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Interview Week: Zach Vishanoff

Editors’ note: Welcome to Interview Week. It’s like Shark Week, except with transcripts rather than terrifying cartilaginous fish. So in other words, slightly more terrifying. The Interview Issue is being frantically rushed into existence as we speak and we are all excited about it. But the thing about interesting conversations is that they don’t come into being at the leisure of the printed page. They’re lengthy and often overrun their allotment. We couldn’t fit everything in the Interview Issue, so some of our most interesting pieces are coming at you through the World Wide Web this week. Enjoy or die!

This is the first interview in that series, by me with the activist Zach Vishanoff (pictured it above), maybe the most interesting person in the orbit of the UO. In the finished magazine, extremely small excerpts from the interview will appear at the top of each page. The entire interview lasted about half an hour. While it was happening, Vishanoff talked about the decade he has spent opposing the UO’s development and expansion. The reader may draw his or her own conclusions from the text of the interview. As with all of our interviews, we assume no legal responsibility for the factual content of our subjects.

Vishanoff also insisted it is important to note he consumed a great deal of coffee prior to the interview.

Great thanks are due for Ross Coyle, who transcribed this interview, and Rockne Andrew Roll, who provided the camera. It’s possible that there might have been some unseemly transition between Microsoft Word and the blog in terms of the integrity of the text. If that’s the case, I apologize for it and let me know. The interview is below the fold, and there will be a video in due time.

Oregon Commentator: Zach, how are you today?

Zach Vishanoff: Pretty decent. I had a little too much coffee, but besides that I’m good.

OC: I think that probably works for the purposes of this interview.

ZV: Yeah, it’s better than too little coffee, I guess.

OC: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

ZV: I guess at one time I was a (University of Oregon) student. I entered school in about ’88, [and] went here for five years. Still have to take one or two classes to graduate so I never really did completely graduate. But while I was here, and after I left school here, I saw a long-term redevelopment plan taking place east of campus. An expansion plan.

So, in about 2000, I started writing things and posting them on telephone poles in the neighborhood that was going to be redeveloped: Moss Street neighborhood and the Fairmount neighborhood. I really don’t participate in that anymore. Kind of water under the bridge.

Basically my attempt was to bring up the issue of the house removals from the Fairmount neighborhood on the university-owned land; the houses were being sold for a dollar each at the time. At the time the university had 112 houses over there.

They had previously bulldozed a place called Amazon that later became Spencer View. So I knew they were very capable, (and) very willing to get rid of large amounts of low-income housing and replace it with stuff that is seven to eightfold, as far as the original cost.

Amazon was a place I spent some time at after my parents were divorced, so I kind of grew up in UO housing. When UO housing started devouring itself I became the canary in the coal mine – as far as challenging that and getting entangled in it politically to what degree I could.

I can’t say that I made a difference you can point to specifically, because you don’t read about Moss Street or saving homes in the Fairmount Neighborhood. But there’s some of the leadership in the neighborhood and the neighborhood association where the people beside me, helping me back in the day (to) resist the university’s, kind of, heavy handed planning in the neighborhood. So I think I can at least put it behind me, but I also … when reporters ask me to explain what I think’s going on, I’m willing to do so.

It’s kind of, you know, it took a lot of my energy over the years to figure out what was going on, and some how make the media – willingly or by force – report about what I thought the real news was over there. Especially if they’re reporting on kind of nonsensical type stories instead of that. So it’s been a long effort, but in a nutshell, that’s how I loosely describe what I’m trying to do.

OC: Was that your modus operandi, your attempts to thwart Moss Street development was mostly dealing with the media?

ZV: The media either became something that could either take you to heaven or take you to hell. In one day I’d have, say, some coverage on TV, of like my friend who lived on Moss Street put a sign in his yard, we cemented in his yard, saying, “Stop the home removals.” He rented from the university and he had kids. The university just immediately evicted him. (Editor’s note: I have thus far been unable to confirm this story).

On that day, the stars were aligned for me and I was able to get the message across and I had created a sign, it was cemented in the ground but it was strategically placed right across the street from the dorms at (East) 15th (Avenue) and Moss (Street). So it’s storytelling. Storytelling’s kind of more grass-roots-y. It’s trying to tell the story of a neighborhood. When maybe half the homes are empty or the university keeps a third of the homes empty, it’s very tricky. You’re trying to tell a story for houses – ghost houses, you know. Houses people are breaking into or sleeping in at night, or raccoons. I’ve used them for four to five years, you know that’s what happened to the house that I – 1649 Moss Street, they eventually kind of took it offline.

