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Eugene Weekly : News : 03.16.06

Garage Blasted

Citizens pack hearing to oppose Whole Foods subsidy.

BY ALAN PITTMAN

In one of the largest public hearings the city of Eugene has ever had, about 300 citizens packed the City Council chamber on Monday to oppose a city plan to subsidize Whole Foods with a $9 million parking garage.

In more than three hours of testimony, Whole Foods garage opponents outnumbered supporters by almost a three to one ratio.

With every seat filled and more than a hundred standing for hours, Eugene planning consultant Eben Fodor marveled at the outpouring of opposition. Referring to the Texas Whole Foods corporation, he suggested the hearing be known as "the Texas chain-store massacre."

But even with the huge opposition, the outcome remained unclear at EW's Wednesday morning deadline. Before the hearing a solid council majority supported the garage. They only agreed to hold a hearing at all after garage opponent Councilor Bonny Bettman pointed out that it was legally required. City staff suggested that the council vote to support the garage before the hearing, but the council scheduled the vote for Wednesday afternoon, March 15.

Many citizens criticized the staff and council for rushing the project forward without public involvement or testimony. "You need to just slow down," said Dave Woods.

Candace Nelson said the city should let "Eugene citizens rather than private developers determine the atmosphere of downtown Eugene."

Representatives of the Downtown and Fairmount neighborhood associations said both their groups had voted to oppose the garage.

Almost everyone in Eugene wants to fix the heart of the city, Sam Hediger testified, but "we want it to be our heart, something we can all rally around" and not "concrete eyesores that hold automobiles."

"It's a lousy entrance to our community," said local architect Otto Poticha of the planned garage at 8th and Mill.

Friends of Eugene President Kevin Matthews testified the garage will deaden downtown by displacing active storefronts and will "overload the area with more lifeless and depressing car-housing, directly contradicting city policies to encourage a pedestrian-oriented downtown."

Local state Sen. Floyd Prozanski questioned whether state highway planners would allow the project since traffic from it could clog a busy section of the state's Highway 99.

Many of those who testified questioned the need for the $9 million garage. Consultant Fodor pointed out that city surveys show that only 53 percent of downtown garage spaces are full at peak hours. He said a city consultant study used to justify the garage failed to consider error margins, local surveys, vacancy rates, the small parking demand of the new federal courthouse, off-hours use of spaces and alternative transportation.

Many opponents favored using the $9 million for parks or a new indoor farmer's market downtown instead of a parking garage.

Dr. Mark Gilham, a UO architecture professor, said his students had spent 10,000 hours studying ways to revive downtown and come up with the idea for an attractive park stretching from downtown to the river. The garage money would be enough to buy the land but, if the Whole Foods garage is built, it would be "blocked forever."

Jen Evans, one of Gilham's students, held up a 6-foot-long diagram of the park idea. "What could be done if we open our eyes?"

Student Mary Dobbs pointed out that Chicago, Vancouver, Wash. and other cities have used parks to draw investment downtown. "Open spaces spur development."

"We can think of a lot of alternatives that would be more community minded, more creative," said Jan Spencer, suggesting an indoor farmer's market. "Do something that the citizens really want."

At least a dozen citizens spoke in favor of the year-round indoor market idea.

Chuck Hunt said the current outdoor farmer's market downtown has created hundreds of jobs. "We would desperately love to have a covered area."

Citizens suggested other much needed uses for the money including parks, potholes, schools, the library, the new City Hall, public transit to downtown and bike parking.

Lisa Warnes said it was "unethical" to give the huge Texas corporation such a big subsidy with so many better uses for the public money. "I don't think the voters will be too thrilled about the city spending our library money on a public parking garage."

Architect Poticha said the city should instead spend the money to add two floors to the county garage on busy 6th Avenue. Poticha said he designed the structure 30 years ago to accommodate the floors later.

Others said that if the new courthouse needs parking, it would be better to have the federal government pay for it on vacant lots around the new courthouse.

If the garage were really needed, consultant Fodor said that the city's own studies show that paying the Whole Foods developer to build it rather than putting it out for competitive bid will cost taxpayers 50 percent more.

Dozens of those who testified said the city shouldn't subsidize the Whole Foods corporation because it will hurt existing local natural foods stores, farmers, restaurants, and food crafters.

"Wal-Mart and Whole Foods operate in basically the same way," said Gavin McComas, the proprietor of Sundance Natural Foods. McComas and others said Whole Foods will sell as much product as all the other local stores combined, forcing them out of business since people are unlikely to start buying that much more natural foods.

"The big losers will be the locally owned grocery stores," said Jim Marks, President of Market of Choice.

"Whole Foods would cause a valuable part of Eugene's soul to be diminished," said Ben Martin Horst of the threat to replace the local natural foods industry with the Texas corporation.

Local farmers and their supporters also testified they'd suffer because Whole Foods buys most of its food from thousands of miles away. Trucking such food will make it less fresh and is not environmentally sustainable with rising fuel costs, citizens testified.

Instead of local businesses keeping profits local where they multiply jobs in the local economy, "Whole Foods will suck money out of our community," said David Hoffman.

Supporters of the Whole Foods garage included property owners, contractors and developers working on the project and local Chamber of Commerce officials.

If the city fails to build the garage "businesses will conclude the Eugene City Council does not want growth," said Larry Reid, a developer with Arlie and Company.

Many of the development interests testified that the garage was needed to control urban sprawl by revitalizing downtown.

But ironically, many of these same interests have been the greatest opponents of controlling urban sprawl in the past. Arlie, for example, is run by John Musumeci, the land speculator who made about $20 million moving PeaceHealth out of downtown.

Many of those who testified in favor of the garage denied that it was a subsidy to Whole Foods.

But Market of Choice President Marks noted that Whole Foods had made the garage a lease condition for locating at the site. "The answer clearly is yes, it is a subsidy," he said.

Sen. Prozanski called the garage "clearly a boondoggle for a large Texas corporation."