John Darling / For the Tidings
John Fregonese, Ashland planning director for 13 years, is being remembered as a visionary who shaped an energy-conscious city made for people, not cars — and was able to rouse people with his enthusiasm to make cutting-edge things happen.
Fregonese, a dominating force in Ashland through the 1980s, died Saturday at age 66 of a fast-acting cancer. He was president of Fregonese Associates in Portland and, earlier, was planning director of “Metro,” the urban planning authority for the tri-county region of Portland.
“He was a real man of vision,” said Brian Almquist, Ashland city administrator in the ‘70s through the ‘90s. He noted that Fregonese shaped downtown for the future, was “the father of our conservation program and was an all-around nice guy, a super human being.”
“The Planning Commission loved him and he had them on-task all the time,” Almquist says. “He was chief planner, a very high position doing the comp plan for tri-county (Portland), then became a consultant of world renown, doing downtown plans for European cities, very much in demand. But he had a special love for Ashland and he was a person you could trust to just do it, without requiring any supervision. Those were the golden years of Ashland.”
Peers noted Fregonese’s dedication to writing the still-operative city comprehensive plan, downtown plan and creating parks or “open space” within walking distance (a quarter of a mile) of any resident. These initiatives led to North Mountain Park, Strawberry-Hald and other parks, as well as the meals tax to pay for them.
Former city Councilor Susan Reid said, “He did so many varied things, got federal grant money to save the railroad district and funnel it to new foundations, wiring, plumbing, then made us all computer-literate. He was a real Renaissance man.”
Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw said, “He was a delightful person, a lot of fun, a brilliant planner who left his fingerprints all over Ashland, especially downtown. His vision was small community nodes where people could gather at water fountains and benches, that intimacy you see in many European cities. He was a great, present person, so accessible, so collaborative, with a great eye for livable cities. We were so blessed to have someone of his genius.”
Fregonese in 1987 gave Bill Molnar, now Ashland planning director, his first job in the field.
“I couldn’t have been more fortunate,” Molnar said. “He was an exceptionally creative, warm person, one you wanted to be around. You meet a few of those in life. He made you proud to work in the public sector. You felt it was a noble cause. He cautioned us against maintaining status quo, when he felt it was outdated. He made us look at problems with a different lens, a new perspective. I think about John a lot. To him, it was about people and your efforts to benefit the community. He really tried to make it touch as many people as possible. He set the bar very high and it’s hard to fill his shoes.
“A lot of city planners say it’s a combination of science and art, and he leaned to the artistic approach. He liked farmers markets, street vendors, key walking corridors. He was a key author of the affordable housing plan of 1990 and set the foundation 20 years ahead of his time. He was looking forward to slowing down now. It’s very hard to hear this news and talk about it.”
Longtime friend Dick Wanderscheid, former city director of Electric Utilities, said Fregonese brought the vision of energy conservation and “was a brother, mentor and role model, a visionary and an amazing guy who inspired a lot of people. I would not be where I am today if I were not mentored by John. The world is a much darker place without him.”
Fregonese was oriented to developments that were done before the “domination of the automobile,” said Wanderscheid. “He cared about how pedestrians got around. He wanted to fix public transit and get cities on a scale where you’d want to be walking around instead of pulling into your double garage and not seeing your neighbor.”
John McLaughlin, the planning director after Fregonese (now Bandon planning director), said, “Frego was an amazingly talented man. He could have done anything in life, but we are very fortunate he chose land-use planning. Oregon and many other places are far better off because of his influence. You couldn’t help but get excited about whatever he was touching. We did the downtown plan together. I tried to become a sponge and learn all I could while he did it. He had downtown fired up about what it could be. He kickstarted me to want to become a planner.”
Former city Councilor Pat Acklin said Fregonese was a friend and mentor. “He had a world view and devoted his life to making places good for people to live in. I was quite blue from hearing this. Someone who was so vibrant and had such a lust for life and human interaction. He had a big impact on my life.”
Fregonese’s firm’s website, frego.com, says, “Since founding Fregonese Associates in 1997, John has led or taken part in nationally significant regional plans, including the Compass Blueprint Growth Vision for the Southern California Association of Governments, Envision Utah, the Sustainable Places Project in Austin, Louisiana Speaks and Sustainable Development for the Louisiana Coast Handbook. John also led the East Baton Rouge Parish Comprehensive Plan, a project that spurred unprecedented public involvement in the Baton Rouge area, particularly from under-represented groups. Since its adoption, the plan is beginning to take form in a number of planned infill developments and transit improvements. John is leading Heartland 2050, a regional planning process in Omaha, Nebraska.”
The Fregonese office said an informal gathering honoring him is in the planning stages.
Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at email@example.com.