Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 6.14.07

Borrowed Ideas
Or is it time to grow our own unique downtown?

Most of us have grown up in cities that have had what we would call a downtown. If they were small towns, there was probably a main street where you could get the things and services you needed and that you identified as the city’s center. If they were larger cities like the Seattle I grew up in, downtown was a more complex and multicentered place.

As a lad of 7 in the early 1940s, I didn’t have a complex image of downtown. I’d just catch the trolley that came every five minutes on Queen Anne Hill and ride down the counter-balance, heading for the magic shops along First Avenue, or to buy a cream puff at the public market or a hot fudge sundae at Newberry’s counter.

Downtown is where I went to the doctor, to buy shoes and clothes and to go to the movies in theaters that had grand spacious interiors in ancient Egyptian decor. At Christmastime downtown, became the theater, and the whole family went downtown to walk the lighted streets and to look at the dazzling displays in the store windows, especially Frederick & Nelson’s and the Bon Marché.

If you grew up in Eugene in the 1960s before the mall and the shopping centers, Willamette was your main street, your parade street, your butte-to-butte identity street. If you were the right age and had the right juices flowing, you dragged the gut and probably dropped into Seymour’s after school.

And then things changed. You know the story. We OK’d the building of freeways and shopping malls, and major retail moved out of downtown. National outlets wanted much bigger spaces than downtown had to offer. And so along came the big box distribution centers surrounded by vast asphalt lakes of free parking, hooked up to freeway arteries to where suburban people lived. Big box hospitals, their healthy bottom lines connected to their Beltlines, continue this trend today.

The tragedy of the mall was that it threw millions of dollars at changes it didn’t really understand and leveled a good portion of older downtown in the process. Remember when urban renewal tore down buildings, consolidated ownerships into whole blocks for development, offered them to developers and then no one came?

Are there lessons here to learn? Can we expect to be able to harken back and try to build the Seattles of our youth? It is a delicious, hot-fudge covered nostalgia, but probably not. Should we try to re-establish downtown Eugene as a major retail center? Wishing isn’t going to make it so. The big box is already out of the box.

Should we restore theaters in the downtown by building a new cineplex? Maybe. With 20,000 students at the university nearby who could walk or take the EmX downtown, it might just work. But sharp pencils know that a given population can only support so many screens, and Valley River has recently invested in an all new digital complex. It could take deep pockets to be able to recapture a share of the local theater market.


Should we ignore trends and borrow some other city’s latest idea the way we borrowed Fresno’s mall? If you answered, “Wait a minute, isn’t it time we did our own thinking?” you and I are on the same page.

Should we, for example, build park blocks to the river? Perhaps, like me, you love a variety of park and open space in a city. Downtown Savannah with its dense pattern set around 20-some small squares is one of my favorites. I do admire Portland’s Park Blocks and do believe that it’s important for us to establish a strong downtown connection to our downtown riverfront. But I also think Eugene somehow needs to find the confidence that it can find its own unique Eugenean solution to this problem, too.

I’d like to think we were smart enough to admire other places, perhaps even able to borrow some of the qualities that make them so special, without believing it’s OK to superimpose them so literally on our town.

So let’s say we were being asked to invest $25 million plus in public dollars in Broadway area development downtown. What would we need to know – need to think about this time – before putting that much on the line? What tangible public gains should we be expecting – other than parking garages — to get from that much investment? And, I expect it’s fair to ask, what can we do to minimize our risk?

The Downtown Plan, because it is so general, doesn’t provide much guidance, which is why Mayor Piercy has formed an 11-member committee to help refine the area planning and clarify our public agenda before we agree to pungle up.

Some think the new group’s task is to actually design the Broadway district, but I think their most important work will be to help the community reach agreement about a new kind of downtown, one that developers can help us build and that our children will look back on with fond memories and sustainable pride.

It won’t be the way it was. It won’t look just like Portland’s Pearl District or anywhere else. It just might have a Willamette trolley connection to take all those new people living downtown to the Safeway store on 18th.

Some cities live and learn. Others just live.

Jerry Diethelm is a Eugene architect, landscape architect, planning and urban design consultant and UO professor emeritus of landscape architecture and community service.