They Put Up a Parking Lot

Six years since the old building was razed, Eugene remains without a city hall. And that won’t be changing anytime soon.

The last of the old Eugene City Hall came crumbling down in 2015. Since then 285 parking spaces have been built in the former location, and zero city halls have been constructed. 

“Everybody thought we were headed in a certain direction before the implosion,” former Mayor Kitty Piercy says of the Eugene City Council’s decision to tear down the old City Hall. “We had already moved everyone out of the building. So taking the City Hall down was just the first step.”

“It was supposed to proceed. But here we are all these years later and it’s, uh … a parking lot.” 

With the city’s three-year lease with Lane Community College to rent space for city offices at the Mary Spilde Center starting in 2021, the projected 2022 completion date for a new City Hall that was presented by the City Manager’s Office in early 2020 doesn’t appear to be happening.

In interviews with Eugene Weekly, City Councilor Emily Semple and Mayor Lucy Vinis both say that the COVID pandemic had stalled any development on the project.

“Every day that money needed seems to get bigger. Nobody is talking about City Hall. Not that we’ve given up on it, there’s just so many more urgent things both town-wise and money-wise,” Semple says. 

A new City Hall was first estimated to be completed in 2016 and cost $15 million, but estimated costs have soared. With associated projects like the Farmers Market beginning construction, many stakeholders wonder if a City Hall project that has been plagued by transparency issues, a divided council and an estimated cost that now exceeds $30 million is worth building at all.

But while the city has survived for six years without one, it has also lacked a civic symbol that shows who we are — and what we hope to become. 

The demolished City Hall was an award-winner

Built in 1964, the old City Hall, which was Eugene’s third city hall, was designed by local architects Stafford, Morin and Longwood after the firm won a national design contest. The building won a national citation for excellence in community architecture from the Southwest Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1965. 

While the old City Hall was lauded for its unique courtyard and mid-century modern architecture, the city began anticipating major renovations and upgrades in 2001 to keep up with the growing population and building regulations. 

The City Council first began funding the current City Hall project in 2004 with plans to renovate the existing City Hall. In 2012, the council was reminded at a meeting “that the working budget for city hall options has been and continues to be $15 million, of which approximately $10 million has been identified and set aside for this purpose.” 

The $15 million budget remained in place until the City Council’s decision to raze the old City Hall and build a new one, at the same location, which the design team said would cost less than renovating the old building. 

Only two councilors, former Councilors Betty Taylor and George Brown, were against tearing the old City Hall down, according to former Mayor Piercy. In retrospect, almost every former or current stakeholder in the City Hall project that EW talked to say tearing down City Hall was one of the biggest mistakes in the project’s history. 

Architect and University of Oregon professor Otto Poticha says the decision to destroy the old City Hall was the second worst decision the council has made in the 50 years he has been in Eugene — with shutting down vehicular traffic for the Eugene downtown mall in 1971 being the worst. 

“It’s like this. If you wanted to have a new car, you could look at the old car and say, ‘You know the tires are worn. There’s a noise in the engine, the battery is getting old, there’s a rip in the upholstery. I think I’ll buy a new car,’” Poticha says. “Mostly what you’re doing is talking yourself into buying a new car. Justifying getting your new car. That’s exactly what our [former] Mayor Kitty Piercy and [former] City Manager Jon Ruiz did.”

Piercy refutes this claim and says that while she liked the old building, her job as mayor was to help the council move in the direction they wanted.

Poticha, who has been involved with the City Hall project since 2013, agrees that the old building needed major renovations. He estimates the city ended up throwing away $5 million to $10 million by razing the building instead of renovating it. Poticha was one of the architects who designed the Lane County Service building that connected to the old City Hall by a footbridge. 

When the last of the old City Hall was torn down early in 2015, the estimated budget for a new building had slightly increased to $18 million — which wouldn’t change until April 2016. 

At a City Council work session on April 27, 2016, the City Manager’s Office and Rowell Brokaw Architects informed the council that the City Hall would now cost $25 million.

Then-City Manager Ruiz said he had known that the project was going to be significantly over the $18 million budget “plus or minus 12 months ago.” When former Councilor Brown asked why he didn’t inform the council that the project was $7 million over budget, Ruiz said, “No particular reason.”

“I literally almost fell out of my chair when I heard that. The councilors are the ones that decide how to spend the money,” Brown says. 

