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Eugene Weekly : 1.4.07

2007 Preview

The scoop on the big news items for the new year

BY ALAN PITTMAN 

Gazing into crystal balls is notoriously blurry business. But judging by meeting agendas, goal statements andthe trajectories of major issues from last year,here's a glimpse of the big news the new yearhas in store for Eugene.

Iraq. It's a long way from Eugene, but expect to see even more local protests against the war. Rumblings of a draft could lead to the UO boiling in protests not seen since the Vietnam War.

Downtown. The city's options to buy up downtown property along Broadway will expire in 2007. The city and developers might balk at the high prices demanded. Tenant businesses and nonprofits along the street have organized to push an alternative downtown invigoration approach of the city supporting existing and new local businesses downtown rather than big developers. Next year will also tell whether the city's plan to redevelop the hole across from the library will bear fruit. A Portland developer was chosen to build condos and retail shops, but the developer may still back out in the face of rising construction costs and an uncertain property market downtown. The Whole Foods grocery store and parking garage also remain up in the air for 2007. The corporation and its developers could demand an even bigger subsidy for the $10 million garage, build the store without the garage subsidy or cancel the project.

Police Reform. Four years after EPD officers Roger Magaña and Juan Lara were finally fired after years of on the job sexual abuse, many significant reforms have yet to take effect. The new independent police auditor and review board should be up and running in 2007, but it remains to be seen whether the oversight will have any independence, teeth or even visibility to the public. It also remains unknown whether elected officials will ever confront the manager and EPD for failing to conduct a thorough internal investigation of the failure of police officers to supervise Magaña and Lara and respond to complaints from their victims.

School Choice. Two years ago, the Eugene school district found that its system of school choice had left neighborhood schools "poorer and browner" by concentrating wealthy, white and privileged kids in alternative schools. Alternative school reviews last year largely confirmed the self-segregation problem that the district has struggled with for decades. On Jan. 10, Superintendent George Russell will present his recommendations for the next steps the district should take. So far 4J has shied away from significant reforms such as providing transportation for poorer kids to attend privileged schools and requiring alternative schools to share the burdens of large class sizes, school closure and transitory or learning disabled students. Politically powerful alternative school parents will likely continue to fill public hearings to oppose changes that will limit their schools' privileged status.

School Funding. A lawsuit nixed the city's efforts to help fund schools with city property taxes. But the city could levy a progressive income and/or business tax to directly reduce large class sizes without legal problems. The council plans to meet with the school board in April to discuss funding.

Wildish Land. Wildish Sand and Gravel will continue to hold a Measure 37 development gun to the head of county citizens, demanding $26 million for its riverfront land near Mount Pisgah. With the value of the land in hot dispute, the only recourse to preserve the parkland may be condemnation and the courts. 

Chelsea Gerlach

Operation Backfire. The eco-saboteurs who pled guilty in 2006 will face sentencing in 2007, perhaps starting as early as April. The Bush administration will argue that they are "terrorists" deserving long enhanced sentences. Defendants will argue that the property sabotage motivated by environmental and animal protection never injured anyone and they shouldn't be given sentences intended for wanton mass murderers. 

EWEB. The debate over what to do with EWEB's choice riverfront land will intensify next year. If the public utility doesn't balk at rising construction cost estimates, EWEB plans to move its industrial operations off the river, providing the city a rare opportunity. But should the city build a new park, a development along the river or a mix of the two, and in what proportions? The City Council meets with EWEB commissioners in February. 

Franklin Boulevard. Springfield has big plans to redevelop the Glenwood riverfront. The next year may tell whether developers are excited about actually investing their money in the project. Another outstanding question is how much of the riverfront will be left as parks and open space for the public to enjoy. Down Franklin Boulevard, the UO has equally ambitious redevelopment plans that may start to materialize in 2007, including a new basketball arena and mixed use development. Farther down the street, the city plans to put in a highway around the new federal courthouse and put in a pedestrian crosswalk just before the viaduct on-ramp.  

Rapid Transit

BRT. The new EmX bus rapid transit line from Eugene to Springfield is scheduled to start Jan. 14. The articulated hybrid bus will take 16 minutes to reach Springfield, largely by skipping most stops but also with the help of some dedicated travel lanes, boarding platforms, no fares, and queue-jumping traffic lights. Next year will tell how popular EmX will be or whether people still would prefer a trolley. 

