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Friends of Kesey Square Seek to Save Downtown's Open Space

Founding members of Friends of Kesey Square gather in the downton plaza they hope to revitalize
Founding members of Friends of Kesey Square gather in the downton plaza they hope to revitalize

While the furor over the proposed sale of Kesey Square has died down, those who love public spaces have not forgotten that the corner of Broadway and Willamette Street is not officially safe from future development. 

A group, Friends of Kesey Square (FOKS), has formed in order to keep Kesey Square firmly in the public domain and to revitalize its use as a downtown space.

One of the first items on FOKS’ agenda is to officially rename the square. Cary Thompson, one of FOKS’ founders, points out that there are probably one hundred “Broadway Plazas” across the county, but there is only one Kesey Square. 

Currently the square’s formal title is indeed “Broadway Plaza,” according to the city of Eugene, but the Kesey name came into being in 2003 when local sculptor Pete Helzer’s iconic statue of literary luminary Ken Kesey, “The Storyteller,” was placed there. 

Kesey Square “speaks to us all and says ‘Hey, you’ve arrived,’” says FOKS member and landscape architect David Dougherty. 

Despite the square’s use for more than a decade as a public space, the land is still zoned commercial, leaving it in jeopardy of being developed. 

In October 2015, the Eugene City Council went into executive session to discuss possibly selling the square to a development group, 2EB LLC (2 East Broadway), to have a mixed-use building with apartments built on it. As word went out, controversy grew. While some saw Kesey Square as an eyesore, many more called for saving Eugene’s downtown open space. The city then later put out a call for other ideas for the square. 

In response, Eugene businessman Ali Emami, who owns the buildings flanking the square, yet again proposed opening up the square’s tall brick walls, a proposal the city has made unworkable in the past by saying it could later revoke the decision to open the walls. A compromise was floated, which Mayor Kitty Piercy called “win-win,” that would have attempted to bring Emami together with 2EB to both keep the plaza open and build apartments, but it did not succeed. 

In April, the City Council, in a 5-3 tally, voted down a proposal to prohibit the sale of Kesey Square. Councilors George Brown, Claire Syrett and Betty Taylor were in support of the motion.

As Dougherty told the City Club of Eugene in December, “It is the responsibility of the building to ‘capture’ and activate the space that it defines.” Dougherty said, “The activities of the buildings must spill out, overflow and mingle with the public space to create the vibrancy that we all desire.”

Kesey is the “heart and soul” of the city, Dougherty tells EW.

Fellow landscape architect Jerry Diethelm says that in order to get a public open space to work, there must be fewer obstacles to those seeking to hold events there. Diethelm says FOKS will look at short-term enhancements to the square. At a June 30 launch and photo session for FOKS, group members pointed to a lack of seating and food carts that could be arranged more invitingly in the space. 

Ward 1 City Council candidate and FOKS member Emily Semple says that the goal is for Kesey Square to be a publicly owned plaza, not a park. Eugene parks have curfews, she points out, whereas Kesey Square “is the last remaining place in Eugene where it is legal to practice our First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and free speech between 11 pm and 6 am.”

A public square is not the same as a park, Thompson says, it’s a different entity. A square has businesses down the sides it interacts with.

Downtown business owner Jewel Murphy, proprietor of Passionflower on Broadway, says of FOKS, “I am interested in being part of a group that wants Kesey to stay in the public domain and wants to develop a plan involving lots of members of the community that come together in agreement and that does ongoing fundraising
to keep Kesey beautiful.”

That statement, Diethelm says, sums up the mission of Friends of Kesey Square.

The group’s founding statement says it wishes to officially change the name to Kesey Square, “it will take whatever legal steps are necessary to keep Kesey Square public,” and it seeks to reprogram and redesign the space “in keeping with the imaginative, innovative, adventurous and creative spirit of its namesake storyteller.”

Founding members of FOKS are Murphy, Thompson, Dougherty, Diethelm, Randy McGowan, Gwendolyn Iris and Ruth Miller. 

To join FOKS, send an email saying, “I’m a Friend of Kesey Square” to Jerry Diethelm at diethelm@comcast.net or Cary Thompson at cdthompson58@gmail.com.