referendum on urban life

Referendum on Urban Life:

Citizens Stop Development-As-Usual

This was first presented at the 2013 PUARL conference held by the University of Oregon. PUARL/PurPLSoC are annual conferences on planning and architecture initiated by colleagues of Christopher Alexander. The current essay narrates a timeline and ongoing research reconstruction that correlates the defunding of Urban Renewal with the revitalization of downtown Eugene, Oregon.

Here is a 2007 video from the community project six months before the successful ballot measure, providing some context for the story. More contemporary commentary can be found on the Downtown Eugene blog.

Greg Bryant

Rain Magazine


In 2003, the author launched a "special-purpose community center" -- a generic pattern for urban revitalization -- in downtown Eugene, Oregon. The Tango Center was intended as a gathering place that could act as a beachhead for downtown revival, through the incubation of community projects. But to succeed, the initiative would need to break a dysfunctional land-ownership monopoly, which was a direct consequence of Urban Renewal incentives. Urban Renewal had acted as a moral hazard and destructive influence on downtown since the 1950s. After three years of building community interest around The Tango Center, the downtown neighborhood came under immediate threat of destruction by a large developer, assisted by the City government, in a typical Urban Renewal attack on public interests. Partnering with seasoned urban activists, The Tango Center initiated and won a city-wide ballot measure that effectively defunded Urban Renewal (2007's ballot measure 20-134). This led to the breakup of the downtown land monopoly, which had existed only in hope of an Urban Renewal profit. As a result of Urban Renewal's defeat, property was sold, broken up, redistributed, and small-scale long-term reinvestment became a new priority. Consequently, even during an economic downturn, downtown Eugene revived, as downtowns normally do when not interfered with by bad incentives provided by city governments.

Another Victim

The deadening of downtown Eugene began in the 1950's.

Urban Renewal provided the City of Eugene with funds to destroy blocks full of carefully-adapted, local, small businesses and community institutions, in lovely buildings people had cared for over many decades. These were replaced by parking lots, parking structures, generic modern retrofits, monolithic office blocks, unnecessary government buildings, and subsidized developments far out-of-proportion to community purpose. Urban Renewal is legalized corruption -- when this is understood as wealth-transfer-upwards with burden-transfer-downwards -- practiced with great facility for over half-a-century in cities across the United States.

Urban Renewal deals are not secret, but they require heavy public-relations efforts, and members of the corporate press, whose peers always benefit, tend to believe that government and business leaders are trying to do good.

In Eugene, construction financed by Urban Renewal created a dead quality downtown, which people perceived, and which was ironically addressed on a regular basis by new destructive Urban Renewal projects. This interfered with people's natural ability to create a livable city.

The predictability of the development cycle created a strong incentive for wealthy commercial slumlords to simply hold onto buildings. They would leave their own property empty and crumbling if necessary, hoping for a big payday via Urban Renewal initiatives, which would regularly purchase and demolish historic structures.

As our story begins, this was the strategy of one landholding corporation, which will remain nameless, and which I will herein call CS (Commercial Slumlord). They held swaths of property on either side of Broadway, in the critical central axis between Willamette and Charnelton streets.


Although Urban Renewal wasn't on the minds of the citizen majority in Eugene, it was common knowledge that the City government had regularly financed multi-million-dollar projects that failed to improve the downtown. As an organizer, it was clear to me that, to raise awareness of the troubles caused by Urban Renewal, it would become necessary to involve the community during a crisis. Perhaps this would be a "demolition emergency" such as those which spark historic preservation movements, when the loss of community value is most obvious.

To make this work, groundwork needed to be laid: many more citizens needed to be physically involved in downtown revitalization on a grassroots level. Large numbers would need to feel threatened by Urban Renewal. Otherwise, according to the mafia-like playbook for Urban Renewal, small projects would simply be isolated and bullied, until the demolition could move forward. I’m still shocked by the depth, and scale, of anti-community and anti-local-economy behavior that ‘Urban Renewal’ actually perpetrates.

Picking a pattern to fix the problem

What kind of urban feature could garner wide community support? What kind of project could be used to fix this problem?

