Living with the River
Ecological elements of EWEB plan are vulnerable
By Mary O’Brien
How many expectations can 27 acres bear?
The plan for a make-over of the EWEB riverfront has certainly involved a lot of people, hours, and suggestions. Russell Brokaw Architects has taken the time to talk one-on-one with 150 individuals; run four public meetings with 150 to 300 people attending each one; consulted with the Community Advisory Team, walked every inch of the property, prepared and refined options, and winnowed those down to a final design proposal (see www.eugeneriverfront.com).
The design stuffs a whole lot into the 27 acres available for the make-over. Buildings, streets, parking, plazas, bioswales, chunks of open space, even a pollinator mound built on a waste site. Somehow, amid all this effort, I can’t claim a sense of relief. For two main reasons: the miniaturization of the river’s edge; and the uncertain fate of the public aspects of the design.
Riparian areas, the ribbons of water-influenced life alongside creeks, streams, and rivers, account for about 1 percent of land west of the Rockies. When they were healthy, these ribbons provided the greatest biodiversity of any habitat in the West, because a lush world of grasses, forbs (herbaceous plants), shrubs and trees jammed into the dependably moist soil. Eighty-five percent of the West’s wildlife species depended for some aspect of their life on either living in or visiting these rich areas.
Riparian areas in the Willamette Valley were especially rich. In the large, flat valley, the river slowed down and spread out its benefits via a network of side channels, meanders and wetlands. Floods were life-supporting.
But farmers and settlers didn’t see either floods or the Willamette River that way. Working really hard to be farmers and town dwellers, they drained the wetlands so they could create farm fields. We all continued that pattern, building our houses, farms and towns on the riverfront, and protecting our investments from floods. So we told the river to stay within steep banks and stop moving around.
In Eugene, we placed the steam plant, its intake, and the current EWEB headquarters and paved fountain plaza at the edge of the river. The substation was located nearby, as was the EWEB operations building. So we erased the riparian area with 27 acres of buildings, pavement, or compacted gravel. Now EWEB managers are planning to move elsewhere, the steam plant’s few remaining customers will get their power more efficiently by other means, and the EWEB operations will follow the EWEB managers.
Hence decisions to be made about the 27 acres. And hence the extensive interviews, public meetings, advisory council and drafts for designs. Some people saw a chance to restore riparian features and bioswales for urban runoff. Others wanted to eat at restaurants looking out over the river. Bicyclists wanted their commuter and recreational route along the river. Pedestrians wanted a boardwalk. Parents wanted a children’s play area. The EWEB headquarters would contain new tenants. The old steam plant was desired by some as an historic building. The operations building could be refurbished. Fifteen new buildings could be constructed for businesses, multi-story condominiums or other entities. Maybe a museum. Streets and parking for cars and trucks for businesses, customers, visitors and residents. Fifth Avenue could be extended to the river and a festival street constructed. Two more public plazas could be built. Thirteen chunks of private “open space” could be included among newly-constructed buildings. LOTS of people and their developments to accommodate. All in the grand tradition of Willamette Valley’s settlers: next to the river.
And what of the public and ecological elements of the design, such as moving the bike route farther from the river, building bioswales, recontouring some of the riverbank, planting and maintaining native vegetation on the bank and along streets, constructing and maintaining the pollinator mound? These might or might not come into existence. It doesn’t appear they’ll be set aside first, as a firm commitment. A developer’s claim, “It doesn’t pencil out,” could compromise the extent and quality of the public and ecological elements that are squeezed into the design, as could the unwillingness or inability of our local government to fund it.
Ultimately, the Willamette River deserves a bigger-picture look, just like we eventually learned that our world-class, unique, Pacific Northwest old growth deserved a bigger-picture look. We’ve been expanding into the Willamette River’s ecological space constrained piece by constrained piece — never really committing to understanding what the Willamette River needs to be an ecological and public haven feeding the life of our entire city. Never really asking what it would mean to live with, instead of on top of our community’s premier river.
Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.