The City Council deftly headed off a major confrontation with residents of the South Willamette area by voting Oct. 21 to not rezone single-family homes in the area. It was the council’s first opportunity to provide guidance to city planners on the highly controversial South Willamette Special Area Zone.
The SW-SAZ has been pushed forward by the Planning Department under the auspices of a “community-driven” process. However, once residents started learning about the plan in June of this year, opposition swelled. As a pilot project, the SW-SAZ is intended to be replicated in many other parts of Eugene.
The 83-page SW-SAZ zoning amendment would increase potential density by changing the zoning on 469 properties, including 229 single-family homes. It was a bold and unprecedented move by the Planning Department, but there were a number of critical problems. First and foremost, the city had not adequately informed and engaged residents of the affected area. But, second, the plan lacked supporting information indicating what the impacts would be from such a major change to the area. No estimate was provided for the number of additional dwelling units the SW-SAZ would allow. And there was no information on impacts such as traffic, parking, housing affordability, schools, etc.
Thanks to neighborhood fundraising, it was possible to perform a basic impact analysis to estimate what these impacts would be. The results show that the SW-SAZ, as proposed, would have major consequences affecting much of south Eugene. The following summary of impacts reflects the difference between the maximum potential development allowed under the proposed SW-SAZ, and that allowed under existing zoning.
Added capacity: The SW-SAZ would allow 3,358 additional dwelling units with an associated population increase of 5,488 people in this small, 123-acre area — more people than the current populations of Veneta, Creswell or Oakridge.
Traffic: Add 2,140 vehicles to peak-hour traffic in south Eugene (5 to 6 pm) and increase rush-hour traffic on Willamette by 57 percent, causing the failure of the intersection at 29th Avenue and Willamette Street. The SW-SAZ would impact virtually all residents of south Eugene by generating intense traffic congestion on Willamette Street that would spill over onto alternate routes, including neighborhood streets.
Parking: An estimated 4,390 additional parking spaces would be needed to accommodate potential residential development. Due to the decreased parking requirements for development in the SW-SAZ (from 1.5 to 0.5 parking spaces per three-bedroom apartment), about half of the added parking demand would be met on neighborhood streets, consuming all on-street parking for several blocks.
School capacity: An estimated 960 additional school-age children would be added to the area. This would necessitate the addition of at least one new elementary school and expanded middle school and high school capacities.
Housing affordability: The area was found to have some of the most diverse and affordable housing in the city, with housing priced $42,000 lower than the median for the city as a whole. A city analysis shows that redevelopment under the SW-SAZ will require higher rents to be profitable, and developers may build to the higher end of the market, resulting in a likely loss of affordability.
Based on these results, it’s clear that residents of the area have good reasons to be concerned about how the SW-SAZ might affect them. While the study focused on the major impact categories, residents have noted many other potential impacts, including blocked views of Spencer Butte, lost solar access, property values, potential displacement of small businesses, environmental impacts and fiscal impacts to the city.
It is important to note that there is no mitigation proposed by the city for any of these impacts. There are no street improvements, sidewalks, bike paths, schools, parks or new facilities of any kind included in the SW-SAZ proposal.
The city has determined that subsidies would be needed to make redevelopment profitable for developers. This means extending the controversial MUPTE 10-year property tax exemption to the area. Such tax waivers make it harder for the city to fund the facilities and services an expanded population requires.
Going forward, the council has made it clear that they favor protecting established residential neighborhoods and want more public engagement in the process.
The city has tried to rationalize the SW-SAZ by linking it to the Envision Eugene comprehensive plan; however, the two have no real legal relationship. The city could proceed with finalizing Envision Eugene0 and address the South Willamette area at a pace that is more conducive to broader public participation.
Many residents of the area have wondered why the standard neighborhood refinement planning process wasn’t used for the area, instead of the zoning amendment process. This continues to sound like the most reasonable approach for planning this complex, diverse and vital area. If the city wants to salvage the SW-SAZ, the best approach may be to scale the boundaries back to include just the commercial areas along Willamette Street.
Find a complete copy of the 24-page South Willamette Rezoning Impact Study, and other information about the SW-SAZ, on the South Willamette Neighbors website, swneugene.org.