From 2000 on, I was looking to repeat an interesting and successful pattern from a project I helped to start in 1991, one that directly combined grassroots economic revitalization and incubation with neighborhood redevelopment. I call the pattern a 'Special-Purpose Community Center' (or SPCC).

The 1991 example was CAT, the Center for Appropriate Transport, an umbrella and incubator for non-profit and for-profit projects, primarily related to bicycles, or more correctly, human-powered vehicles of all sorts. CAT was inspired by other appropriate technology work-education centers, which can be found scattered around the world. In its turn, this 'Bicycle Center' helped inspire hundreds of bicycle centers. It also inspired other kinds of 'specialty centers' and schools. But CAT might not have been so successful had we stuck to the original plan, a kind of general 'appropriate technology' center. Somehow, the focus upon one well-loved product, bicycles (which founding executive director Jan VanderTuin was skilled at building) brought excitement to CAT as a community project, and made it successful.

There’s a straightforward sequence for creating a SPCC:

1. pick a topic supported by an extremely high level of local skill

2. find people interested in pursuing and promoting this topic

3. start the SPCC

4. incubate community non-profit, educational, and advocacy projects within the center

5. form ties with groups from around the world

6. incubate local small businesses within the center

7. continually orient towards community-service

This last point is a basic principle for organizing, a general version of "The Café Theory of Squatting" [see Michael LaFond’s articles in RAIN Magazine]. If you want a larger community to support a sub-community, especially one that wants to radically change the function and ownership of a major property, you need the property to serve the larger community. As an example: squatters of an abandoned building should provide a neighborhood café, so they can gather enough political support to survive.

Note that, although we wouldn't be squatting per se, and we wouldn't be redistributing land extraordinarily, the mechanics of any major community change are the same.

Formulating an SPCC

So, how does one find the right special-purpose?

It's not easy, but experience helps, and collaborating with locals is the key.

At first, I wasn't sure downtown was 'the place' to organize an SPCC. I proposed an interesting project there in the mid-90's, but because of the difficult ownership and government attention to downtown, and Urban Renewal itself, the project never had a chance. CAT had avoided downtown because of the "first principle" of stable non-profit organizing: make sure the non-profit owns the building, so everyone's invested time and effort is preserved. This is how, for example, hospitals and universities are founded.

So, I examined many places before settling on downtown. Any neighborhood could benefit from the revitalizing power of an SPCC. Not every special-purpose will work in every place, but it’s useful to cultivate a habit of considering strange location-topic combinations. Especially when supported by people with strong interests.

I gathered a small team that evaluated these possibilities. My easiest route was just to follow my wife, Olga Volchkova, a skilled artist that any group would welcome, as she explored various Eugene art communities: wood-fired ceramics, sculpture, studio glass, etc. Several of these started centers, or tried to start them, while we were involved. There are plenty of examples of special art schools in the US, such as the Pilchuck Glass School, which Olga also attended for a few seasons. But many of these are not neighborhood centers: they are just schools, often quite isolated.

At some point, we were swayed by Christopher Alexander’s “Location Principle”: build on the worst part of the site. The worst part of Eugene was the downtown. That was where an SPCC was needed most.

Social Dance

We kept stumbling over a large Argentine Tango community that had developed in Eugene. Many Eugeneans were intrigued by their public performance of this hypnotically smooth, gentle interaction. The group had dedicated local teachers, a large following, and some talented dancers. But they lacked central, regular public dances. They had no space of their own.

Here was a special-purpose that seemed like a good fit for downtown revitalization. It's easy to get people to a social dance! I pictured a Tango Center, a non-profit dancehall dedicated to Argentine Tango, its dancing, music and literature -- and its extended economy, with locally-made clothes, costumes, shoes, food, drink, music, etc.

We joined the Tango community and talked to its members for many months. Tango is typically a studio-based scene, but the idea to build a public center around Tango, especially downtown, excited people greatly. We gathered sufficient pledges from the community to consider leasing, creating and running the space.