OC: Was this your old house?

ZV: Yeah, that’s one that sold for a dollar. Probably where the day care center – the new, expanded kind-of super center is, on part of that footprint – there’s five other houses. But it was used for transients and raccoons for about three or four years and my dad and I would stop by, and kind of, we both knew that it wouldn’t be there much longer. I even took a light bulb back, from the porch, that was still working and I have it to this day. It’s just this kind of, I don’t know, kind of like an idea that lurks in your head, so I just kept the light bulb.

OC: When you were more heavily involved in that you referred to it as a Moss Street Conspiracy. What was the object of that conspiracy?

ZV: Part of the whole thing was that Eyster, Mike Eyster, who was running (University Housing) at that time. They couldn’t really come out and say “We’re getting rid of all of that east campus housing.” But off the record they could, partly because it’s illegal for certain things. People would take legal action. So if you know you’re going to do something and people will disagree with it and you’re in a position of power, and you plan on doing it but you say other things, then I think it’s kind of a pre-meditated crime.

Also when you soften up the neighborhood first by keeping it partially occupied with tenants and partially vacant. And then when houses come into the housing department, and when people look on the website or on the brochures, you just don’t show that that area even exists. You kind of take it off the map. Kind of Area 51 holdership. They own it but they don’t say they own it because someone might want to occupy it and fix it up.

This is kind of a side story, but there was a student who said “I’m going to have a garden in my front yard,” and the housing department threatened to evict him. And he kept a direct action garden on Villard Street. So that was the peaking in that neighborhood of realization by the tenants that the neighborhood is going to get wiped out. But also in the university’s willingness to be outwardly twisted.

They were saying, “You have to have a lawn along Villard Street” or you will be thrown out of your housing. It was in the (Eugene) Weekly; it was called “Lawns Not Food.” And that article didn’t – it was John Boosinger – who lived in the neighborhood. It was just kind of, what I would have like to have seen, the kind of thing that could have taken over the neighborhood as far as longer term tenants or if the university had been forced to sell the houses back if they couldn’t keep the land and maintain them. So it was that ideal situation of the tenant using the power of the housing to show the university down in the media, and it was just amazing.

OC: So the conspiracy, you would say, was to hide the fact that eventually, development was going to come up over all of those houses for legal reasons?
ZV: Well, let’s say you have a quiet donor who … you’re trying to get him on board, and you have to say, “Hey, we’ve got a land bank here and we’ve got this many acres by that many acres.” And you can see how they’re parking lots now but we’ll wipe that area out. So if you want to offer them a clean slate, a bunch of talk about low-income housing removals is just complicated. It’s not positive working environment for somebody. Like, say, an indoor track.

There is still an indoor track proposal, now where does it end up? What neighborhood doesn’t get talked about the most? What neighborhood has the UO neglected worst? And so the half-empty neighborhood thing helps the university very much because if they’re the main landlord, they can let the houses go. Pretty soon, land owners don’t want to own property near the university because they know there’s people living in the neighborhood who are just gypsies and they don’t even know what’s going to happen to the land. So it makes really positive-minded community people leave the area when the university moves eastward, which it is actively doing.

OC: So you think eventually that’s where the university’s going to put the proposed track and field venue?

ZV: I think there is no border of the university that they would like to see well cared-for. Growing in any of these directions would likely be an option. The graveyard is a hurdle. The south university neighborhood is a hurdle. My guess is the EMX line, is really – and that’s where Mike Eyster works now, as the president of (Lane Transit District) (Editor’s note: Eyster is actually a member of LTD’s board) – but my guess is anything along the EMX line is probably pretty exciting for the university as far as more projects like (the) Courtside (Apartments).

OC: Is that the kind of thing you’ve been working on since you parted ways with the Moss Street issue?

ZV: Well as I showed you earlier today, the last things I was predicting are things sort of like what (a Eugene Weekly article about former UO Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny’s financial stake in apartments near the new basketball arena) states. As far as the arena district being used by donors in ways that are really hard to track, that show that the arena siting was not done for the best. It was done for reasons to do with the architect, and friends of the architect and the UO Foundation and other silent partners so they could invest in land beyond the arena and surrounding the arena.

