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Kesey Square: Forever Dedicated To The Public?

Kesey Square was originally intended to be a dedicated public space when a building was removed from the site in 1970. According to a Feb. 13 article in the Register-Guard, the deed to the square has surfaced and it says the area, also known as Broadway Plaza, is supposed to stay public permanently. 

The R-G reported that it found a copy of the 1971 deed, committing the city-owned land parcel at Broadway and Willamette to be “forever dedicated to the use of the public.”

The 1971 deed was also mentioned in the R-G in a Feb. 12, 1971, article titled “3-day Salute to Mall starts Saturday.” Reporter Ed Kenyon writes: “This will come when Wallace Swanson, vice chairman of the Eugene Renewal Agency, presents to Mayor Les Anderson a deed to part of the Central Plaza that used to be the intersection of Broadway and Willamette Streets.” The story also stated that the dedication ceremony would take place at Central Plaza, which is now where Kesey Square sits.  

This counters the claims of many city officials. City Councilor Chris Pryor has called it an “empty lot.” Councilor Claire Syrett told EW in November that Kesey Square is “truly just a piece a property” and “it wasn’t like the Park Blocks, which were deeded to the city by people who founded the city.” City Manager Jon Ruiz has called it a “remnant piece of property.”

Councilors George Brown and Betty Taylor have never waivered from their position that the square belongs to the public, not developers.

For an “empty lot,” Kesey Square has a long history and has been central to city cultural functions and public art for decades.

In 1996, according to city documents, the city commissioned the $49,000 “Four Seasons” sculpture installation by artist Betsy Wolfston for the newly opened intersection of Willamette and Broadway as well as inlaid tiles on the square’s walls for $3,000.

Local artist Scott Wylie, the original designer for the Central Plaza in 1982, returned to work on a public art paving design at the square in 1997; the city paid Wylie $5,000 for the project. The city brought Wylie back into the fold in 2007 when the city decided to redo the intersection to match the square’s brickwork — a project costing $140,000 according to city documents.

By the early 2000s, the city had removed the pedestrian mall completely and opened the roads but kept the plaza. In 2003, the second anniversary of Ken Kesey’s death, Pete Helzer’s statue of Ken Kesey reading to children was unveiled at the Kesey Square. Helzer tells EW he worked closely with Wiley to design the bench for “The Storyteller” so it would compliment the brickwork.

The bronze Kesey sculpture came to fruition after widespread fundraising efforts spearheaded by late Pulitzer-winning photographer Brian Lanker, as well as donations from admirers like Rolling Stone magazine, Tom Wolfe, Phil Knight and Dave Frohnmayer. Together, they raised $125,000 for the statue.

“There was probably 1,000 people there for the dedication,” Helzer remembers, ticking of names like Peter Defazio and author Barry Lopez. Eugene mayor Jim Torrey, Lanker and Faye Kesey also spoke at the dedication.

Helzer says Lanker went around to the community with a letter for citizens to sign to get the sculpture made — everyone from Phil Knight to UO basketball coaches signed on 

“People who signed said this is what we want to do and this is where we want it to go,” Helzer says. “I would like to see it stay there.” 

Helzer continues: “The proposals [for Kesey Square] I’ve seen treat it like a painting. It was designed as a 3-D piece so people can move around it.”

Helzer says the square should remain public but improved. He suggests contacting someone like Jerry Diethlem, a local landscape architect and UO professor, to look at how the square can be improved but kept public.

“I think there are some possibilities like that to transform that square into a more fully functioning public space,” Helzer says. “I'd like to see it a little more art-friendly, a little more family-friendly, but I think that could be accomplished without turning it in to a [six]-story building.”

Then there are, of course, SLUG Queen coronations, movie nights, art walks, dances, flash mobs, concerts, fashion shows and dodge-ball tournaments that have filled the space. Last June, citizens of Eugene held a prayer vigil at Kesey Square in response to the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in South Carolina.

Mayor Kitty Piercy was asked if she was aware of the deed when the City Council and the city manager held an executive session Oct. 12 to consider an offer from a private local development group to purchase the square. “There was no deliberation nor discussion of the merits of the project, the finances, nor deed restrictions,” Piercy writes. “All we know is what is in the proposals we have received.”

The mayor adds: “It would have been good if we had received a memo on this prior to it being discovered by the R-G and actually prior to council deciding to take a look at the merits of the application for development.” 

Councilor Betty Taylor responded to the same question: “I did not know about the deed. I hope it will change the attitudes and votes, but I don’t know whether we can hope for that.”

City Manager Jon Ruiz, Senior City Planner Nan Laurence and the rest of City Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The City Council will be reviewing options for Kesey Square Monday, Feb. 22, during a 5:30 pm work session and 7:30 pm public forum in Harris Hall, 125 E. 8th Ave.