Renting Mechanics

We talked to the realty agents for the CS, and rented the largest, deadest, worst available space in the downtown monopoly axis. The space happened to be genuinely historic, in the largest possible local sense: it was the only indoor farmer's market ever built in Eugene. After launching in 1929, it was key to preserving local farms during the depression and war. It was shut during Urban Renewal in 1959. The building had been encased with a modernist stucco shell, so it’s fair to say that almost nobody knew its history -- despite a very fine book that had been published about it [Market Days, 1969].

The building, known as The Eugene Producer's Public Market, was built by farmers and downtown boosters with a community bond, floated by the local Grange. This kind of community financing scheme isn't used these days, but of course it should be.

Before we moved in, very little was happening on this monopolized downtown axis. More than half the space was for lease. The CS was either kicking out small businesses – thereby lowering maintenance costs and making the downtown look dilapidated -- or not providing long leases, making it impossible for tenants to borrow to make improvements.

CS wasn't simply biding their time, however: they were actively looking for the kind of destructive developers that regularly make private profit from a city's Urban Renewal borrowing authority.

In more enlightened parts of the world, owners of empty storefronts might be required to provide long leases to charity projects, or be fined, taxed, or forced to sell, or be open to legal squatting, because of their lack of good stewardship. But not in the United States, where corporate property ownership has priority. In the typical Urban Renewal strategy, taxpayers foot the bill for the land-purchase and development, which might not be successful, but developers, landholders, and their supplicants, profit handsomely.

On the positive side, the destructive strategy followed by CS had filled the neighborhood with empty, affordable short-term commercial space, ripe for experimentation.

Affordable commercial space is just as important for economic health as affordable housing. We need whole districts of it. But there is no recognition of this need in the US -- something that should be remedied. In the meantime, the don't-care attitude of the CS towards their properties provided an opening, and a few groups were starting interesting projects.

Volunteers & Financing

We knew we'd be able to hold fundraising dances in the space before it was finished, before occupancy approval. The City was a bit lax about occupancy rules, which was a good thing in this case, and a consequence of both their inattention to the dilapidated area, and their personal interest in giving latitude to a nearby non-profit social-dance project. We pushed the limits of their policy much further than they expected. But it was a community project, so from our perspective, it was justified.

For the project to succeed, people needed to become stakeholders: they needed to be able to make decisions, with democratic deliberation, and volunteer to build and run the place, compensating for low funds with sweat equity.

On this kind of project, if the organizers have a track record, they can usually borrow money from members of the community, but this involves great personal risk. It's hard to build a project like this, but even harder, and riskier, when there's a lack of infrastructure for such projects -- financial, organizational, outreach, etc. Community Development Corporations (CDCs), when they exist, traditionally provide this infrastructure … but there were none focused upon downtown Eugene. Though this would have been difficult, we should have started a CDC within the Tango Center -- not far from Christopher Alexander’s notion of a ‘builder’s yard’. At the time, we knew that we should do this – but we had our hands full simply making the project attractive to the community.


There’s nothing really unusual about 'producing' a special-purpose center/incubator. The good ideas needed to make it work are already in the community. All an organizer needs to do is talk with people, bring the best ideas to light, integrate them, arrange them around the idea of an SPCC, and voila, there's "a vision" for the place. When it’s good, this vision can be used, like a tool, for further organizing.

Converting the vision into reality is, also, something the community already knows how to do. In fact, the project cannot be done without them. Unfortunately, community members in the US are so indoctrinated with the idea of ‘leadership’, or in this case an 'executive director', that they believe ideas and direction must come from the top, even when the director is only acting to underline the ideas of others, and to facilitate the balancing of various interests within the community.

This "need for leadership" fallacy can only be overcome by pushing for a fully-engaged democratic institution of stakeholders. It is hard to do this on a large scale (I’m trying to remedy this with various web experiments) but democracy is pretty natural in a small group. People are willing to put some time into it, as long as it isn't too onerous -- after all, in our case people only wanted to have good dances! They’d be happy dancing in a for-profit facility. But people realize they need to make commitments in a community project, like anything else in life.

If large numbers of stakeholders are not involved democratically, a community project can get "hijacked" quite easily. If the executive director is too prominent, and the democracy too hidden, disgruntled or opportunistic members clash with the director regularly and non-productively, which is quite bad for the internal atmosphere of the organization.

