Becoming the Best Eugene

One thing is clear when you travel to downtown Eugene: things are changing. The construction screens that once covered the pit on the corner of Broadway and Willamette, erected for the Olympic trials in 2008, are now gone and in their place stands a new building. Across the street is the new Broadway Commerce Center, home to several new restaurants on the ground floor and new tech and marketing companies on the top floors. A new branch of Lane Community College was built across from the Eugene Public Library, which plans to bring thousands of new students to the downtown neighborhood. The new buildings are accompanied by the city’s Downtown Revitalization Loan Program, which gives businesses and companies the opportunity for a competitive loan from the city, if their business is located in the revitalization area: betweenSixth and 11th, Lincoln and Pearl Street.

According to Nan Laurence, a senior planner for the city of Eugene, this change has not come over night. Six or seven years ago, the Eugene government decided to begin a new wave of changes to help the downtown neighborhood find a fresh start. Focusing on the corner of Broadway and Willamette as the vital center of the downtown’s grid system, the city began encouraging the most catalytic projects, such as the Broadway Commerce Center and filling the pit next door to stir development. “It’s not as if we just planned it and therefore it happened, but that we tried to figure out which was the project that would have the most impact, we were strategic about that,” Laurence said. “Then we were entrepreneurial in assisting many of these other projects to happen, because the market still isn’t strong enough for these projects to happen on their own.”

 

For the owners of The Barn Light, the first business to move into the ground floor of the Broadway Commerce Center, the timing to start their business could not have been more perfect. They had always had the intention of eventually opening a business together and when they saw the downtown revitalization, they knew they couldn’t miss out on the opportunity.

“We knew we had to get on the ground floor of this because in five years it’s going to be really expensive to try and get a spot in here,” said Thomas Pettus-Czar, co-owner of The Barn Light. “It’s very uncommon to be in a situation, a place, a time, where everything comes together to make something like this possible. The city was promoting and undergoing a very significant transformation downtown, which you can see is happening right now.”

The men at The Barn Light aren’t the only ones who have seen the great opportunity that the Broadway Commerce Center has to offer: Sizzle Pie, a Portland-based pizza company, Soubise, formally known as Rabbit on Willamette, The Bijou Art Cinemas, and First National Taphouse are all opening locations at this “vital” corner of downtown Eugene.

 

The death of downtown began long before Eugene resident, Laura Potter, was born. Potter is the Director of Business Advocacy for the Eugene Chamber of Commerce and is able to recall exactly what happened to make a revitalization of downtown necessary.

“Downtown used to be very robust and very vibrant. You hear people talk about Eugene in the 70s, they say that there were students and activity downtown, it was a great place to be,” said Potter. According to her, several things happened to turn downtown Eugene from the vibrancy of the 70s. “They shut down those streets, that whole stretch of Broadway, they closed it to street traffic. The idea was to make it more walkable.” However, that closure, according to Potter, was essentially the first in a long line of toppling dominoes. Stores were less accessible to shoppers, forcing businesses to move out of downtown and creating what was referred to by LeRoy Latham in the October 12, 1975 issue of the Register-Guard as “the most modern ghost city in the United States.”

The streets being closed to traffic became a major inconvenience for local Eugenians, including Potter’s mother. When it came time to do things like buy ballet shoes from the dance store in the middle of the walking mall, they would have to find a parking spot on the perimeter of the mall and walk to the store in the middle; because of this, what would be a ten-minute trip today took upwards of a half hour when Potter was a child, making the Potter family avoid downtown, altogether.

According to Potter, a new tax structure also made it more difficult to open, or even maintain, a business downtown. Then when the Valley River Center mall was built in the mid-80s, businesses began moving to the cheaper retail space. “Retail was a driving force for people coming downtown,” Potter said. “Once people stopped coming downtown for retail, well… that was another big hit to downtown.”

Potter described the early efforts of the city to rectify the situation. In the early 2000s, people in the community started to recognize that the situation downtown was a problem, so they opened the mall back up to traffic.

“There was a real effort in addressing the problems, but it was challenging because there were the pits, the one next to the Broadway Commerce Center and the one across from the library… but in the last couple of years we really saw a lot of development downtown,” Potter said. “It started with the construction of the library downtown, then the Broadway Commerce Center, then the Inn at the Fifth, and the Fifth Street market. And that started what was a real effort and priority of the business community,” to improve the heart of downtown and to create a real community between the downtown businesses, according to Potter.

