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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 12.17.2009

 

EWEB Riverdance

Will utility compromise on jostling park, building priorities?

By Alan Pittman

EWEB has big plans for its riverfront. Draft designs from the public utility’s architects and a committee EWEB stacked with development interests include a dense pack of hundreds of thousands of square feet of four-story buildings as close as 30 feet to the river bank.

Whether any of this will actually be built on the industrial site EWEB plans to vacate and whether it should be is an open question. For years local environmentalists have called for a large part of the land to be developed as a riverfront park.

A meeting of the EWEB Community Advisory Team (CAT) for the redevelopment plan looks like a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. EWEB snubbed the local environmental and progressive community in appointing a five member majority to the CAT made up of the president of the Chamber of Commerce and four other pro-developer conservatives. Four other members were appointed by the City Council.

After almost a year of meetings, most of the EWEB Riverfront Master Plan committee members do not even appear to support the idea of public planning. At a Meeting Dec. 9, development consultant Dean Papé and others in the majority argued that the Master Plan should not say where roads should go on the site but leave that up to developers. “It doesn’t have to be detailed in this plan,” Papé argued. “The flexibility is the key.”

Gary Wildish, a retired construction executive, said he’d like maximum “flexibility” for developers. “The market decision will put that [road] wherever they want.”

But city of Eugene community planner Nan Laurence said deciding where the roads go “is what you have to do to master plan.” She pointed to an intergovernmental agreement with the city requiring EWEB to designate the road locations in the plan. “You have to say where it is.”

“Maximum flexibility for a developer means you have no master plan, and we can’t do that,” said Mark Oberle, EWEB’s project manager.

Laurence pointed out that the city will have to approve the EWEB master plan. “If you’re saying what you’re seeing may or may not happen, it’s really hard to approve it,” she said. 

Papé also argued that some of the roads should be private and not public streets. 

But Eugene Traffic Engineer Tom Larsen said that would be “pretty awkward.” Having the streets public “would be a really good idea,” he said.

Realtor/investor Desiree Moore questioned the proposals for some limited park land on the site. “What is the purpose of the green extensions?”

Moore and business lawyer Tom Hoyt also called for converting a proposed riverside park area into a parking lot. “If it was a parking lot, wouldn’t it be considered open space?” Moore asked.

“I don’t think so,” said Laurence. “That would be stretching it.”

“I think that’s something we should avoid is cars parked along the river,” said Jeannine Parisi, EWEB’s outreach coordinator.

Hoyt also questioned the EWEB architects’ proposal for riparian restoration along the river. “To change the south boundary of that river is asking for trouble,” he said. “Is it permissible green space or is it mandatory green space?” he asked about whether a later developer could alter the master plan. 

Laurence said the master plan may outline the park areas but not specify what they are.

EWEB architect John Rowell said one greenspace area on a proposed design map could end up as “more of a green way,” he said, explaining the need to access a proposed building. “It’s a driveway.”

But committee member Anita Van Asperdt, a UO landscape architect, questioned the vague approach to park land. Without details “the greenspaces become meaningless,” she said. “It’s hard to give a thumbs up on the shape.”

If the EWEB master plan does end up vague, it could end up like the city’s failed downtown plan. That plan has been criticized for providing little in the way of planning other than waiting to see what developers want, and has failed to revitalize the area. 

The Eugene City Code, however, isn’t vague about setback requirements from the river. The code (9.492) requires a 100-foot setback from the top of the bank. Some of the proposed EWEB drawings appear to place large new buildings within 30 feet of the top of the bank.

Papé said he was concerned the setback requirement could significantly reduce development, particularly if the top of the bank was moved by regrading the riverfront to a gentler slope as proposed. “You see my concern” he said. “There it goes.”

Laurence said she was not sure if the setback would be from the old steep top of bank or the newer slope.

The unsettled legal issue could provide an opportunity for park supporters to appeal any development plans close to the river. The plans would also apparently require a Willamette River Greenway development permit under state law.

Other Oregon cities have given the river a wider greenway. Salem redeveloped a similar industrial site separated from downtown by a railway and highway. Salem built a popular park that’s about 500 feet wide. Portland removed a freeway for the 200- to 300-foot-wide Tom McCall waterfront park. 

EWEB officials have said they want to maximize their profits on selling the riverfront land.

