Downtown Corvallis: Street Lens

What makes downtown Corvallis a special place? Depending on whom you ask, you may get a range of opinions. From its robust small business community to the ambiance of its tree-lined streets, there are clues to what makes our downtown so visibly unique.

Like many cities, Corvallis’ streetscape is constantly growing and evolving. And while growth is good, it is important to identify what’s working, so it can be built upon. 

Famous urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte provide examples for analyzing why downtowns are such remarkable places, and how to improve them structurally. Jacobs and Whyte remind us that downtowns are successful according to how well their created spaces accommodate and allure the people that inhabit them. 

As Whyte famously opined, “what attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

The Downtown Draw
Imagine a busy day in downtown Corvallis: the chatter, the music, the art, the salivary aromas pouring from rooms. Suspend yourself above. Scope the streetscape. Forget for a moment the economic intricacies and games of gain and loss, and instead draw your attention to the architectural landscape. 

The dizzying array of independent businesses is just one feather in the proverbial cap of downtown Corvallis. There are other characteristics that make it thrive, some obvious and others obscure.

In a landmark 1958 Fortune Magazine article, Jacobs ponders, “why downtown is such a mixture of things… (and) how astonishingly small a place it is.” 

Jacobs’ article unwraps how downtowns rely on short blocks, intimacy of spaces, and shifting focal points – all of which are geared towards accommodating the pedestrian experience. 

Written on the heels of the 1956 Highway Act, the article entitled Downtown is For People was a preemptive strike at the burgeoning urban renewal movement of the 1960s, that clearly prioritized automobiles and buildings over people. Although Jacobs was writing about much larger cities, her characterizations of features that make downtowns unique are still valid and applicable. 

Jacobs’ main point about buildings was they shouldn’t be monumentalized like pieces of artwork, rather they should adequately interact with its main user: pedestrians. 

Buildings, Landmarks, and “Punctuations”
It’s the little things along the streets, the peculiarities and interesting details contained in the density of urban space. These small gestures break up space on the sidewalk and provide visual contrast for pedestrians. 

Corvallis has its share of uniqueness in the planted trash bins and spherical concrete planters. Wall murals, sculptures, and other public art pieces populate the streetscape, alleys and building facades. Vigorous native plantings spill from tree wells and islands into sidewalks, providing respite to large expanses of concrete. 

It is evident that business owners contribute quite a bit to the street bling that animates downtown Corvallis. Businesses along 2nd Street, like Magenta, Tried & True and the Yoga Center, to name a few, have raised beds, street furniture, and other amenities that inhabit the right-of-way.

Buildings and spaces in downtown Corvallis interact with people in various ways. The County Courthouse is a focal point; something the pedestrian can see from the distance. Focal points create visual interest, or what Jacobs refers to as “punctuations.” 

In contrast, the contemporary Vue building juts out from uniformity of the typical urban block with cantilevered awnings. The double veranda shed-tech construction of Sky High Brewery has a quirky, house boat-like appearance, but also contributes to the diversity of building forms. Regardless of your opinion of them, the latter two structures introduce people to the rooftop offering sweeping vistas in previously underutilized spaces. 

Riverfront Commemorative Park provides a much-needed punctuation of green space; a pleasing end in sight for most downtown streets facing the river and something that Jacobs insisted was critically important. 

A case could be made that even the latest constructions in downtown Corvallis mesh fairly well with the historic fabric and promote a healthy densification aimed at bringing people downtown. Intentional or not, Corvallis’ new developments are modest and stray from spanning entire blocks in an effort to blend into existing blocks. 

Streets Be Flavorful
More so than visual amenities, the walk-ability and short city blocks are a primary contributor to downtown Corvallis’ dynamism. Streets are most important, Jacobs insists, as they “communicate the flavor” of a city.

A mentor to Jacobs, William Whyte studied the behavior of people in urban places through direct observation and believed the street acted as “the river of life of the city.” 

Cities across the country are turning to people-centric interventions to enliven downtown streets. The Farmers Market, for instance, turns 1st Street into a much different place, if only intermittently. But these temporary events demonstrate the possibility of what streets can do for downtown. Whyte challenged the notion of segregating pedestrian and automobile traffic, and in some cases, cities have closed off streets entirely as a way to create a more equitable environment for pedestrians. Charlottesville, Virginia comes to mind. 

In order to be walkable, streets need to offer a level of safety for the pedestrian. Parts of downtown like 2nd Street are noticeably pedestrian-friendly, whereas 4th Street is somewhat intimidating because of the enlarged scale of the street. Accommodating the car in downtown Corvallis is a touchy subject for business owners and patrons alike, but traffic calming retrofits, such as road narrowing and pedestrian islands are practical strategies to protecting both business investments and the safety of downtown patrons. 

Still Work To Do
Although parts of downtown are idyllic and cohesive, decades of neglectful planning blight the periphery, evidenced in parking lots, drive-thru’s, and unconnected spaces; the very things Jacobs and Whyte warned us about. 

Still, the walkable, dense, and vegetated people-oriented streetscapes are places that really shine and create a lasting impression. Imagine replacing some of those redundant surface parking lots with pocket parks and infill. It’s not a simple endeavor – there are barriers and power dynamics at play – but still a planted seed.

As Jacobs constantly harps on the virtues of density, she reminds us that “there is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings that we must fit our plans.”

 

By Chris McDowell

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