John Rowell, principal at Rowell Brokaw Architects, says from the beginning it was clear, for both architects and the city, that the budget number the city had given publicly wasn’t realistic. While he thought Ruiz was communicating with the council, he was still surprised that the council thought its vision could be achieved with the budget they’d given publicly. Rowell Brokaw was one of the four architectural firms brought on to design a city hall over the course of the project. 

Ruiz retired in 2019. Despite multiple attempts to reach him through his position as a board member for Northwest Community Credit Union, EW was unable to speak with him.

Planning stalled until 2018, when the city purchased the Butterfly Lot from Lane County for $2.5 million with the goal of building a new town square on it. Mayor Vinis says the land swap with the county, which changed the location for the new City Hall, is another reason the project has been delayed. The swap allowed for the Town Square idea and for bringing the Park Blocks back as a town center.

The Butterfly Lot is just up the street from the current Farmers Market location at the Park Blocks and across from the Lane County Courthouse. 

The county paid $5.4 million in the land swap and plans to build a 297,000-square-foot courthouse on the former City Hall site. Currently, the lot is being used for 285 parking spaces that provided the county with a net revenue of $135,910 in 2020 and is being used to help pay back the expense of installing the lot.

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Demolition work underway on Eugene City Hall on March 12, 2015. Photo by Rick Obst / WikiCommons.

What we’re getting

The land now known as the Park Blocks and Butterfly Lot was first donated in 1856 by the Skinner and Mulligan families, Eugene pioneers who wanted to create a unifying public square for the new community.

Later on, the square was divided into four blocks, with the two north blocks being used for a city hall, county jail and courthouse, and the two south blocks being used for a park. Over the years, the Eugene community moved away from the town square and City Hall moved to the old Eugene High School building at 11th Avenue and Willamette Street. 

After purchasing the parking lot known as the Butterfly Lot, the city decided to bring a town square back to the original location. Unable to complete the City Hall project on its own, the city decided to expand its scope and unify three separate projects to create a new Eugene Town Square. 

In addition to the City Hall, a new Farmers Market, which includes a pavilion and plaza, and improved Park Blocks make up the rest of the Town Square project. 

Farmers Market upgrades and Park Block renovations are both underway and are expected to be finished in 2022 at the latest, according to the City Manager’s Office. The Farmers Market was originally set to cost $4.5 million until “community visioning” increased the estimated cost to $9.8 million. The Park Blocks are set to cost $10 million to $11 million.

Market Manager Alexis Molinari says the new market space will allow for more vendors and year-round operation. 

The city has yet to unveil the up-to-date City Hall design that project planners said would come last summer. Councilors were wary at a Feb. 10, 2020, meeting of whether the City Hall plans being worked on would accomplish their needs. 

At the meeting, councilors debated building additional floors for City Hall, for leasable real estate space. Taylor wanted the council to consider an option that hadn’t been presented by the project manager or architects.

“I would like a third choice on that first motion [to build leasable real estate]. Which would be to build extra floors to bring back other city offices where people are in rental offices all over the city. I think it’s really important to have the offices that people need in one location,” Taylor said. 

Since the razing of the old 84,000-square-foot City Hall, the city has been forced to put city offices at nine locations across downtown. 

According to documents obtained from the city, of the 11 different city divisions, nine of them are paying leases. The estimated total lease and facilities costs in 2019 for all 11 offices was $1,832,273. 

The city’s lease with LCC for the Mary Spilde Center began on Dec. 1, 2020, and will continue through Nov. 30, 2023. According to a lease agreement obtained by EW, the lease will cost the city a total of $566,769 over the next three years. The center will house interim offices for the mayor, City Council, city manager and city attorney; in addition to a meeting space for the City Council. 

In the 2021 Adopted Eugene Budget, $400,000 was designated for improvements to the Atrium building, which houses four different city divisions. 

Ocean Howell, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Oregon, says that perceived savings right now might cost the city in the long run.

“You have to look at upfront costs and the long-term benefits. If you are constantly renting or performing repairs on an old building, those are pointless expenditures even if you are saving more money up front,” Howell said in a phone interview with EW.

Poticha says that the most current City Hall plan proposed by FFA Architecture and Interiors, the fourth architect firm hired to work on the project, wouldn’t unite these offices in one building. The proposed City Hall would only be three stories and, according to Poticha, will act more as a “ceremonial City Hall.”

While Semple agrees that the city needs a large building to house all the different divisions, she believes that all the city can afford right now is two stories. 