But its unclear what a developer would pay for land that would remain problematic even if the master plan allows maximum building flexibility. EWEB’s architect said the site may have its greatest commercial potential for apartments. But people may not want to live under the 50,000 cars a day going over the Ferry Street viaduct or next to thundering locomotives blasting horns at downtown crossings. The site also features a high voltage powerline tower, an ugly electric substation and a parcel with underground tar pollution.

Access to the site is also difficult, requiring crossing Franklin Boulevard, the viaduct road spaghetti and the railway tracks. The EWEB architects consider a road or pedestrian path under the railway impractical.

If the area doesn’t develop, it could sit as rubble-strewn lots and pits for decades. That’s what’s happened at many other sites downtown, and the EWEB property would be competing with them for scarce redevelopment investments. 

The city has been unsuccessfully trying to fill pits downtown for going on two decades. Just across the tracks, a rubble strewn lot next to the new U.S. Courthouse has been vacant for five years. Now the economy is much worse. Last week a developer dropped plans to fill the Aster pit next to the Centre Court Building downtown, despite the city’s financing nearly the entire project.

EWEB architect Rowell admits that full build-out of the riverfront master plan could be a long way off. “It takes decades for things to happen,” he said. Some of the plan proposals could never happen, Rowell said. But he said he hopes some projects would happen in a few years. “You’re looking for reasons to believe.”

Will the riverfront land be two-thirds vacant in two decades? “It would depend” on developers, Rowell’s designer Kaarin Knudson said. “We can’t determine that everything will happen.”

While residents wait years for the riverfront land to be used by developers, the property could be used by the people as temporary parks and gardens. But city staff have resisted such uses. In some cities people have come to love the temporary parks more than the cities’ development schemes.

In Eugene people love parks. The city’s riverfront park system is one of the most popular things ever developed here, according to numerous scientific city surveys. 

But not according to EWEB’s architects. Rowell and Knudson argue that parks are expensive, unsafe, block access to the river, and that people want a more urbanized waterfront. For the “majority” they’ve heard from, “the idea that it would all be open space wouldn’t be attractive,” Knudson said.

But a Lane Council of Governments survey this fall on people’s views of the riverfront doesn’t appear to support those conclusions. Almost 98 percent of respondents said they frequently access the river and less than 1 percent said that riverfront park safety was poor. Most survey respondents called for more parks, playgrounds trails, natural areas and other park amenities along the river and only about 3 percent appeared interested in a more urbanized river.

Developers also don’t seem much interested in building along the river. Springfield has struggled for years to interest developers in redevelopment along the industrial and vacant Glenwood riverfront despite offers of urban renewal subsidies. Upstream, the UO’s Riverfront Research Park has struggled to attract developers for decades. Downstream Valley River Center has used its vast riverfront for parking lots for decades. 

It’s easy to see how a compromise could be reached on the EWEB land with about half the site as a large riverfront park and the other half along the railway tracks and viaduct as attractive parkfront development. But four similar design options so far produced by the EWEB committee and its architects appear to devote only a tiny portion of the developable land for parks. The majority on the EWEB committee appears critical of even those limited amenities and likely to remove them. The latest architect drawings show less parkland than earlier designs.

Developing half the site would create enough tax increment financing in the city’s riverfront urban renewal district to help pay for buying and restoring the park land. 

More money could come from a city property tax measure.  Parks bond measures in Eugene have proved to be one of the most popular things the city puts on the ballot. The city combined a modest tax measure with urban renewal to build the popular downtown library. 

City system development charge, brownfield, block grant and federal grant money could also help pay for a park. BPA, city stormwater and federal restoration money could also be available for riparian work and a millrace feature that naturally filters water. A proposed bike bridge could be paid for by using utility money to relocate ugly power lines and other utilities under the bridge. Other Eugene bike bridges were built using a similar strategy.

By developing a park, the city would also likely save millions in expensive road, sewer and other work and subsidies for developers. 

EWEB could profit by selling its land near the Fifth Street Public Market that is likely more valuable and by selling park land to the city. The utility could also sell the historic steam plant and curved bow truss buildings that most want to preserve for renovation projects. Since EWEB is a public utility with the same customers as the city, any break EWEB gave the city taxpayers on the land price would be like a person taking money out of one of her pockets and putting it in another of her pockets.

But such a park/development compro-mise appears unlikely to happen without the EWEB commissioners and/or Eugene City Council sending the architects back to the drawing board.

The EWEB commission, through elections, has become more progressive since the CAT was appointed, and plans to examine a preliminary plan in early February. After the commissioners approve it in June, the master plan goes to the Eugene City Council, where citizens could have another crack at a compromise for a balance of park land.