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Cultural Destruction

Thoughts on Eugene City Hall from Springfield

May was National Preservation Month. I’m a little late writing this, as I’ve been so distracted with the elections and gardening. I’m also still peeved by that hatchet job on Springfield EW recently published, so writing this got sidetracked. 

But, if I could now hold your attention for a moment to celebrate the completion of 50 years since the National Trust for Historic Preservation became a national project. Now is a good time to look back at our local successes and failures, and to look forward to the role preservation has in the future and give credit where credit is due. 

Well, that’s what I started to write, but once I came to the assessment of the primary local “failure” for the preservation world, I realized that it was so heinous that I could not allow the names associated with local preservation successes to be seen in print with the following cast of characters.

No one likes to dwell on failure, but sometimes there are lessons to be learned. Certainly there is one tax-funded act of public vandalism that stands above all others: the demolition last year of Eugene’s City Hall. I won’t go on about how it has turned into a giant bait-and-switch fiasco that is blowing up all over retiring Mayor Kitty Piercy’s legacy. But she, councilors Alan Zelenka, Greg Evans, George Poling, Claire Syrett and Chris Pryor — with the advice of City Manager Jon Ruiz, the city’s architects and consultant Rowell Brokaw Architects — voted in favor of demolishing the nationally award-winning, long neglected City Hall complex, with mayoral candidate and Councilor Mike Clark, Councilor Betty Taylor and retiring Councilor George Brown dissenting. 

In my more forgiving moments I understand how, being mere philistines and political trend-chasers, the city councilors might fall into such a blunder. But the failure of the professionals — City Manager Ruiz, the city’s architects and consultants — to misrepresent the total cost of the new project, weighed against proposed re-use of the existing publicly-owned and already-paid-for structure, verges on malpractice.

Only ISIL rivals the present Eugene City Council and its advisors in cultural destruction at the scale of last year. Seriously. And for what? A soon-to-be neglected, uninspired developer’s glass-box-in-a-parking-lot. It will garner no accolades for civic improvement because there is no vision or public support. This reckless and wasteful act embodies the antithesis of the preservation and sustainability ethos. This disaster needs to be held up as an emblem of how not to develop a city. These leaders should be the last people that Eugene residents look to when future opportunities for development present themselves. 

Any development policies these officials have signed off on while holding office should be immediately reviewed by members of the press and public to consider their reversal (MUPTE, Kesey Square).

Not only is this an architectural and urbanist issue, but it is also a basic economic one. The replacement price for the covered parking that was destroyed along with the former, already-paid-for City Hall is estimated at about $4 million. The demolition cost is coming in at $2 million. That is $6 million of value spent to get a clean, fenced-off city block of gravel — $6 million of public treasure destroyed or spent with only an empty site to show for it. The people involved with this project would not recognize “green design,” preservation tools or sustainable practices if they came up and slapped the councilors and city manager on their faces.

People have said, “It’s time to move forward and forget about past mistakes.” I say it’s time to look at past mistakes before moving forward. In fact, the past is filled with lessons that, had it been respected, might have avoided the present situation.

Preservation, adaptive re-use, conservation and restoration are distinct tools in the development toolbox. Unfortunately, it has taken 50 years for most communities to utilize these tools because for so long it was difficult to quantify their intrinsic value. Often they are decried as an obstruction, anti-progress and certain to guarantee a long and expensive permit process for development and construction. These red herrings have proved mistaken across the country, where popular destination retail and residential properties are located in redeveloped historic areas and, in the face of development, those locals have streamlined the permit process.

Adaptive re-use has changed the face of American cities from coast to coast. Growing out of real world experiences in protecting historic structures has come the realization that these same principles could apply to present problems faced by the building industry. The same rationale used to show the value in re-using old buildings can, by adopting re-usable models for new construction, remove demolition from the equation. 

For example: When we build new buildings such as parking garages (a badly needed commodity today) with an eye to easy conversion into life-work, hospitality or cultural spaces (badly needed commodities tomorrow), we remove a great amount of waste and spent energy from the system. It is reported that 80 percent of landfill waste and 80 percent of expended energy are spent in areas related to construction. These are huge numbers. 

If we are to have a sustainable future, these numbers have to be tamed. Planned adaptive re-use is a very good tool to make large gains in reducing future waste and future energy.