By BEN GILBERT, The Daily Astorian
“This is not about a transit center. This is about building a town center, with some transit on it.”
Fred Kent has a broad vision, brought about by simple and mounting details. Benches, rest rooms, vendors, events and artwork. “There’s so much talent here. You’ve got so many zealous nuts. It’s not about government doing something, it’s about individuals.”
Put the zealous nuts to work being zealous nuts, is his philosophy: Subvert bureaucracy for the greater good.
“Forget the city codes. They build up over time to be what you don’t want to become in the future.”
The president and founder of the National Project for Public Spaces doesn’t want the job of designing the Intermodal Transit Center planned for the city block between Ninth and 10th streets and Marine Drive. He wants Astorians to do it, and so he led a workshop Saturday to tap local imaginations for what would make the place a hub of activity. Livable Oregon’s Sue Cameron, a partner in the design process, brought Kent to Astoria after a week of workshops in Salem, Beaverton and Portland.
A Zen master of counterintuitive design techniques, Kent focused on empowering people to come to their own conclusions and break down the hang-ups they have about property, parking, money and logistics. If ideas build enough energy, they’ll find a way through the obstacles, he said.
“Forget about the tourists. This is your place. If you go there, you’re making a real experience.” Kent wants imaginative detail drawn from what interests the community, that will draw activity, crowds and “high-level chaos and congestion.”
“Let’s have a bureaucracy-free zone here,” he said. “Remember Yogi Bera – ‘If they say it can’t be done, it might not work out that way.’” Kent urged the group to plan for a place they’ll want for 100 years, but focus on “what can you get done in 90 days?”
Sunset Empire Transportation District Chief Executive Officer Cindy Howe could do even better. Construction crews will begin filling the recessed parking lot with concrete Sept. 9. Within a month, she believes money can be secured for a mural to be painted on the building at the southwest corner of the site that will house the ticket sales, waiting area and rest rooms.
Kent was struck by the artwork on the back of the Sears building. The painter, Jo Brown, showed up for the workshop, an participants were unanimous that she should do the intermodal center as well.
His biggest challenge was in getting people to go beyond their parking worries. The mentality that people have to park in front of the place they’re going to creates unlivable communities, he said. If they want to get there, they’ll find parking nearby and walk, creating more community interaction and activity.
At this point, the parking obstacle is a big one. Cannon Beach resident George Fraser owns 60 percent of the parking on the site and wants to retain it for future tenants in his nearby Spexarth building, while letting SETD use it on the weekends for markets or other events. Kent said having as little parking as possible is key in creating pedestrian activity. Fraser wasn’t able to attend the workshop, but Howe said he’s been an active participant in the intermodal project.
At the site, Kent led the “place game,” breaking the participants up into groups of five and sending them off to different points of the site to make observations. Four Livable Oregon staffers wandered from group to group to keep the ideas churning.
In the cool concrete garage of the former bottling factory and seafood processing plant, sun and breeze wandered in the two hanging doors through plastic temperature flaps as the room full of people congregated and came out of their shells.
By the end of the game, everyone was in the mix, and more ideas came out. Artwork from Latino culture. Outdoor cafes under canopies from the restaurants in the surrounding blocks. A fountain or a rain park. Rooftop gardens. Wider sidewalks. Benches with tables. Chimes and hanging plants. Festivals, markets and platforms for performances.
Two poets present, Claudia Harper and Anne Phillips, suggested the center should have a center – a clock tower with a salmon surrounding it, or something of the like. “I see this as a cultural center, and I’m excited that others have the same vision,” said Harper.
“It can be beautiful with well-planned input,” added Phillips, who suggested having a groundfilling party when the concrete is ready to pour and burying a time capsule. Kent added to that, suggesting a competition for the most original thing to bury, to bring excitement and notoriety to the project.
Kent wore sunglasses inside, seemingly adding to his mystique. He’d lost his regular glasses, he said. All he had left were those prescription shades.
His son, Ethan, a protégé of placemaking, was as engaged as any resident, throwing out ideas and helping guide discussion.
Both tall with angular features, carrying cameras that hung down their chests like a third arm, they walked slowly into rooms and down streets with active necks twisting their heads to absorb more details. Ethan Kent is taking the placemaking concept to cyberspace, spending his spare time working on a master’s thesis in building community Web sites that better serve users.
“What are the biggest problems in this country? Obesity and diabetes and isolation. You solve that problem by getting people to walk, and having places to go,” said Fred Kent, who says most designers are working for awards committees and kudos from colleagues, not the people who will, or won’t, visit the places.
He’s not about trying to force a design or an idea on anybody. But Kent put in six hours of fervent urging of the Intermodal Center Committee and then of all the place-game players, to keep their eyes on the idea of place above object. Then he moves on to the next town, and leaves it up to the people to determine what happens.