Homeless. Mayor Kitty Piercy wants to set up a blue ribbon committee on homelessness next year. A key question will be: Should the city set up its own shelter or continue to rely on the Mission for emergency housing? Another question is whether the city will require affordable housing in subsidized or new developments and/or fund more affordable housing projects like the Westtown project on 8th, which will begin construction in 2007.

RiverBend: Coming soon to Springfield

Hospitals. PeaceHealth will continue to work on its new Springfield hospital at RiverBend, scheduled for completion in 2008. Triad will continue to seek approval of its traffic snarled plans for a hospital off Delta Highway in north Eugene. Citizens may want to start saving now for the huge local health care cost increases likely to pay for the nearly $1 billion price of moving the hospitals to the suburbs. Then again, if you die of a heart attack while stuck in traffic to the distant new hospitals, you'll save money on all the hospital bills.

County Taxes. Lane County Commissioners are rumbling about throwing their failed tax increase for cops and jails back at voters in May. The measure failed by a narrow margin, but many voters were likely tricked by the misleading "limit taxes" ballot title on the tax increase. A less underhanded approach would be to reform the measure so it puts more money into crime prevention and more of the tax burden on the wealthy and corporations to attract votes from normally pro-tax south Eugene progressives. Last year, the Lane County Commission balked at such an approach. But this year Bill Fleenor will replace the commission's most conservative member, swinging the county government more to the left.

Measure 37. The newly Democratic Oregon Legislature is expected to take up reforming Measure 37 so that big developers can't use it as a license for ugly, expensive and polluting urban sprawl. If the Legislature fails again, the Eugene City Council still has a proposal for a "givings tax" on developers profiting from government actions to help defer the costs of Measure 37 claims.

Parkway. The West Eugene Parkway was canceled last year, but this year the state will have to finally bury the corpse by selling off the right of way for the freeway through wetlands. A BRT line, driveway consolidations and land-use changes on West 11th could help reduce traffic, but strip mall owners could pose strong opposition.

Neighborhood. The mayor and council plan a major neighborhood initiative for next year with a neighborhood summit scheduled for Feb. 17. A key question is whether the council will empower and fund neighborhoods to have more say over infill standards, opportunity siting and development, as in Portland.  

Race. The council began dialogues with representatives of minority groups last year. This year may tell whether any substantial change will come from the efforts to reduce racial tension. Four years after a city study showed that local Latinos and blacks have a far higher chance of being stopped and/or searched than whites, the city has taken no substantive action to reduce racial profiling by local police.  

Sustainability. The mayor has proposed creating a staffed city sustainability office and commission on sustainability. But 2007 may tell whether all the sustainability talk will be followed up by substantive action. City policies continue to favor polluting cars over alternative transportation and subsidize massive freeway projects such as the $150 million new I-5 interchange for the PeaceHealth and Gateway Mall sprawl.

City Hall. The City Council chose the butterfly lot next to the park blocks as their preferred site for a new City Hall. But county commissioners are demanding a huge premium for the land, and city staff may continue to push their preference for the existing City Hall site. The city plans to spend another million dollars on City Hall discussions that will dominate the council agenda again next year. But in the end the city may have little to show for the millions in talk: Citizens have yet to express much interest in paying for $130 million in new offices for city bureaucrats.

Sprawl. Developers and land speculators will continue their push to expand the urban growth boundary to allow yet more urban sprawl. Developers argue that the city doesn't have enough land to grow. But the city could grow up rather than out, and the big Measure 37 claims in the area could take the pressure off by providing more buildable land.

Potholes. Strong opposition nixed plans last year for an unfair flat tax on homeowners to pay for street repairs regardless of car use and ability to pay. But city staff are still demanding the revenue increase. Business interests want residents to pay most of the road bill, even though they already pay a gas tax and have far less road impact than shopping malls.

Who's the boss? Under Eugene's charter, elected officials supposedly hold the ultimate power over city affairs. But that hasn't kept the city manager and his staff from engaging in a power struggle with the council. On Jan. 31 the council plans to discuss authority over the city's powerful outside attorney and ask, "Who's the client?"

Other. Other issues likely to make news in 2007 include, restricting noisy leaf blowers, cage fighting, results of a cultural policy review, Autzen tailgate drinking, using condemnation to acquire parkland for River Road/Santa Clara and saving the Amazon headwaters from development.