A riverfront conundrum: UO submits land use permit to city, sparking controversy over possible artificial turf fields

Situated on the south bank of the Willamette River, the University of Oregon riverfront fields are — to put it politely — rugged. Often overlooked, these fields are only noticed during the walk to Autzen that guides Duck fans through the patchy riverfront grass. But the fields are a burden …

Situated on the south bank of the Willamette River, the University of Oregon riverfront fields are — to put it politely — rugged. Often overlooked, these fields are only noticed during the walk to Autzen that guides Duck fans through the patchy riverfront grass. But the fields are a burden for those that use and maintain them on a regular basis.

“There’s potholes everywhere, big dirt patches,” said Spencer de Urioste, president and captain of the men’s club rugby team. “It’s terribly maintained.”

The men’s and women’s rugby teams practice and play on the fields. The teams are responsible for substantial field preparation before each game: painting the boundary and endzone lines, filling in holes and more. But even with the teams’ efforts, players still complain the fields are a safety hazard.

“We’ve had players twist their ankles, hurt their knee really badly just by stepping in gopher holes [and] ditches,” said Charles Dimer, member and operations manager of the men’s rugby team.

Plans are in motion that may change the current riverfront atmosphere.

On Feb. 26, the University of Oregon Campus Planning Committee submitted its North Campus Conditional Use Permit to the city of Eugene for approval. The plan designates room for development of areas north of the railroad tracks, including space for three new athletic fields.

Campus Planning began work on the land use permit in early 2017. Since then, intentions behind the plan stirred controversy among faculty and community members. Of particular concern are the proposed athletic fields along the riverfront.

A riverfront conundrum: UO submits land use permit to city, sparking controversy over possible artificial turf fields

The Riverfront Field. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Although the permit doesn’t specify materials, Mike Harwood, associate vice president of Campus Planning and campus architect, said it would be a logical conclusion to assume that the fields will be artificial turf during a Feb. 14 UO senate meeting.

Environmental impact

Campus Planning says UO needs more athletic fields to accommodate growth and attract students. Opponents say building turf fields on the riverfront is ecologically inappropriate and other viable options exist for the area. Emily Eng, senior planner with Campus Planning, explained that while the permit calls for new athletic fields in that area, their construction isn’t guaranteed.

A conditional use permit is an initial requirement for any construction project: it diagrams the maximum potential use for a piece of land. The permit doesn’t need to include detailed renderings of the infrastructure — think of it as UO requesting permission to build something in an area, should a need be identified.

But as Eng said, UO identified the need for additional fields in the Framework Vision Project, a 2014 report that informs campus planning decisions. Given the specific space requirements, finding a place for athletic fields is an issue, Eng said.

Bitty Roy, professor of ecology at UO, isn’t satisfied. She said artificial turf fields on the riverfront would harm the surrounding environment, especially if the fields were lit at night.

According to her, field lighting would disrupt the navigation of migratory birds. Even if the light was funneled not to shine directly into the sky, Roy said a substantial amount of light would still reflect off the surface of the field.

“They are beginning to think about the river as an asset, and that’s brilliant,” Roy said. “It just needs a little bit more thought about what makes sense to go down there and how to use it in a way that isn’t just saying, ‘Ok, we need more space for playing fields,’ but instead, ‘How can we make this a showcase for the university?’”

Eng said that the plan doesn’t specify field lights. If lights were constructed, Campus Planning would take measures to mitigate the negative impacts.

“The plan is not required to be that specific,” Eng said. “So we haven’t specified surface material or whether there will be lights or not. It’s just the use of the land. It just says we propose ‘this’ amount of square footage for recreation fields.”

Roy also said evidence exists that suggests artificial turf fields leach harmful chemicals into the environment. The surface of turf can reach over 160 degrees in Oregon summers, which she said could stress the surrounding vegetation.

“In general, artificial turf is like putting a parking lot out there,” Roy said. “It’s a petroleum product.”

Eng said that if the fields were made from artificial turf, UO would commit to treating stormwater runoff from the fields.

The materials debate is a snapshot of the larger discussion that has waged since summer 2017: are athletic fields even the best use for this riverfront space? According to Eng, it’s complicated.

“It’s not like you couldn’t put [the fields] somewhere else,” Eng said. “But if you put them somewhere else, they’re displacing some other use that really needs to be there, like classroom buildings or open space.” There aren’t any existing open spaces big enough to accomodate a recreation field, she said.

