Emerging from the Pits: The Rebuilding of Downtown Eugene
By Tyson Johnson
The lobby of the Atrium Building, which is located at 99 west, 10th Ave. in downtown Eugene, OR, is a modern, state-of-the-art structure that incorporates gorgeous artwork and circus style sculptures within its walls. Despite including several pieces of
local art, the Atrium Building is importantly known for housing a key member of the city’s downtown reconstruction program: Senior Development Analyst Denny Braud.
“It’s a pretty [neat] place to work in,” says Braud, admiring the building’s interior decorations from a second floor balcony. “It certainly does have the unique Eugene feel to it.”
Like the building itself, Braud’s appearance is unusual compared to the traditional model of a white-collar businessman. There is no customary elegant suit and tie. Nor is there any evidence of elegant Cole Haan designer shoes or fancy Rolex watches. Braud steps into one of the building’s medium-sized conference rooms dressed in a long-sleeved, red flannel shirt, tan khaki pants and sports shoes.
Although Braud may seem like he has lived and worked in Eugene his entire life, he is actually about 2000 miles away from his home state of Louisiana. After finishing high school, he attended North East Louisiana University (now University of Louisiana at Monroe) and attended the school’s business graduate program. In 1987, Braud left the school and followed his wife to Eugene where he found work in small finance companies and loan programs.
“When I first came to Eugene, jobs were as scarce as they are now,” Braud says.
“They used to have a pedestrian mall [in the downtown area; 1960s] where communities closed down the streets so that cars couldn’t come through. But they were dark and dingy; economic rates in businesses started to drop.”
In the late 1960’s, the city of Eugene developed its Urban Renewal District with intentions to make the downtown area attractable to consumers and businesses again. The next twenty years would be stressful for the agency as many businesses, including Sears, JC Penny and Woolworth’s, would move their establishments to other parts of the city, leaving behind dilapidated buildings and giant holes in the downtown area.
“It was basically like a cardboard building,” says Braud, remembering the J.C. Penny store before they moved to Valley River Center, a local mall. “They modernized it; added two stories [and] it didn’t have any windows. It was ugly.”
When Braud started working for City of Eugene, Planning and Development in the mid-90’s, the scene was unbearable for him. In the east downtown area, developers were hesitant to purchase rundown buildings with interiors that were too vast for marketable purposes. Portland developers were planning to develop a $200 million project that would include retail stores and a cinema; a cautious undertaking that may have spurred on downtown development. Except it failed.
“The community wasn’t prepared for that,” Braud says. “Eugene is unique and people want local foods, local produce and local [business]. The price tag was too big as well. It would have cost us $25 million to invest [and] the project did not go forward.”
Although businesses have had a hard time developing in the downtown area, Braud insists that the housing sector is a very popular trend that will continue generating revenue in the future. Portland, Seattle, and Ontario, CA are popular destinations for people that want to live where they play.
buildings and he waiting lists fill up. We’ve established that there’s definitely a demand for housing in downtown, but the lease rates are high and the costs of construction are more expensive to build in downtown than anywhere else.”
However, Braud is determined on making deals with developers to help better the image of Eugene’s downtown. In fact, after negotiations with Beam Development of Portland, Braud was able to secure a property development program that will renovate the old Sears building and will fill the adjacent “pit” with a new establishment that will include office and retail space.
One pit has been taken care of. But what about the other one?
“Lane Community College just passed a bond for $83 million dollars,” says Braud, while displaying a two page cutout of his proposed project. “We reached an agreement with LCC [and] it was a great investment; we gave it to them for a dollar. The Urban Renewal Agency agreed to contribute $8 million for their educational building, which will be a demonstration building [and] will be energy efficient with solar panels.”
The LCC project, which has a completion date in December 2012, will also include student housing and will finally fill a large hole which has seen no developmental activity in the last twenty years. Nonetheless, Braud is certain that Eugene’s downtown development will be a slow process that will take years to complete even though the interests of developers are at their peak.
“I don’t think it will be radical,” he says concerning the development of downtown Eugene. “It comes from success and failures. “Our economics are different in a smaller town compared [to] larger cities. [But] for working for the city, I’ve felt pretty lucky after 22 years. It’s going to take baby steps.”
Please check out Downtown Eugene Brand Plan for more information.
Also, please visit the Downtown Eugene Twitter account for up-to-date information.