The Revitalization of Downtown Eugene

Downtown Eugene recovered, from a widely-perceived five-decades-long slump, following the November 6, 2007 referendum that defunded Urban Renewal. The revitalization began in earnest in 2009, and was widely noted by 2011, even in the middle of a serious economic recession. This happened, without significant planning or initiatives, because the incentives changed, and City government investments were generally too small to hurt anything.

The proposition that defunding Urban Renewal caused revitalization is “counter-intuitive”, because Urban Renewal promotes itself as revitalizing. In fact, it only revitalizes the bank accounts of a few large landlords and developers, who work with city governments to take advantage of the bond authority that leverages these anti-democratic tax-increment financing districts. These funds create a classic “moral hazard”, encouraging developers and landowners to work against community interests.

The primary story can be found at Rain Magazine, but for the patterns community — architects, urban activists, community developers — it is useful to demonstrate this proposition more fully, by providing a detailed analytical timeline, with historical references.


  • May 2005 – Recognition that empty storefronts had one owner.
  • This demonstrates that the deadness of downtown is part of deliberate action. What causes this? A model of development that is not about people, or community development, but about profit paid for by the City.
  • June 2006 – Interview with Majority Broadway Landowner
  • This provides some insight into the thinking of a local landowner / developer who let downtown buildings sit empty or undeveloped, something that would be illegal in some cities and countries, but which is often accepted in the US. Essentially properties are only commodities. The notion of urban revitalization, creating a livable space by filling buildings with local activity, are very far from the thoughts of someone like this. Urban Renewal offers them a funding mechanism for these large-scale, non-local developments, so that such developments are considered “normal” and people who understand that are considered “educated”.
  • February 2007 – Community proposal
  • Trying to help city officials to understand the alternatives, a non-profit responds to the City of Eugene’s Request For Proposals.
  • October 2007 – Student paper endorses establishment position
  • In the run-up to the election, the student paper says that funding for the City government “would be reimbursed from the added value of property taxes on the new shops that would open.” This is a common misconception — if property taxes don’t rise, if there’s continued borrowing awaiting extra revenue, or if the borrowing is over-leveraged, these bonds are financed by general budgets. But, beyond that, they guarantee private profit while preventing public benefit.
  • October 2007 – Architecture student endorses establishment position
  • This was a reasonably common position in the architecture department, among faculty as much as students. Architects and Planners often make their living from Urban Renewal projects, and are tempted to take this position, and make the case to their students, even when they know the history of Urban Renewal.
  • November 2007 – Urban Renewal is Defeated and Defunded
  • The majority votes against giving public money to private developers to rip up downtown. This is before the 2008 financial crisis, which would have potentially left the buildings torn down, and downtown completely abandoned. Instead, the large landowners left downtown, disappointed that they could not make big profits, and the neighborhood thrived.
  • November 2007 – Post-election analysis
  • The interesting bit about this contemporary Emerald piece, is that the benefits touted by the City were achieved without spending the $180 million in Urban Renewal bonds.
  • April 2008 – Downtown Together
  • Citizen groups coöperate to propose alternative, grassroots economic development plans for downtown Eugene. The groups were trying to help the City government, which admitted to having trouble coping with the new situation.
  • March 2009 – First major property sold to non-profit by largest landlords
  • After the defunding of Urban Renewal, the primary downtown landlord was looking to unload their largest un-mortgageable property: a half-block on Broadway. Eventually a non-profit with a cash buyer purchased the half-block for $1 million, signaling the end of Urban Renewal to all the smaller landlords in the area.
  • June 2010 – A common misconception about large urban renewal projects
  • Parking structures, conference centers, private-public partnerships are big, but negative. The library was cited, but it was forced upon the city by another ballot measure, so normal bond funding could have funded the library instead.
  • March 2011 – Recognition that largest new projects are small
  • “This is a huge change of scale. The Beam project is in the millions, the new DAC project is in the millions, and the City’s participation in the LCC project is in the millions. This is two orders of magnitude closer to a human-scaled incremental development strategy for downtown. That’s progress.”
  • June 2012 – Change in ownership scale recognized
  • “Smaller investments create better physical spaces … they allow for more human attention to detail, to people’s feelings” … the change in ownership is revitalizing downtown, and here the Occupy movement is evoked as a metaphor for completing the effort.
  • January 2013 – Boom as normal
  • Five years after 20-134, and four years after properties start to change hands, this story doesn’t even mention the revitalization. Locally, it’s an already understood fact.
  • February 2014 – Complete revitalization widely recognized
  • Six years after the ballot measure to defund Urban Renewal, the attitude of downtown’s old and new landlords had changed dramatically, working closely with new businesses rather than tolerating them, or purposely killing them, which would have happened in the presence of an Urban Renewal fund, as had happened since the 1950’s. Of course this article mistakingly attributes the success to the specific businesses, rather than a changed ownership climate.
  • April 2016 – Urban Renewal revivals cause problems
  • Yet another project that the city authorizes, even while downtown is popping, that immediately interferes with neighboring non-profits and small-scale owners.

I’ll be adding to this timeline by mining news stories like these.

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