A riverfront conundrum: UO submits land use permit to city, sparking controversy over possible artificial turf fields

A softball tangled in greenery just beyond the Riverfront Field’s fence. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

Up for debate

Bart Johnson, UO associate professor of landscape architecture, thinks the university should develop and restore the riverfront area to attract environmental science, biology and landscape architecture students. He said he can’t think of another campus that has a large river in such close proximity, and that this North Campus Conditional Use Permit is an opportunity to showcase the university’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

“[The fields] take up a large amount of area for, relatively, a small number of people,” Johnson said. “The fact is, you need someplace flat. The university is unwilling to allocate other potential building areas not near the river for the ball field needs.”

According to Johnson, an advisory group to UO comprised of ecologists and landscape architects suggested in the summer of 2017 that an alternative plan without athletic fields on the riverfront should be considered. Johnson later attended a meeting where alternative plans were presented, expecting to see a spectrum of proposals.

“Every single one of them had ball fields,” he said. “They differed in minor ways, in the positioning of the trails, things like that. But they didn’t look at the full range of opportunities that some of the stakeholders — who they had engaged — said should be considered.”

Eng said that plans excluding athletic fields weren’t considered because the permit needed to show the maximum potential development for the area.

“You could do nothing,” Eng said. “You could do all of [the permit]. But it’s likely going to fall somewhere in between that. For that reason, there has not been an alternative to a plan that doesn’t show recreation fields.”

Roy doesn’t see it the same way.

“The lack of vision about the riverfront is upsetting because it is the most phenomenal thing we have on this campus,” Roy said. “It could be used for the kinds of advertising that the UO is always talking about and never doing. Instead there is the continuing focus on sports. And I am not against sports and exercise, I’m just against them on the riverfront.”

The Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs held a meeting on Feb. 26 to address concerns voiced by opponents of the plan.

Johnson attended the meeting and said no one mentioned that the permit had been submitted. He said the confusion surrounding the meeting is emblematic of UO’s attitude toward opponents of the plan.

According to Eng, in the weeks prior to the meeting, faculty members associated with the UO Senate were notified that the permit would be submitted around that date, regardless of further discussion.

In response to the permit submittal, faculty, students and Eugene community members created the Riverfront Restoration and Education Group. The group views the permit submittal as a symbolic end of discussion. Johnson, a member, said there should be more time to deliberate, and to expect a motion in favor of withdrawing the permit to be introduced to the UO Senate.

But Campus Planning and permit opponents have compromised some. Previously, the permit called for a 100-foot buffer between any development and the river. Due to feedback from Johnson, Roy and others, the buffer was increased to 200 feet.

Eng also mentioned other revisions: restricting the height and coverage of buildings north of the railroad tracks and slashing the amount of athletic fields from five to three.

“I admit that these planning documents are not very inspirational, they’re really just designating the big blobs of land usage,” Eng said. “So when people see the possibility of recreation fields — this big blob here and a blob here for conservation — they are not seeing how they can actually work together or what that experience might be like, because we are not at that level of detail yet.”

UO’s previous land use permit for the riverfront area expired after 23 years. Only three buildings from that plan were ever constructed, but Eng said that is no indication of this permit’s potential. Eng said she expects approval from the city this summer. A public comment period would follow should the permit be approved.

The UO Rec Center has jurisdiction over the current riverfront fields. Al Diaz, assistant director of operations at the Rec, acknowledges the area is not ideal. He explained that because the fields are not fenced and far from campus, the Rec can’t improve them.

“We’ve had talks about turfing them and such but those are always just discussions,” Diaz said. “It takes a lot of money to turf a field, a huge commitment too.”

As of now, four turf fields exist adjacent to the Rec. Between physical education classes, intramural sports, club sports and general recreation time, Diaz said that allotting programs their fair share of time can present a challenge.

“I do think we need more fields,” Diaz said. “I think it would always benefit students to have more options and more availability and more for them to do and organize. I think that’s part of their development and part of their mental and physical health.”

Have some input? Tell the Emerald what you think the University of Oregon should do with its riverfront property here. 

Franklin is in his third year writing for the Daily Emerald. He covers a variety of beats: crime, campus planning, science & technology and campus culture.