Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Bit of History of Eugene Frustration

Hello Eugene Advocates, whoever you are, I appreciate your energy and efforts on behalf of downtown. I have just sent the following letter to the city council and wanted you to have a copy. I share your goals and your frustration but have chosen to express myself in a little bit different tone. If you want to send it along to your email list, that is fine with me. We all want the same thing: a safe, decent downtown, which has been missing for decades.

(Signed by a long term Eugene resident,tax payer, investor and business person)


Mayor Piercy and City Council October 28, 2009 Eugene, Oregon

Greetings Mayor Piercy and Councilors,

I am writing to give you my perspective on the state of downtown. (------) and I have owned property downtown for over thirty years. We currently own a small office building on Charnelton, a small house on Olive Alley, and I am a co-owner of Broadway Place. Since 1977, I have served on numerous planning committees, including the Eugene Planning Commission, visioning committees, downtown association committees, safety committees, ERA committees, etc. Until recently, we were both active commercial real estate brokers who committed a significant part of our business to downtown.

I have been receiving emails from "Eugene Advocates" and I want to distinguish my point-of-view from theirs. Although I am just as frustrated, just as angry, I worry that the tone of their messages is too "blamey" to get us anywhere. And I don't blame any current office holder for the state of downtown since it remains essentially the same as it was in the seventies, eighties, nineties and now. You folks didn't create the problem. I do hope you will begin to fix it.

Eugene began shooting itself in the foot in the late sixties with a plan which leveled much of downtown and reduced our stock of redevelopable, nice old buildings to a handful. Our aim was to save the village. Instead, we destroyed it. For contrast, look at Corvallis. Any downtown street in Corvallis has more interesting old buildings than in Eugene's entire downtown. This is a tremendous economic problem because old buildings are the places that small, local businesses can begin life. Most importantly, they create a sense of "place"; that just feels right. I know that you can't undo this situation, but I think an understanding of it is helpful.

In the eighties, every store front along West Broadway was filled. In time, every business but one failed. Astoundingly, these buildings filled again with hopeful, optimistic tenants in the early nineties. (Due mostly to the stubborn, never-say-die effort of my pard, (---------) and landlords who were willing to accept below market rents.) Sadly, all of these businesses in the entire two block area failed again except Betty Snowden's. You know how difficult her life has been and yet she endures.

Unfortunately, this difficult-to-express situation is the central problem of downtown Eugene. It is essentially a lack of community; of neighborhood; of place. It is the reason for the continual depressed economics, even in the best of times. It creates crime and behavior problems because no one cares enough to stay; they just move on. It has been this way for decades and it has worsened, not improved.

As the former leasing agent for Broadway Place, I have stood with dozens of potential retail and office tenants and listened to them tell me why they're not going to relocate to that area. It is always the same; it is the "street problem". They correctly observe that this area allows behaviors which are not allowed in other areas. Obvious crimes occur daily, from drug deals to property crimes to assault; and of course, unacceptable social behavior is rampant. The plain truth is that people can do bad things here and expect to get away with it. As a city, we have decided not to enforce the laws and social mores here which we definitely do enforce in the rest of our city. This is sad, and undeniably true: just go watch. You and I do not stand for this behavior in our own neighborhoods but we allow it here. I have never understood why.

Of the many good businesses which have located within Broadway Place, only one original tenant remains. The spaces lease to enthusiastic entrepreneurs who ultimately leave; disillusioned, dispirited, bitter. In several cases, they were actually doing fine economically; they just couldn't take the daily pain of "the street". I can't blame them.

In the past 24 months, we have personally experienced three break-ins at our rental properties in downtown Eugene.(not Broadway Place.) In two cases, doors were violently kicked off their hinges. In the third, a window was shattered. These crimes were committed by people who know there will be no consequences. I am sure of this because we actually apprehended one of these criminals in the act.

Quick thinking by a tenant, and immediate response by the EPD, resulted in a phone call to me in the middle of the night. I came down and had the opportunity to "meet" the suspect and even view the contents of his backpack. It was full of "burglary tools" plus things stolen from other places. He was a pathetic man with past convictions and a resigned but not apologetic attitude.

He was back on the street within 24 hours. I assume he was given back his backpack full of tools since he was innocent until proven guilty. A year later, his much-delayed trial brought him conviction and probation and the naive hope that he might once again attend drug addiction classes. I imagine he is out in the neighborhood right now, with full knowledge that nothing of consequence will happen to him when he breaks into his next place.

I want you to act. I want a specific plan regarding crime and unacceptable behavior. In the past, we have increased police presence downtown and this has been successful. On each occasion, the moment we begin to feel a positive difference, the police are redeployed and the situation reverts. We did this as recently as 24 months ago, I believe. Change will require change, and we have never been willing to sustain it.

I believe that our new leadership at the city manager and police chief level gives us a new opportunity. It will depend upon the actions and allocation of resources by the city council. I hope you will have the insight and courage to reverse a decades-long problem which severely handicaps our city.

In another too long letter I will give you my thoughts on "downtown development". You can't bring back the nice old cheap buildings which would immediately inject life and opportunity into downtown. However, there are things which could be done, which, combined with adequate law enforcement, could set us in the right direction.

Thank you for your thoughts and actions on behalf of our fair city,

(Signed by a long time Eugene resident, tax payer, investor and business person)