And so one of my assertions in my earlier interviews was that the replacement of (McArthur) Court is not about replacing Mac Court. It’s about growing that way and finding a big excuse to do so. By mismanaging parking and traffic, what they do is devalue, to some degree, the land surrounding the university, the land like Hirons and Market (of Choice). Depending on if those people can sort through the chaos and keep their business running.

As UO buys more parcels over there and leaves it empty. In my view, the Joe Romania property is held by the UO Foundation, a side entity called Future Expansion LLC, holds that property. The first time I saw in the door of that thing the other day, the door was open it’s these piles of junk, just weird random piles of junk. I didn’t go any closer (because) there were “No Trespassing” signs.

But holding that land, that property, that footprint in the neighborhood as a ghost footprint until it gets redeveloped – it’s actually been nominated for the historic register. It’s a property crime against the neighborhood. That’s the methodology at the university: we get the property, we hold it, we vacate it, we make people not want to live there, and then we buy their places. It’s kind of really simple but maybe people don’t notice it as much as I do because I remember when it was a working Joe Romania (car dealership). And selling SUVs may not be the most wonderful thing in the neighborhood, but there was foot traffic there was people driving away, it was something.

We had this fatal shoot-out recently across from this Joe Romania. At some point student leadership should say “UO, why do you own all this stuff? We have a bunch of students needing housing. Can you convert that to something because we have some needs here?”

But unfortunately they’re (the ASUO) kind of too busy with these squabbles that really keep them out of the real estate, the expansion, campus livability issues. And that’s where I see these shoot outs coming from. I don’t see those happening around a positive university growing with the community. I see it near a predatory university that’s a land speculator, who’s very secretive, and it needs a small army of journalists nailing it every minute to even respond in any reasonable way to the community. I obviously feel really strongly about it but we need a small army of reporters and unfortunately I can think of about two and a half or three that are on the case now that might show some hope.

I don’t know what to say for the future for the University. If that Weekly thing, if the Register-Guard or the Oregonian or something put that Weekly news item on the front page and examined the details, I think they’d get a lot more information about what else is going on over there, and I think the whole autonomy thing would be put on the rocks as a complete joke. Eventually, the legislature would require the UO divorce itself entirely from the UO Foundation. It would say, “You guys have something going on here that’s not working and we have to start over.”

So I think divorcing those two entities entirely is really good. And I know that’s not going to happen but that’s a solution. A second solution that’s more realistic is if the Student Senate and (University) Senate takes every big donation and analyzes it first before it gets written off. And that’s almost impossible but that’s a solution and some of my readings on that subject, that’s what people said. Some kind of review panel, a panel that can’t be stacked, that’s grassroots, and that are appointed from people who know what they’re doing and not operatives.

OC: You haven’t mentioned Nike yet, but a lot of the things that you put forth have to do with Nike’s role in all of this. What do you see that as being?

ZV: Well they’re just one of the usual suspects really. I’d say probably here it’s just as bad with Intel or Hewlett-Packard, just not a visible way. I think there could be equally insidious or more insidious relationships between stuff that’s not even on the radar. And that’s partially because the architecture on campus. If you have a bunch of big buildings with no windows, and then you grow certain departments where there is a lot of corporate interest, and then there’s different arrangements where the students – the university keeps the fruits of the students’ research. I think it’s possible to grow universities the wrong way. For instance – I don’t know much about this relationship – but (Oregon State University) and Monsanto started collaborating at some point, and they worked together at some point. That’s to me bothering and Oregonians have accepted that. Same with Westinghouse. Westinghouse does work at OSU on safe nuclear reactors. These nuclear reactors are being proposed all over China with Westinghouse? So they can say this is the new thing for clean nukes or whatever they want to call it, but I think OSU loses its mission in those types of relationships. Either of those examples – I don’t know much about those but from what I’ve read – it’s incredibly disturbing. Partially because you don’t read about it, it’s not well known.

ABC did something about loose nukes on campus. ABC wandered into some campus reactor where the door was left open. As far as you didn’t really need, there wasn’t enough security.

OC: So the damage that you’re trying to fight comes from the relationship between corporations and universities, in your opinion?

