On Sept. 3, 1974, Steve Prefontaine put down the megaphone he had just used to address the crowd in the East Grandstand at Hayward Field and thought of what to do next.
The black field-burning smoke that descended upon Eugene that day, now known as “Black Tuesday,” had come from legally conducted grass seed stubble removal operations. The rules themselves would have to be changed for citizens to gain their rights to breathe clean air.
Two months ago I wrote an op-ed for The Register-Guard entitled “What would Pre do?” In so many ways he was an example of effective action. In the face the recent destruction by the University of Oregon of the nearly century-old iconic and historic East Grandstand, the question many are now asking is, “How did this happen, and what could we have done to prevent it?”
My fellow East Grandstand supporters — Liz Carter, Peter Thompson, Scott Krause, Jonathan Pincus and my brother Bill Penny — worked tirelessly to save the building. In a few years the 1925 Ellis Lawrence-designed grandstand — which featured almost unnoticeable shifts in seating angle as one went higher into the building, allowing all to see when everyone stood — along with its famed booming resonating structure, would have had its centennial. Its restoration could have been a community celebration.
Instead, we have been left with the horror of its public destruction in a willful act of ignorance and contempt. Our legal appeal to stop the demolition was in transit that morning to the Oregon State Land Use Board of Appeals in Salem, but, fearing our success, our opponents sent in four track-hoes, and we were too late.
All along we struggled with a lack of public support, which had been poisoned by assertions the building was rotten and antiquated — false claims promoted by Howard Slusher, Phil Knight’s project hitman. Pre was dealing with similar obstacles. He needed to address the power structures enabling the problem.
So Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman testified to state legislative committees. They even had the advantage of the governor backing their efforts.
But it would be nearly 30 years after Prefontaine’s death that others, including his sister Neta and his fellow Olympian Kenny Moore, as well as dedicated local environmentalists, could finish his work so that Oregonians can now experience summers of clean air.
Hayward Field is owned by the citizens of Oregon, but through a newly established system that three years ago abolished state-level higher education oversight, it is now administered by a board of trustees, and ultimately by the university president himself.
Operating with almost regal authority, the UO President Michael Schill was able to transfer the facility away through a lease agreement to a private interest, PHit LLC, to do with as it will without the normal campus planning process. Other agencies like the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the city of Eugene simply followed suit and chose not to get in the way of the public/private juggernaut that was enabled by this lack of oversight.
To change this situation two efforts are necessary.
The first is to challenge the SHPO’s lack of administrative rules. That process provides for mandatory public involvement and a signed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) before work is undertaken, not afterwards, as happened here. And the MOA, which governs the mitigations given back to the public for the loss of the building, was not signed by anyone from the campus planning office who would have been qualified to judge the appropriateness of the agreement.
So clearly, in this case, the intent of the federal rules was circumvented.
Second, and more importantly, the 2015 change to Oregon’s higher education oversight needs to be re-examined and fixed. This will require endorsement by elected representatives and legislative action.
The loss of the East Grandstand was a bridge too far, setting a dangerous precedent across the entire state university system. Implementation of the UO’s existing planning process likely would have saved the East Grandstand and resulted in a more appropriately scaled project in line with city and university planning guidelines, including full public involvement.
This established process must not be circumvented by the university, which is entrusted to steward public historic properties, through a private lease entered into without public knowledge or approval.
“What would Pre do?” He would do what he always did when faced with a challenge. He would not stop fighting.
I hope the citizens of Eugene will remember his example, even though the building he performed in and which hosted his memorial has been erased from history.
Bob Penny is a former high school national record holder from South Eugene High School and ran for the UO and the University of Arizona. He is a building contractor living in Bellingham, Washington.