At the Tango Center, our strategy was to create a rather large volunteer staff, all of whom had influence, and encourage an open discussion of issues during the "hangout time" common around social dancing. We still had serious hijacking problems: a major one each year. A larger paid staff, running a more sophisticated democratic mechanism, would have been much more stable.

Still, when the Tango Center was under threat from Urban Renewal, the community managed to come together.

Figure 1: The Tango Center, a special-purpose community center, acted as a downtown incubator and deepened citizen ownership of downtown development issues.

The Tango Center

The project’s members were dedicated to maximizing the benefit to the city. That meant getting as many people to dance as possible, and getting them to join the dance community. Argentine Tango is quite technically demanding, and these days it tends to be studio-based: teaching takes place in dance studios, and then people go to organized public dances.

I proposed the opposite model: regular public dances were preceded by the primary instructional effort, a set of simultaneous classes, so Tango could become something the entire city experienced. These pre-event classes catered to different levels, and fed into practice, lessons, series and workshops for extended study.

Using this strategy, in 6 years we managed to get about 10% of Eugene’s population to try the dance. By the time the project was under threat, the majority of the population had heard of The Tango Center.

The Inside-out University

The Tango Center was a place where people learned to dance, practiced, found instructors, found partners, attended workshops, held their own workshops, organized events and festivals, explored new topics, etc. It was like a community-driven "University Department of Social Dance", providing the kind of educational environment that the community wanted and needed. This is People's Education, at a People's University, visible from the street, open to the public, enticing, inviting, challenging yet easy-to-access, with all ages learning and socializing together.

Let's imagine further using SPCC's as a neighborhood economic revitalization strategy: each topic would be the kernel of a public interest “department" like this, an SPCC for exploring important pieces of life’s puzzle. This would not only revive an area economically, it would provide a genuine "network of learning" -- educational opportunities at the discretion of the learner, in places where the topic is central to the community and the economy.

Import replacement

The replacement of imports with local products moves communities towards local self-reliance, and an understanding of this principle can drive the incubation of community economies around a special topic. In our SPCC, this came in the form of "Tango multiplied by everything": food, costumes, clothes, shoes, construction, educational tools, music, literature, science, etc.

If a city is abused by the multinational global economy, citizens pay mostly for goods and services that aren’t local. Capital flight sucks the town dry. This is well understood by citizens today, especially in smaller cities. The "SPCC approach" gives them a tool for turning this situation around. A center becomes global and local, in the right way.

Say that a community wants to benefit from the transfer of skills from the world's body-of-knowledge, and they also want to contribute. Pick a topic, say "brushes" or "streetcars" and organize a community to make their own, locally, instead of importing.

The community then builds an SPCC around that topic. The Tango Center was like this, a local economy built around local talent in cooperation with traveling talent, a kind of specific Latin American cultural center borrowing continuously from one particular aspect of life in Buenos Aires. We held classes in Spanish tango lyrics, an important literary heritage for the western hemisphere. We had an Argentine chef. Native Spanish speakers found a second home, and new status, inside of an important locally-brewed community environment.

That's the right way to do import replacement. Not just building local replacement parts in an isolated local factory, but building with the full participation of a community that appreciates it.

Local entertainment, in this case social dance, is something that the patrons and community stakeholders at the Tango Center created themselves … not passive entertainment, but active participation through creative collaboration. It was 'import replacement' for multinational-provided TV, cinema, etc.

There are examples, of course, of import replacement without public non-profit centers. A good example these days is beer -- and the local microbrew revolution is an important source of pride in Eugene's economy, in the well-known Whitaker Neighborhood. But this developed partly because of a CDC, called NEDCO, which had promoted import-replacement for years.


At The Tango Center, many thousands were attending dances each year. There were countless experiments, and up to 25 events a week. A "Weekday Market" was opened to promote daytime visits to downtown, and honor the history of the Farmer's Market building.

Other businesses began to open in the neighborhood, and the Tango Center was an important, all-ages part of this generally adult mix of diverse bars and live music venues.

At the same time, no surprise, the CS was not interested in extending the lease, making it impossible to borrow for repairs or improvements. Still, the community base continued to grow.

