Eugene’s Hospital and Field of Dreams

Published Friday, Feb. 15, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Look dispassionately at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center’s siting options. Second & Chambers shines on a spreadsheet. Resuscitating the location’s viability will require quick action from the city of Eugene and important assistance from other specialists, but it can be done.

Experts in real estate love to cite the three most important factors in their trade: location, location, and location. Finding a new home for McKenzie-Willamette begins with real estate.

Fire trucks and ambulances measure response time in distance. The city built its central fire department station at Second & Chambers because it’s near the geographic center of the city. It sits at an important nexus of arteries both north and south, plus northwest and toward downtown.

The fire department’s calculations are less complicated than a hospital’s. A trauma victim’s ambulance ride is only half the equation. The doctor must arrive quickly too. When there’s a larger hospital near by, it’s a good bet that’s where the doctor will be coming from. The trip to Second & Chambers from RiverBend offers multiple quick options. For many doctors, it’s also on their way home.

Travel times count for regular people too. Second & Chambers is conveniently located for people south and west of the Willamette River, including some of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Lane County. If there ever was an major earthquake, we’d want medical triage services on both sides of the Willamette River. If there ever was a flood, we’d want one not on its banks.

The city of Eugene considers the land at Second & Chambers some of the most underutilized land in the city, especially given its proximity. Development in the area wouldn’t divide or disrupt any neighborhoods, so rezoning could be expedited.

So what’s not to love about the location? Simply put, nobody wants to be first. Everybody sees potential for the location, but that’s all it is — potential.

The underdeveloped land is not controlled by a single owner, which multiplies the complexities for acquisition. Those owners understand how valuable their land could become, regardless of the value it currently has.

Lane County has always lacked the resources for a pure “Field of Dreams” strategy. Instead of “build it and they will come,” we use our own variant: “pretend to build it, and if they come, then build it.”

Three Rivers Casino celebrated their grand opening last month of an 80,000 square-foot casino beside a 50,000 square-foot hotel, replacing a 10,000-square-foot tent structure. The confederated tribes waited until the public had demonstrated its appetite for slots and buffets.

EmX is likewise designed to test and boost the public’s taste of an eventual light rail system. By securing rights-of-way and purchasing sleek, train-like busses, the system can be established long before it’s actually built.

Springfield officials contracted with Apex Investment Group and secured land purchase options for an ambitious riverfront development in Glenwood — too ambitious, as it turned out. Eugene city staff and councilors are using the same strategy to cobble together a revitalized downtown. They’ve purchased options from current land owners to transfer to willing developers.

The same strategy could work at Second & Chambers, but the city must recognize that they have there a cleaner slate than downtown ever could be. That’s both good and bad. Remember: nobody wants to be first.

A barren neighborhood won’t attract the hospital investment we desire. Nobody would think to build a boutique hotel in that neighborhood — unless there was a hospital being built within walking distance. And who would look at that area and think about developing a retail center? If they were told it would have a hospital and a hotel as neighbors, the list of potential developers lengthens quickly.

All three businesses, each doing what they do best, could then claim to be first, with none of them taking the risk of being alone. The city must arrange these seemingly unrelated initiatives into a small parade.

A medical-retail-visitor complex at Second & Chambers will benefit from all the transportation options that already point toward it, but what we need first is a bandwagon, and a city that tells the investors, “Hop on!”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is executive director for the Southwestern Oregon chapter of American Institute of Architects. Readers can view and respond to past and future columns at his blog (right here.)