 

Jen Bell, of the marketing agency Bell and Funk in the Broadway Commerce Center, thinks that the downtown atmosphere is essential for creative businesses.

“When you’re in a creative business you need to be surrounded by energy, and a little surprise and diversity—of any kind, not necessarily racial diversity—just different things going on,” Bell said. “Creatively, that is much better than being in an office park somewhere.”

The variety of businesses in the Broadway Commerce Center, and in the surrounding Kesey Square, is conducive to the type of business that Bell hopes to conduct: businesses that are creative, collaborative and open to the wider community. To that end, Bell sees herself as an unofficial promoter of downtown for prospective business owners and Eugenians wary to give downtown another chance.

“I just want people [downtown],” Bell said. “The few things you hear about downtown are like, ‘there are crazy people down there, so I may not be safe,’ and ‘I’m not going to be able to park.’ Okay, I lived in downtown San Francisco for 10 years and I’ve never been the least bit afraid here. It doesn’t mean that stuff doesn’t go on, but I think if you’re not a part of that subculture, for the most part, you’re completely left alone.”

Potter had also heard of the general wariness to go downtown because of the “threatening” population.

“You get groups of teens, oftentimes homeless or runaway teenagers, you also get a lot of homeless people or vagrant wanderers… the kind of people that their appearance, demeanor, language and activities may be intimidating,” said Potter. However, “it’s only a perception of a threat.” She argued that every city, including Portland, has similar populations, but the “intimidating” effect is diluted by the hundreds of other businessmen, students and shoppers, something that downtown Eugene is severely lacking. Through a program called the “downtown public safety zone,” Eugene police officers have the ability to exclude those who have committed violent crimes—whether on people or property—from the downtown neighborhood. Potter said that the goal of the program wasn’t to remove loiterers, since it’s everyone’s downtown, just to remove real threats. She went on to say that although the program has been controversial, and may be removed in the next year, it has been successful in making those threatening populations less intimidating until downtown began filling with businessmen, shoppers and students.

 

The support of the greater Eugene community has been decisive in making the downtown revitalization a priority for the Eugene government. Before the recent elections, in which Mayor Kitty Piercy was reelected, Potter said that the average Eugene citizen was not keen on using tax dollars to stimulate the downtown economy and community.

Potter explained that Eugene has always been a politically divided community. “And having someone like Mayor Piercy, who’s obviously a leader in the progressive community, talk about the importance of downtown and make it a part of her rhetoric, and to connect it to progressive values, made it an issue that wasn’t just a business issue, but a community issue,” Potter said. “Once there was more of a community conversation about downtown as a priority there were a lot of different attempts to make something happen.”

These included an attempt to build a Whole Foods, which was rejected by the City Council. Then there was a proposal on the ballot, before Potter was involved in the Chamber, that would allow developers to acquire and develop parcels of downtown land. This proposal was also rejected.

Urban Renewal was what eventually made it past the Eugene City Council and through the ballot, and although it has “political baggage,” it has been successful in engaging the Eugene community. Urban Renewal effectively directs property taxes from the “renewal area”—betweenSixth and 11th, Lincoln and Pearl Street—directly into the Urban Renewal fund, rather than into the city’s general fund. This money is used to fund improvements in the downtown area such as employing more police officers downtown, funding the Downtown Revitalization Loan Program, providing better street lighting for after dusk and improving the sidewalks and streets.

 

Charles Hollands, a six-year resident of downtown and one of three presidents of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, has experienced these improvements first hand. To him, the revitalization of downtown has been noticeable and welcomed, even though it may seem small.

“The walk to and from my apartment to the bus station twice a day feels more inviting. When I walk from one part of downtown to another, the storefronts are improved, lighting’s getting better, and there’s a bigger diversity of people going about their business on the sidewalk,” said Hollands. “There’s a new positive energy on the street.”

Though changes are already noticeable, Laurence said that improvements are far from over.

“I think that cities go in cycles. I think that there’s a lot of perception involved, in that, downtown didn’t show so well, it didn’t look good to people, but the fact was that there wasn’t always a lot going on. Now there’s a lot more going on,” said Laurence. “I guess it’s the idea of revitalizing. You’re always revitalizing. It’s something you do and then you do and then you do, you always have to work at it. All we’re trying to do is be the best Eugene we can be.”

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