Threatened by the Machine

The CS regularly connected with large out-of-town developers, making life as a non-profit or small business in the Urban Renewal footprint rather like being under siege: we never knew when the bomb would drop. In fact, not only were we still surrounded by 'for lease' commercial space, but also by open pits, where buildings had been torn down prematurely -- again Urban Renewal was to blame -- making downtown feel like it had been bombarded.

Urban Renewal policies never take care of the indigenous tenants, despite much propaganda to the contrary. Why would they? The actual policies are intended to benefit an elite minority. City planners, whose offices were only a block away from us, felt no obligation except to the property owners, and perhaps their own careers: a large Urban Renewal redevelopment looks good on the CV.

When we were threatened by Urban Renewal proposals, we'd be ready with a counter-proposal and press statements. Luckily, most of these "destroy downtown -- start again" proposals fizzled out early, in part because of our protest, but mostly because they’re speculative and tenuous corporate deals.

But, finally, one proposal began to gain traction, and it was a demanding mega-development. The developers wanted the City to guarantee their high profit-margin, and provide close to $200 million in City financing.

We made enough noise that a "community committee" (which excluded the protesting tenants) was convened by the City to provide an image of impartiality.

As things proceeded, one thing became obvious. Regular citizens were about to pay a stiff price for destroying local businesses in the name of unlikely "progress". The plan was vague, hollow, expensive and destructive.

It was at this point that the primary City Planner told me that "everyone agreed" with this expensive development, and nobody would be against it, certainly not for the sake of The Tango Center, or the twenty other small businesses in the neighborhood.

I replied that he was out-of-touch, and the wealthy City movers-and-shakers had warped his perspective. The city’s majority would not be interested in providing guaranteed profit to out-of-town developers at the City's expense.

After the handpicked committee issued their predictably favorable report on the project, we began to make more serious noise. But we were the only ones actively doing so among the businesses under threat. The committee process had convinced many that the development was either unstoppable or would somehow take care of them, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But seasoned activists in town, including seated, past, and future City Council members, decided that this development project was so bad, and the Tango Center noise was getting so much press coverage, that it might be the time to tackle Urban Renewal itself, in a more general way.

At our first meeting against this development, one Councilor pointed out that if we filed a ballot measure challenge within 30 days of the next Urban Renewal finance request, we might defund Urban Renewal at the ballot box.

Measure 20-134

Immediately after a local small business owner filed the necessary paperwork, the City Council realized that we'd be able to achieve the signatures for the measure. Just the existence of our measure would delay the Urban Renewal funding for a year. Confident that they could win the battle, they issued a referendum, referring the financing approval to the voters themselves, which would dispose of our protest more quickly. This gave us less time to organize against the City's propaganda.

What the City did not realize, was how poor their arguments were, boiling down to "if we throw money at the rich, they will solve downtown’s problems".

If we could get the word out, the City’s defeat would be inevitable. This is why Urban Renewal financing is rarely exposed to the light of day – if people knew about it, they’d stop it, or transform it completely. In this case the project cost was so high, that the City began to lie about the upcoming development deal. Of course, since this was an open debate, well-covered by the press, they hurt themselves by doing so. As an example: this first round of financing was for $40 million, but they pretended not to know that the planned costs were nearly 5 times greater. Often they’d deny that there was even a plan to worry about.

All this was in the context of an approach to City Planning that had clearly failed downtown for 50 years. The City government could not overcome that historic baggage.

In our downtown neighborhood, it felt like a civil war. Luckily, the Tango Center had such a large community, who were well-informed from the start, that it became a very comfortable home for the City’s growing movement of anti-urban-renewal progressives. But our most vocal denouncers were downtown businesses outside the development "target zone", who believed they would do well from the redevelopment. We tried to convince them that years of construction would hurt them too. The election came so fast, that we became the lead story on television news, often with interviews opposing these different downtown tenants. We pressed the point that the redevelopment had no guarantee of success. In retrospect we can see that the future would have been even worse -- the redevelopment would have been stopped part-way by the Great Recession, after destroying the neighborhood's existing buildings, leaving an abandoned construction site where a downtown should be.

