Is this a change you can believe in?

The refurbished Plaza in Ashland is either:

a) A triumph.

b) A travesty.

c) Neither.

But let me think about it for a minute ...

d) Uh, did they change that?

It's a law of urban life that any change to a highly visible public space will involve wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the rise of the cons will stiffen the resolve of the pros, and away we go.

So when they decided (I'm not sure who "they" were in the beginning, but "they" came to include a critical mass of Ashland City Council members) it was time to refurbish the public square (actually a sort of wonky trapezoid) at the Plaza in Ashland, the die was cast.

The cons quickly gave the project its own Facebook page ( "Black pavers," the page threatened. "No shade for decades. Concrete to sit on. The shape of things to come?"

City officials asked for comments. They had study sessions. They hashed out costs (around $209,000).

They decided to get rid of the grass (hard to maintain) and some old trees (predictably not doing too well), the latter item a guaranteed hot button. The place sits on the site of a pioneer mill and an even earlier village of the Shasta tribe of American Indians, so there was an archaeological delay.

The work happened. The glass was half empty or half full, depending on whom you talked to. Some saw uninviting concrete benches replacing more butt-friendly wood. Others saw lovely ceramic friezes on the bench's sides.

In April the Plaza officially opened for business, or loitering, or contemplating your tourist map or your Shakespeare program or your navel or whatever. A time capsule was buried, and the town moved on.

On a sunny day at the end of May, Lithia Park is filled with strollers and guitar strummers and tai chi players as usual, and people are hanging out on the Plaza, as usual. Your first impression is that the space has been opened up. If this is Ashland's living room, the carpeting is a sea of gray pavers.

Bob Teeple, 72, who is visiting from Seattle to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with his wife, Shari, gives the pavers a judicious eye.

"I'd like grass," he says.

"Trees would be nice," Shari says.

Trees have been planted, but they're small.

"I guess it's more open, but I'm not really diggin' the blocks," says 18-year-old Ashlander Shawn Davis, sitting on a concrete bench with skateboard in hand.

"It'd be cool if they put more benches in like that one," he says, nodding to a long, wooden number.

There's no skateboarding allowed, but that doesn't stop Davis from thinking about it, or his eyes from lighting up.

"You could get stalls and grinds and different flips," he says. "And gaps, jump on the bench.

"I liked the bigger trees," he adds.

Claude and Bettina Rosenthal, a 60something couple from Sonoma, Calif., who also came for Shakespeare, say the new look is an improvement.

"The drinking fountains are nicer," Claude says. "They were funky.

"And there doesn't seem to be those little rats with their backpacks. Where they are, we're not going to be. They're not here, so we're sitting here. If they were here, we wouldn't be."

City officials denied the redesign was intended to discourage homeless people from hanging out.

"The downside is, the grass was nice," Bettina says.

"It is pavy-looking," Claude says, eyeing the pavers. "It would be nice if there were more green spaces and flowers."

Jim Van Houten, of Santa Cruz, Calif., who has been coming for Shakespeare with friends for many years, doesn't miss the worn grass.

"I miss the trees," he says. "It's nice to have trees. You need shade."

"I didn't notice," Ellie Van Houten says. "You can't get everybody to agree on everything."

"Grass is tough to maintain," Jim says. It's not a loss." He adds, "A shade structure would be nice."

The Van Houtens say there was a controversy in Santa Cruz about whether a public courtyard should have trees, which the arts and crafts people who held a market there worried would limit booth space. In the end plans for trees were dropped.

Joseph Noriega and Colleen Krinard can't believe anybody is asking them about the Ashland Plaza, which is starting to seem like a theme in their lives. Noriega, who collects art, explains that a few years ago in Albuquerque, N.M., he bought a large oil painting that depicts a public square in an old town.

"I thought it was the zocalo (public square) in Oaxaca," Krinard says, referring to the southern Mexican city famed for its black pottery. "Then I realized it was Ashland."

Krinard's son lives in Ashland, and the couple, who are musicians, are now thinking about moving from New Mexico to Southern Oregon.

Based on my non-scientific sample, Ashland residents are more likely than tourists to find fault with the changes to the Plaza.

"It's stupid they took away that big tree," says Hans Selk, 34. "I felt a magnificent old tree in an old town had history."

"Gotta keep up appearances for the tourists," says Eldon Tobrock, 21, also of Ashland. "It's trying to be fancy. They did a nice job, but did they really have to spend all that money?"

"An old tree is more of an honest feeling," Selk says.

But most people aren't losing sleep. Ruedi Vest, who volunteers in the Plaza's information booth, says most people don't express strong feelings about the space, one way or the other.

"One of the things they do say is it's all barren," he says. "And it's all gray." He has a theory.

"The Plaza is a place people go through," he says. "The benches are all over there (pointing toward Main Street). They used to be there (pointing toward Lithia Park). There's less hanging out now. But the strongest opinion we get is the lithia water." The mineral-filled water has a famously foul taste.

Lura Mangelscorf, who works at The Web-sters shop on the Plaza just across from the square, says she doesn't hear much about the changes anymore.

"While it was going on people were outraged," she says. "Now it's like, no big deal."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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