Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Eugene Sunday Streets and Other Impressions of the City

Over at the Salem Bike Boulevard Advocates, they've made a couple of field trips to Portland to learn more about infrastructure and to experience Portland Sunday Parkways. But Portland is a very different size and scale, and so much of Salem's self-identity seems to be constituted as "not-Portland" or "not-urban" that it remains an open question how strongly comparative appeals to Portland will actually engage the wider Salem citizenry, especially those who like to avoid Portland.

The glorious weekend was a terrific opportunity to check out Eugene's version of Sunday Streets. Salem also defines itself as more conservative than those wacky hippies in Eugene, but at least the cities are of directly comparable size, nearly identical in fact, and so in some ways it provides better examples, both positive and negative, for comparison and learning. Salem does have things to learn from Portland, but we also would do well to consider the examples of Corvallis and Eugene. While I long for the ambition of Portland's longer routes and greater frequency, it may be that more modest events provide a more realistic model.

If you visit Eugene often, little or none of this will be new or possibly even interesting, but perhaps some readers aren't often in Eugene, and maybe there will be something interesting here for you. Here anyway are a few observations. Sunday Streets was great fun, but it was other details that were actually more interesting.

Kesey Square, Sizzle Pie, Starbucks on the former Pedestrian Mall:
A Changing Eugene
If there was a single image and a place that encapsulated Eugene on the trip, it was the former Pedestrian Mall and changes in land use on it.

Same intersection, Willamette and Broadway, 1971
(University of Oregon)
There used to be a fountain at this intersection, and without the foot traffic associated with car passengers it had grown dead, dead, dead.

Now it is gentrifying, with a Sizzle Pie and Starbucks, and there a lively sidewalk and cafe life. In Kesey Square there were also food trucks, and just behind it is an outpost of Voodoo Donuts.
Broadway and Willamette - Kesey Square on southeast corner
The corner lot is zoned commercial, not park, and at least partially because of the deadness of the Pedestrian Mall, it has remained a square. But the property now has become attractive for redevelopment, and there are also people trying to save and retain it as a public square. In addition to whatever value it might have as a square, there is also the intense symbolic, indeed totemic, value of Ken Kesey and all he represents for a certain 20th century vision of Eugene.

So that intersection really seemed to distill a quintessence of Eugene's current moment.

And in fact at the Sunday Streets, the City of Eugene had a booth where they were talking about "Envision Eugene," a proposal for a major expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary as well as some zoning changes. Around town you could see signs and pockets of resistance to "forced rezoning."

On a quick-hit it is of course not at all possible to assess the project in any meaningful way.  Maybe the UGB expansion is wise, maybe not. It might just be sweetener in a quid-pro-quo for more density in the central city or in other quarters inside the UGB. Or perhaps the commitment to sprawled-out low-density single-family housing is just that strong.

The more interesting question for a non-resident and visitor was that prospect of up-zoning in the central city and enhancing the walkable and bikeable urban scale.

Zoning on Eugene's Streetcar-era Grid
Government/urban renewal wasteland in red
UO in blue PL area, S- districts are special overlay-type zones
(City of Eugene)
In no small part because of the University (though of course the full history is much more complicated), lots of old houses have been demolished for apartments or cut up into businesses or apartments. At the same time, there seemed to be more corner stores and more small-scale neighborhood commercial in that close-in urban fabric. The jumble was at least recognized (and some would say "managed" and others "mismanaged") in transitional zones like the light blue SC and SJW overlay "special" zones of transitional nature and C-2 "community commercial" zoning along the 6th and 7th Avenue axis in pink. Then with the needs for student housing there are also some higher density residential zones in yellow and orange. As the grid breaks down and development moves up into the hills, the zoning transitions to straightforward low-density residential, R-1.

A lot of the jumbled texture reminded me of Sleepy Hollow and the area south of Mission Street and west of Bush Park: Older homes rezoned for commercial, random pods of apartment redevelopment, one-way couplets to speed through-traffic. It retains the strengths of the underlying streetcar-era grid, but autoism and cheap density make parts of it quite ugly and even zoomy. Other parts of it recalled the pre-urban-renewal character of the Hollywood district. These are impressions only, and maybe if you know Eugene well, you can think of other, more trenchant comparisons.

House rezoned for commercial use on lower-traffic bikeway
Even with that fragmentation, the central city's grid remains structurally very walkable and bikeable, so there would be real opportunities to up-zone and create more density that encourages and fosters car-free and car-lite living. (A second post will discuss some of the costs and a little more on the history and loss of history.)

Forthcoming dedicated ROW for West EMX
(Blair & West 6th)
Eugene's bus rapid transit system, the EMX, is expanding in a new phase, the West Eugene EMX, and a substantial chunk of that will be along that 6th/7th couplet. The concrete and signage for the dedicated right-of-way has already been substantially completed, and expansion is scheduled to open in a year. (It was a reminder that a partnership between the State, City, and Cherriots ought to look more closely at a dedicated commuter bus route from West Salem to the Capitol Mall. It might not be possible without tolling, however.)