Our community outreach combined a number of perspectives on the redevelopment: historic preservation; the sustainability of not demolishing buildings; the need for activity rather than new buildings; the need to protect the people and activity already in the area; the necessity of affordable commercial space; the importance of preventing the CS from profiting from their anti-community behavior; the need to not waste scarce community money and borrowing authority; the likely failure of the giant project; and the well-known corruption of the out-of-town developers …

On November 7, 2007, the citizens of Eugene decided against extending Urban Renewal funding: 31,347 to 17,979.

The aftermath: revitalization

After leading the battle against the CS, The Tango Center offered to buy the building from them. Unfortunately, since no bank would lend against buildings in such a condition, the CS wanted a cash-only deal. We couldn't afford that. In the meantime, it was difficult to successfully run a project in a building owned and badly maintained by our electoral opponent.

But they did want to sell. Without Urban Renewal, they knew most of their downtown buildings would make no profit.

We brought this unsustainable situation to the attention of the public.

At the same time, we initiated a city-wide envisioning project -- "Downtown Together"-- to get people interested in filling the unoccupied properties.

These were large and exciting events, and we generated documents from them that were presented to the City Council, in the hope of securing the buildings at the low prices they were now being offered for.

Figure 2: The first "Downtown Together" meeting. After the defeat of Urban Renewal at the ballot box, City officials were more interested in community-driven solutions for downtown.

Figure 3: Street outside the Tango Center, during one of the "Downtown Together" events.

Figure 4: Citizens brainstorming during another "Downtown Together" event at an art gallery.

Figure 5: Mapping criteria and listing possibilities for space at another "Downtown Together" public event, at the W.O.W. Hall downtown.

Figure 6: Both the major media and the non-profit community media covered the "Project Faire" gathering, the final "Downtown Together" event.

In the midst of one our large raise-funds-or-die events, a non-profit theatre company, with a wealthy backer, caught wind of the opportunity, and negotiated to buy our half-block from our Commercial Slumlords.

The City helped the CS to sell off another half-block to a small developer.

These final sales, almost a year after the defunding vote, finally made the smaller downtown landholders abandon hope of an Urban Renewal profit. They either sold their properties, swapped their properties, or went back to basics, and focused on making their properties successful. Some properties were subdivided further. Old and new landholders co-invested with new tenants. They partnered with entrepreneurs and institutions. The local community college bought another half-block, built a new structure, and various projects and businesses started scrambling to relocate to downtown. The new downtown tenants, excited by the changes, cooperated heavily in all sorts of ways. The City made their now-limited Urban Renewal financing available as tiny, helpful refurbishing loans to tenants.

The Tango Center held its final dance on June 30, 2009, six years after it opened. By this time, it clearly had done its job. The downtown was in the middle of an obvious revival, in the absence of Urban Renewal's interference, and in spite of the Great Recession. By 2013, most of the spaces were fixed, busy with new projects, businesses, and housing. The downtown was surrounded by new investments and energy. All this happened without “large anchor tenants” or “major redevelopments” or “opening streets” or “closing streets” or any of the other “standard solution” fallacies that had been imposed on the downtown for decades. All that was needed was the demolition of a giant corporate-welfare development mechanism.


1) Urban Renewal is so destructive, that defunding it will revitalize a community, even during a recession.

2) Defunding Urban Renewal is easiest to organize when popular community projects are under attack.

3) A single popular community project can successfully initiate the defunding of an Urban Renewal program in a US city with a population of 130,000 … So, hypothetically, it could be defeated in Manhattan by 20 equally well-placed, high-participation community projects, and lots of organizing effort.

4) Special-Purpose Community Centers can be useful for promoting democracy, revitalizing the local economy, strengthening community, and filling dead neighborhoods with locally-driven activity.

5) Any architect or planner who wants to push for life in the urban fabric, should become a community developer and organizer.


Measure 20-134 would not have been defeated, and downtown Eugene would have been destroyed rather than revitalized, had not the following people come to the aid of the Tango Center at the appropriate time: city councilors Bonny Bettman, Betty Taylor, George Brown, Paul Nicholson, activists Gavin McComas, David Monk, Rob Handy, Jon Pincus, and hundreds of Tango Center volunteers.