ZV: No, if I had to underscore one key point would be that the UO Foundation creates an unhealthy relationship for the university as far as the connections and the future and the mission. And I think that book, Leasing the Ivory Tower, there was a term, I can’t even remember if it was that book or another book, they called “rent-a-researcher program” there’s all these Nike-endowed professors that are in all subjects. I don’t know that much about it, but in my view, maybe Nike has a stake in some of that research. I would like a robust debate around professorships. Does the university president have a Nike professorship? Back in the day (ex-UO President Dave) Frohnmayer got one they called it something else later, I think it was referred to as an endowment but it was an add-on to his salary. To me that’s something that could be retracted at any second. This Legacy Fund, are there things happening now and in the future where if they don’t happen a certain way, if the UO doesn’t buy certain pieces of land in the future, does the Legacy Fund disappear?

OC: This is the fund that is set up in a way to backstop the financial aspect of the new arena.

ZV: Right, and that’s the term that has been used recently, backstopping of the donation. Recently, on KUGN, they announced that it was $227 million dollars of Phil Knight’s money. So I was pointing that out earlier as an indicator that we’re in real trouble because that’s very factually incorrect.

OC: It was in fact state bonds.

ZV: Yeah, and it’s very risky. There’s an economics professor that I won’t name, but I wish we could hear regularly about attendance at the new arena and the projected earnings of the arena versus what’s coming. Those were pretty guarded as trade secrets before – the consultants that made up the numbers were saying that was their “special sauce” was the quote they were using. But now that the arenas been running a while, I hope someone’s able to get the information because that’s really key. If the information is bad, they’re not going to release it to save the brand. If people feel like the arena is failing they might not want to be part of a failure. The best way to project what’s going on is ticket prices. When I heard there’s $2 tickets the other day, and I heard the KUGN people saying, “Come on teachers! Come on schools out in the middle of nowhere! We’ve got to sell out this game!” I pictured these kids being put on buses out in the middle of nowhere by some coach that is getting, I don’t know, some sneakers from some radio station. It felt so freaky to think of the transportation requirements across a state because KUGN is trying to make sure that the first women’s game was going to be a sellout. It was kind of like an ego thing, like we’re going to want to read about a sellout, so if you want coverage for your school out in the middle of nowhere, get on board. It’s just frightening to me because carting around kids in those old buses across the state.

The idea that Matt Arena is going to be this draw from rural areas is just disturbing. I wish there was some serious rail system in the state. I just have images in my mind of the future commutes these Autzen, they have an Autzen drinking district where the city council was lobbied by the EPD to make it legal to have an open container around Autzen at certain times around the games. So UO really kind of slants in the wrong direction on these types of things.

The Hult Center, I mentioned, the Matt Arena looks like it’s competing with the Hult Center. I’m not an economist but I hope you’ll study that angle because the UO focus on the eastward could have repercussions downtown. I think (Lane Community College’s development in downtown) shows that schools can invest in downtown when no one else will. No one besides LCC, or very few, are interested in the area. If my Moss Street rebellion had been successful along Villard Street and on Franklin, and the student government were to get involved and say “Why are you buying all this land in Glenwood, are you working out for the corporations?” then we could push them downtown. They own the Baker Center, which is the old Register-Guard building. That building is one of the ugliest downtown. If the student government were just kicking and screaming for about two years, kicking and screaming for about two years, huge posters, they could build dorm towers right there.

I don’t think they have the brain cells to understand that. I really don’t.

I try to talk to them, they have them meet in these little rooms where they never get anything done. They give them all this procedural crap to go through so I see their side a little bit. But at some point they need special subcommittees for land use.

If the University is doing eminent domain and people on the student government don’t know what that is or what, you’re in trouble. And the UO continues this eminent domain type behavior until someone goes after them. Luckily we have (biology professor Nathan) Tublitz in charge of the faculty senate. I think he’s been around the block a few times and you need someone as brilliant as he is really in front of the student government and really making the case and doing a lot of outreach.

It’s partially a media problem, it’s partially because they (the ASUO) get wrapped up with the smoking ban on campus that erode your credibility with everything. So there’s so many layers to it but the autonomy thing where the University’s trying to restructure itself and a couple of the top people: (OSU President) Ed Ray, UO President, Frohnmayer, George (Pernsteiner). It feels like the whole plot of Star Wars or something, with the emperor, it really does. Because that’s what is at stake.

And luckily, and I can’t believe it, the OUS Board pushed back and said “we don’t like that plan.” Because the OUS Board signed off on the Westmoreland (housing) sale, which you couldn’t have done worse than that. The OUS Board signed off on the bonding of the arena. Why would they push back on this New Partnership? Maybe they learned their lesson with the arena, maybe they regret approving the arena.

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