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Developing Downtown Should Be ECDC

January 25th, 2008 by dk

Published Friday, Jan. 25, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Eugene has failed to develop its downtown. We’ve all asked the how and why behind this pattern of failure. But not the who.

You can’t blame the businesses. They come to Eugene and develop plans. But those plans never develop into anything more. A short list from recent memory: KWG Development Partners, Whole Foods, Opus Northwest, McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center. There are dozens more.

Voters are unhappy. This fall, they resoundingly refused to expand the scope of urban renewal. The message was clear and unambiguous. Or was it?

Were voters displeased with the KWG plan for West Broadway, with the urban renewal funding mechanism, or with Eugene City Council? When both sides of the debate choose city councilors as spokespeople, you can’t blame voters for being skeptical.

Do citizens blame Eugene City Council for downtown’s demise? We don’t know. It’s time to find out.

From 1966 until 1982, downtown planning and urban renewal investments were overseen by seven citizen volunteers. The Eugene Renewal Agency earned the public’s trust. In 1982, Eugene City Council assumed the powers of the Eugene Renewal Agency and relegated the citizen volunteers to an advisory board, the Eugene Downtown Commission.

Meanwhile, the Portland Development Commission, with its five citizen commissioners, has been remaking Portland into a world-class city, using urban renewal funding, federal grants, and other funding tools.

We’ll never match Portland’s success. That’s OK. We can do it our own way, add what we’ve learned over the past 25 years, and improve on their model.

First, we’ve learned that Eugene City Council can’t do the job. In retrospect, this is not surprising. Developers manage to a risk horizon of 20 to 40 years when determining a project’s viability. Politicians dare not think beyond the next election, so their natural risk horizon is always something less than four years. Any downtown project that works long enough to secure the developer’s money is unlikely to work quickly enough to secure the city councilors’ support.

But we’ve also learned positive things during these past decades. Conservation has become a central concern. We’ve learned to value open space, wildlife habitat and nature preserves. We can now measure their value to us directly. That contribution is now being quantified in what we call “the triple bottom line.” University of Oregon professors have a saying that puts it more bluntly: “Our colleagues elsewhere earn higher salaries. We get paid in scenery.”

The economy of development and the benefits of conservation are inextricably linked. Few recognized this a generation ago. Our city for the arts and outdoors seeks to highlight this connection in unique ways. If the next incarnation of the Eugene Renewal Agency captures that connection, they may find the common ground that has eluded our city councilors.

What if the same group of citizens appointed to administer urban renewal funds was also charged with securing parkland and open space in and around the city? Then every faction along the political spectrum could hope together for the “Eugene Conservation and Development Commission’s” success.

In Eugene, nothing’s easy. But this could be ECDC. Eugene City Council could endorse the concept and begin debating the specifics immediately.

How will the seven commissioners be chosen? Give the mayor one appointment, the president of the university another. Force the city councilors to work together by pairing them randomly and requiring each of the four couples to name a commissioner they both accept. The seventh commissioner? Let the six choose the seventh by consensus. Or ask the Lane County Commissioners to choose one. Or give the university two seats, acknowledging that the conservation/development rift also exists on campus.

How much attention would they give to each half of their charge? Hard-core business types will ask it to be matched acre for acre. Each acre of development assistance obligates the ECDC to protect one acre from development. Hard-core environmentalists will counter it should be dollar for dollar. The value of the city’s contribution to a downtown building project obligates the ECDC to spend the same amount for open space. The compromise formula — somewhere in between — would be the commission’s first order of business.

Don Kahle ( served on Mayor Torrey’s Economic Development Commission in 2002. He was a downtown business owner from 1995 until 2005. He is executive director for the southwestern Oregon chapter of American Institute of Architects. Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.

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