Blair Boulevard in the Whiteaker neighborhood

Covered Bike Parking at Falling Sky taphouse and deli
(at the terminus of Blair at 8th Avenue)
The Blair Boulevard corridor in the Whiteaker neighborhood was fascinating. Blair is a vestige of an old territorial highway and runs diagonally through the subsequent grid. There is a historic district in it on the National Register, the Eugene Blair Boulevard Historic Commercial Area. It also has a special zoning overlay. After a decade Ninkasi now seems like a real anchor business there. Other breweries and affiliated business types sited in Whitaker also, and it has emerged as an artisanal-industrial quarter.

Y-intersection of Blair and Van Buren
The circa 1913 barn was an old blacksmith shop
But there are real tensions between residents, beer tourists and partiers, old industry and new industry, and it's clearly another transitional site of change in Eugene.
Crime is down. Rents are up. The war is over; the bums lost.

And little evidence stands to testify that the Whiteaker’s cheerful main drag was once fiercely defended territory shared by an odd coalition of gutter punks, home bums, activists, artists and anarchists who delighted in locking horns with cops, city commissioners and real estate developers.
The new Library is right next to the Transit Mall
In a previous generation, the transition site was downtown itself, and Eugene urban renewaled their downtown into death. A flip side of the pedestrian mall concept is the super-block brutalist complex with parking garage. Fortunately they quit doing that. When they built the new library a little over a decade ago, they sited it across the street from the downtown Transit Mall and gave the sidewalk some love with all the windows. (More on its history here.)

Bikeway and sidewalk tunnel in midrise apartment block
(via streetview)
Straddling the alignment of 12th Avenue between Olive and Willamette, there is a new midrise apartment block aimed at students that has a kind of tunnel through it for people on foot and on bike. 12th is an important east-west low-traffic bikeway to campus and it is good they didn't block it. (The architecture of the building itself is quite dull, even ugly. It is not a meaningful improvement on downtown's brutalism!)

Traffic Diverter at 10th and Adams
There were several diverters and bike-only cut-throughs - but not as many as you might think. Eugene's bikey infrastructure is mostly old, mostly last-generation, and there wasn't much from current design and best practices. Eugene has lots of room for improvement, actually! (See this note on their footbridges, for examples of the ages.)

Sunday Streets Route in Blue - about 1.4 miles long
About Sunday Streets itself, I'm not sure there's all that much to say about it. The route was about 1.4 miles and ran from the Amazon Park Recreation Center to 19th and Columbia. It ran by three parks and two clusters of neighborhood commercial or corner store type businesses, one at 24th and Hilyard, the other at 19th and Agate.

The streets were also relatively big, and the absence of cars on them a special pleasure. On the route, the City of Eugene formally rates Hilyard, 24th, and Agate all as minor arterial streets. So it was nice that the street closures weren't just on the small neighborhood streets formally rated "local streets."

19th and Agate has a McMenamins and a Prince Puckler ice cream shop, for example. Imagine a route in Salem on Broadway that had Boon's and the Broadway Coffeehouse on it! It was the integration of neighborhood businesses that seemed most interesting to me, not the activity centers and booths at the parks.

Eugene Sunday Streets on 24th Ave at University Park
(via Eugene Sunday Streets)
The photos of the event, though, look like every other photo of Open Streets events. Fun! No cars! Lots of people in the street! The course was long enough that kids could do some real biking on city streets. Adults who rarely biked might also find it a treat. But for adults who regularly bike, and who looked forward to the car-free-ness, the route might still have seemed too short. On bike the activity centers were not far apart at all, just about 10 blocks. The City of Eugene published estimates of 5000 people, and I have to say, it was way busier than the Salem events, for which some have tried to claim a count of "3000." It seemed pleasantly busy without also being packed, so there were also a few slack moments and places. But it never seemed empty or desolate in the way Salem's have.

Have you visited a Eugene Sunday Streets? What did you think of it?

Postscript, October 30th

A reader sends in this very nice vintage picture of the McMorran and Washburne Department Store building designed by A.E. Doyle and constructed in 1928. That's the building with Sizzle Pie in it on the corner across from Kesey Square at Willamette and Broadway.

McMorran & Washburne Department Store by A.E. Doyle
Renovated in 2012 as Broadway Commerce Center
(City of Eugene)
More on the history at the City of Eugene and the Daily Journal of Commerce.

Before that was the Chrisman block of 1891, apparently demolished in 1913 for the McMorran & Washburn building. (Except that leaves quite a gap from 1913 to 1928. But that's not for us here to figure out!)

(Update: Second post on history is here.)


Jim Scheppke said...

Thanks for the mention of Eugene's terrific downtown public library. It's a great building that is open 7 days a week all year. EPL also has two branch libraries that are both open 6 days a week. Eugene citizens passed a local option levy recently to improve their library hours and services. A statistical comparison with our library is eye-opening. These statistics are for 2014-15, the latest available on the State Library website ...

Annual Expenditures
EPL: $10,409,044
SPL: $4,313,488

Total Staff
EPL: 87.60 FTE
SPL: 45.05 FTE

Total Public Service Hours:
EPL: 5,785
SPL: 3,410

Total Library Visits
EPL: 1,074.504
SPL: 549,524

Total Circulation (Check-outs)
EPL: 2,554,320
SPL: 1,274,157

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Double the size by almost every metric! Thanks for the statistical comparison. That's remarkable.

(Edit: Also added links to a second, history-oriented post.)