square, you know we have heard talk on council: It’s a failed space, it doesn’t work, it’s a problem space, it’s dangerous — perceived as dangerous.” But, Brown said, “It’s not a failed space. The only thing that’s failed is our imagination if we can’t figure out how to make it better.” 

Councilor Betty Taylor also weighed in: “I do believe Kesey Square is in danger of being developed.” 

Eugene resident Kathy Ging and the Save Kesey Square group have started an online petition to keep the square public.

The petition, which can be found here, states:

"We call on Mayor Kitty Piercy, the Eugene City Council and City Manger John Ruiz to:

  • Respect our common public spaces, do NOT to sell Broadway Plaza/Kesey Square to a private developer
  • Allow for thoughtful consideration and public input regarding the preservation and revitalization the square
  • Rezone the lot from commercial to public space "

In February, the City Council is expected to review three proposals for Kesey Square collected from the RFEI (Requests for Expressions of Interest) process in January, as well as considering public improvements to the square or taking no action. The three proposals can be reviewed at bit.ly/1OPQQiI.