Lessons from Corvallis
For both sides of the downtown debate
BY MARK L. GILLEM
Imagine a college town where a new riverfront park, on the downtown side of the Willamette River, anchors a revitalized industrial area and nearby historic buildings house thriving local businesses. On a recent visit to this wonderful town, about a dozen volunteers from a local church were busy tending the colorful array of plants in the park. The adjacent Farmers’ Market was just concluding, and by all signs it was a successful day in Corvallis.
While residents of Eugene have been debating downtown development, Corvallis has been developing its downtown. Its riverfront park and elegant historic buildings draw life to the downtown. A charming City Hall and popular library face another beautiful downtown park. Corvallis has an amazing six acres of parks in the heart of downtown in addition to over 150 acres of parks at the edge of downtown.
During the debate in Eugene over a ballot measure that would increase the spending limit of the downtown urban renewal area by $40 million, many people have cited Corvallis as a model. The supporters of the measure, for example, used images of downtown Corvallis to make their point. But Corvallis did not happen because of public subsidies to private development. It happened because of a larger community vision that stressed open space over national chains and historic preservation over urban “renewal.” On the other hand, opponents of the measure harp about the cost of public subsidies for downtown, which is exactly what built Corvallis’ $13.7 million riverfront park. While diehard Ducks may not want to hear this, Corvallis offers lessons for both sides of the debate.
Supporters and opponents of the ballot measure generally agree on many overarching goals for downtown: the need for more housing, enhanced open spaces and improved streets and sidewalks. We can build on this common ground regardless of the outcome of the vote on Tuesday.
The upcoming vote will give us an indication of which method Eugene will use to meet these goals. If the ballot measure passes, the direction will be to invest heavily in support of one private development. This would follow the Eugene preference for the big solution. Urban renewal, the downtown pedestrian mall and the unbuilt Whole Foods project are examples of looking for the silver bullet. If the ballot measure fails, Eugene will continue on a protracted path towards incremental change. We do know that downtown is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with several new businesses opening along Broadway in the last year without any public subsidies. But housing is slow to follow retail, and the pace of change may not be quick enough for many in our community faced with the challenges of living and working downtown.
If the measure passes, then we need to ensure that housing and open space are primary components of the project. The developers should follow the council desire for a minimum number of housing units and, if possible, add more than the minimum. Reconstruction of sidewalks and streets should follow the recommendations of the West Broadway Advisory Committee. The proposed public open space across from the library should be more than another 1/8-block plaza — that is the last thing needed downtown. We have plenty of underused concrete plazas. Rather, the developers should build the larger open space recommended by Councilor Zelenka as a green public park. At one-half acre, this small park could be a start for something better for our downtown. Corvallis’ downtown riverfront park and Cottage Grove’s plan for a 14-acre downtown park are models that we can eventually follow.
If the measure fails, we need to develop quickly a compelling vision for downtown that meets the common goals. Housing and historic preservation should be the focus rather than large-scale retail. Real parks rather than more parking garages should be the recipients of public subsidies. The measure’s opponents should realize that the public will still need to invest in downtown development – through an expanded urban renewal district, additional bonds or other subsidies. After all, the public already invests in sprawl through its funding of roads, parks, and infrastructure at the edge of town. This investment downtown would yield financial, environmental and social returns far into the future.
If the measure passes, opponents should graciously acknowledge the will of the voters and work towards the solutions supported by the majority. If the measure fails, supporters should not throw up their hands in despair — rather they should refocus their efforts on the goals for historic preservation, housing, and open space.
Like our neighbors in Corvallis, we too can have a more vibrant downtown with thriving shops and cafes, additional urban housing and ample parks. Whether we end up with the big solution or incremental growth, our downtown will change. We just need to make sure those changes meet our common goals.
Mark L. Gillem is an assistant professor in the departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the UO.