Eber leaves lasting mark on Winslow

Lorenz Eber (center) inspects work on new pedestrian islands this week. - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Lorenz Eber (center) inspects work on new pedestrian islands this week.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

He assumed that a job at Boeing would be rocket science, an engineer’s dream.

A strike and a marginal sense of purpose – redesigning a single bolt assembly on the side of a widebody jet – convinced Lorenz Eber otherwise. So three years ago, he brought his engineering skills to the public sector, on the island he called home.

“Working with concrete and dirt in your hometown turns out to be bliss,” Eber mused Monday, watching crews construct new pedestrian islands and crosswalks on Madison Avenue.

“I love this job – it’s the funnest job I’ve ever had, and I feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “If it turns ‘no fun,’ I’ll reconsider.”

Eber leaves his post with the city’s Department of Public Works at the end of the week to embark on a 15-month, around-the-world bicycle trip with wife Paula Holmes-Eber and their two daughters.

Through their travels, the family hopes to raise $5 million for asthma research.

The departure of many City Hall functionaries would go generally unnoticed. But Eber has raised his profile somewhat, becoming the department’s public face on high-profile and sometimes controversial transportation projects.

Besides the new islands – which he designed and helped push through the legislative process for funding – recent sidewalk improvements around Bainbridge High School and a new “bike-ped” corridor linking Koura and Mandus Olson roads also bear his signature.

And let’s not overlook the grandest of all traffic-calming projects, and island dust-ups, the Madison roundabout.

A common theme: amenities that eke out some space for those who eschew the automobile as primary mode of travel.

“I guess people know I bicycle and I have an interest in it,” Eber said of non-motorized transportation work. “And it seems to be what people are clamoring for – ways to get cars off the road, and get more people bicycling and walking.”

His boss, director Randy Witt, credits Eber with an “infectious attitude,” and the ability to explain plans so they make sense to decision makers and the public.

“He has a lot of enthusiasm for these (projects), and I’m not sure the roundabout would have happened without him,” Witt said.

The engineer

Eber, who holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, comes from a family of like minds.

His father is a retired electrical engineer in Germany; his grandfather was an optical engineer with Bell and Howell.

And his great-great-great-great-grandfather – also named Lorenz, and whose business partner, by coincidence, was a man named Witt – was a raftsman and logger responsible for straightening the Rhine River to make it navigable. Their work earned Eber and Witt a plaque of recognition from Napoleon.

After earning degrees at Northwestern University and the University of Washington, today’s Lorenz Eber worked in private practice for more than a decade before signing on with Boeing.

But he found the work there stultifying, particularly when he devoted 18 months of his life to a project by which a single bolt on a 767 was to be moved an inch closer to the airplane’s nose. An engineers’ walkout further soured him on the environment, and he applied for a job with the city where he and his family have lived since 1990.

He was hired by then-acting public works chief Jeff Jensen; when Witt was brought in a few months later, Eber found himself in a department with a new mandate for public involvement.

Eber’s appearance was fortuitous, as workshops and citizen advocacy groups were beginning to push non-motorized transportation planning to the fore.

He would make his mark at Madison Avenue and High School Road, an intersection then plagued by daily backups as cars and pedestrians clashed in a school zone.

With reconstruction at hand, engineering and popular sentiment leaned sharply toward the installation of a conventional traffic signal.

But Eber suggested that the department revisit the idea of a “modern roundabout,” designs for which he had studied a decade earlier. His cause was buttressed by various studies showing the design would be safer for pedestrians, and ensure low speeds as drivers motored through.

Eber became the roundabout’s eleventh-hour champion, selling it to a public and council that were skeptical at best.

It was, he said, a matter of breaking down people’s preconceived notions, usually expressed as giant, multi-laned traffic circles spinning with drivers gone mad.

“I like it when people have concerns and they come out, rather than having a lot of sheep say ‘baa,’” Eber said. “That’s what’s cool about Bainbridge Island.”

While the idea met a hailstorm of criticism – the council approved it despite overwhelming public opposition – it now is hailed as one of the city’s recent successes.

Said Witt: “Once (Eber) believed in it, his enthusiasm was contagious, and he was able to share that at all levels.”

Eber has faced similar, if less universal, opposition to the Madison Avenue islands, designed to slow cars and give pedestrians safe passage across the expansive roadway.

His design was retooled a bit after complaints from fire officials that the islands would impede emergency vehicles, while the Chamber of Commerce also opposed the project.

But the council sided with pedestrian advocates and approved the $125,000 in funding.

The islands will be completed days ahead of schedule, but Eber won’t be around to evaluate their success, at least for some time. He and his family leave next week for Greece, to begin their ride around the globe.

They will return to the West Coast next May, then ride across the United States to complete the journey in New York.

Eber will return to the public works department in September 2004.

In his absence, Eber said he would like to see the city begin the process of opening Ericksen Avenue to Hildebrand Lane.

Conceding that it would be a highly controversial move and something of a concession to the automobile, Eber said it would give Winslow another much-needed north-south automobile connection.

And he thinks the connection can work – particularly if it includes a small roundabout.

“In the best of worlds, traffic would not keep growing,” Eber said. “But that’s not what history shows us.”

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