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 cityÕs center. If they were larger cities like the Seattle I grew up in, downtown was a more complex and multi-centered place.
As a lad of seven in the early 40s, I didnÕt have a complex image of downtown. IÕd just catch the trolley that came every 5 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 NewberryÕs 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 costumes. At Christmas time 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 & NelsonÕs and the Bon Marchˇ.
If you grew up in Eugene in the 60s before the mall and the shopping centers, Willamette St. 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 drug the gut, and probably dropped into SeymourÕs after school.
And then things changed. You know the story. We OKed 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 didnÕt 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 isnÕt 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 twenty thousand 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 just 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 cityÕs latest idea the way we borrowed FresnoÕs mall? If you answered, ŅWait a minute, isnÕt it time we did our own thinking,Ó 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 twenty-some small squares is one of my favorites. I do admire PortlandÕs Park Blocks and do believe that itÕs 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.
IÕd 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 itÕs OK to superimpose them so literally on our town.
So letÕs say we were being asked to invest $25 plus million 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 investment? And, I expect itÕs fair to ask, what can we do to minimize our risk?
The Downtown Plan because it is so general doesnÕt provide much guidance, which is why Mayor Piercy has formed an eleven-member committee to help refine the area planning and clarify our public agenda before we agree to pungle up.
Some think the new groupÕs 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 wonÕt be the way it was. It wonÕt look just like PortlandÕs 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.