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South Willamette Area Plan Sparks Much Debate

Members of South Willamette Neighbors are protesting the proposed rezoning. Photo courtesy Ralph McDonald.
Members of South Willamette Neighbors are protesting the proposed rezoning. Photo courtesy Ralph McDonald.

A rezoning plan for the South Willamette is raising hackles among some residents there, who say it could have serious impacts on the quality of life in the area. On the other hand, city planners say the South Willamette Special Area Zone (SW-SAZ) came about as a part of an Envision Eugene goal to create walkable, liveable areas in key corridors. 

The rezoning is not the same as the street planning for Willamette Street itself, but rather affects the design code of the buildings on streets in the area along Willamette from north of 23rd Avenue to the area around Donald Street. 

The south Eugene residents opposing the proposed zoning changes have created an ad hoc group, South Willamette Neighbors (SWN), which they say formed out of their concerns “about the city’s decision-making process, the lack of resident involvement and the potential adverse impacts of the proposed rezoning on livability.”

Eben Fodor, a community planning consultant, is a vocal opponent of the plan as well as of the public involvement process, which he calls “highly deficient.” Fodor says there are “almost 500 parcels that will be rezoned, and people don’t even know the plan is about to transpire.”

Of the plan itself, which includes changes to the heights allowed for buildings in the area, Fodor says it “is proposing to add a great deal of density to the area and has no offsetting and mitigating amenities whatsoever.” That includes no parkland, sidewalk or bike lane improvements, he says. “No substantial improvement of any kind to mitigate the increase in density.”

Fodor and other members of the SWN are also concerned that the process is a done deal — the Planning Commission’s proposal for South Willamette comes before the Eugene City Council in October, with a work session Oct. 12 and public hearing Oct. 19.

Jennifer Knapp, an urban designer with the city of Eugene who is working on the SW-SAZ, says the plan is forward looking, leads to more walkable and bikeable areas, and is in keeping with the city’s climate recovery ordinance. She says the Eugene City Council may suggest changes, and the city is still taking comments from the public on the plan.

Eugene city planner Will Dowdy says part of the reason parks are not in SW-SAZ is because there is already nearby parkland, such as Amazon Park. Also, he says, the zoning affects private property, but if private owners wanted to volunteer their land for a park, they could do so, and the code allows for urban plazas. 

Ralph McDonald, who lives in south Eugene, says one concern is that the rezoning would affect an area that is inexpensive to live in and replace it with more spendy apartments. He points out that Cascade Manor’s retirement apartments can cost $4,000 a month. Fodor adds that the area of potential rezoning in south Eugene has some of the most affordable housing not just in south Eugene, but in Eugene in general.

EW has received a spate of comments and letters expressing concerns about the plan. However, some of the residents in the area have a different view. Dowdy says he has also been told the plan doesn’t go far enough. 

Resident Mark Turner, a retired UO staff member, says he supports the plan and has not felt out of the loop. He says the city “for years has maintained a South Willamette Special Area Zone website to provide information and solicit feedback” in addition to public meetings. 

Turner tells EW, “Eugene is going to grow, and the South Willamette area is going to grow, and the plan will make it possible for the area to grow in a way that will allow it to continue to be a desirable place to live.”

But, McDonald says, “if the city just rezones without light rail or parks, nothing happens. Property values go down, properties deteriorate” and out-of-town developers snap up the properties.

The debate continues: See EW’s letters to the editor and check out the Sept. 18 City Club of Eugene debate with Fodor and Planning Commission Chair Bill Randall. To read the plan, go to wkly.ws/228 and go to cityclubofeugene.org for more information on the upcoming debate.