Asked if it was an issue that city offices are currently spread throughout Eugene, Semple says, “Well we aren’t going to fit them in a two-story city hall, so that’s not going to be an answer, either.”

The (high) price of City Hall 

The City Council hasn’t discussed City Hall since February 2020, when multiple councilors shared doubts about the project long before COVID exacerbated budgetary concerns. 

“We’re well over $40 million, which is what I said last time we talked about this. We have $18 million if you’re being generous about what we have in the bank to build this and a need for $22 million to build City Hall,” Councilor Mike Clark said at the Feb.10, 2020, meeting. 

Clark’s cost estimates were based on two motions that were voted on and passed at the Feb. 10 meeting. The first, LEED silver certification, is given out by the Green Building Certification Institute and rewards environmental sustainability — with silver being the third highest certification given out. Seismic standards was the second motion that passed, with the specification of being “above Life Safety with the intent of City Hall being repairable after an earthquake.”

To date, including $2.5 million spent on the Butterfly Lot, the city has spent $10,491,508 on the City Hall project. Another $2,045,205 is contracted out to FFA Architecture and Interiors, according to a spokesperson for the City Manager’s Office.

For years, officials have failed to give an exact cost estimate, but at both the February 2020 meeting and a December 2019 meeting, multiple officials acknowledged that the cost would likely exceed $30 million. This doesn’t include the $10.5 million already spent on the project.

Project Manager Will Dowdy listed a voter-approved general obligation bond, the sale of property, reserves from other funds and the Downtown Urban Renewal Fund as possible ways to close the gap in funding. 

The Downtown Urban Renewal Fund is not currently authorized to be spent on a City Hall. City officials said in 2018, when the project was first introduced, that there was no intention of using money from that fund for the City Hall.

The Downtown Urban Renewal Fund is paid for by tax increment funds and currently is being used for the Farmers Market project, the redevelopment of the old Lane Community College Building on Willamette and EUGnet, a high-speed fiber network downtown. Late in 2020, councilors voted to remove Downtown Urban Renewal Fund spending restrictions for the Farmers Market.

The fund has a spending limit of $66 million, and any extra spending would take from other projects.

A city spokesperson says $15.8 million remains in the City Hall fund, $9.1 million of which is appropriated in the city’s budget. The remaining $6.7 million has not yet been appropriated.

Brown says the council has a history of raiding reserve funds that are set aside for projects, such as the City Hall, and spending them on other things. 

“For the last 20 years, money builds up in the reserve and we promise, ‘This time we won’t spend it. We swear we won’t. It’ll work this time.’ And then they find something to spend it on,” Brown says. “This is not the first time the reserve has been raided. It’s happened quite a bit.”

Where do we go from here?

The City Council’s upcoming meeting agendas indicate that the council has no plans to discuss City Hall anytime soon. City Manager Sarah Medary says most work on City Hall has been paused during the pandemic and that she doesn’t know exactly when they will pick it up again.

In a call with EW, Mayor Vinis acknowledged that while there isn’t much public support for spending this much on a new City Hall, the council has remained committed to the project and completing it.

“Investing in a construction project can be part of an economic recovery plan. We hire people to do that work, we buy supplies, we are supporting the local workforce in doing that and it can be viewed as part of an economic recovery, and I believe it should be viewed that way,” Vinis says. 

Councilor Semple says that she viewed the City Hall appropriation as a bank account, and there is no way she will vote for a new City Hall when there are more urgent needs around the city. She added that the city is doing fine working in the Mary Spilde Center downtown campus building. 

While many of the stakeholders EW spoke to couldn’t offer a solution for lack of funding, many expressed regret that a city the size of Eugene didn’t have a city hall. Of the 10 most populated cities in Oregon, which includes Springfield, Eugene remains the only city without a city hall. 

“I somehow take this as a bigger deal than a lot of people do because I believe in democracy. I believe in your community having a symbol of what it stands for; justice and equality and all of those important aspects of what we try to obtain as a government,” Piercy says. “I think we should have a city hall that is illustrative of that and serves the community.”

A city hall’s importance goes beyond just functional use and is visually symbolic of a city’s culture, history and democracy, Poticha, Piercy and Howell all say.

“We need something,” Howell says. “You need to start somewhere and decide what you want the functions to be and what we want it to represent for our city’s identity. Not having a city hall also says something about your identity.”