Millrace Opportunity Abounds

Eugene has a rare opportunity to increase the value of downtown real estate, tighten connections with the University of Oregon, and honor its own riverfront heritage. Reviving Eugene’s historic millrace would do all that, and the city could have two new partners to share the burden.

UO has been renting a 1.7 acre parking lot from the city for the last seven years. It’s located just north of the three acres that have been set aside for the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. All that separates the parking lot from the university’s planned development is the millrace.

The university has not said what they plan for the extra acreage, but it’s not unusual for those planning a large development to land-bank any adjacent properties, if only to discourage land speculators. The Eugene City Council was surprised to hear about the proposed deal last week, and suggested that its terms deserve more scrutiny before proceeding.

The university’s lease allows it to deduct rental payments from the purchase price, shaving half a million off the appraised value of $3.7 million. This prompted one councilor to wonder aloud whether the city was offering the university a “sweetheart deal.”

“I don’t think that serves the interests of the city to negotiate a deal like that,” complained Councilor Claire Syrett. “We are just giving away $447,000, because they happen to be the leaseholder.” The terms of the lease were negotiated in 2010. Syrett joined the City Council in 2012.

The city could say that’s all water under the bridge, except we want more water and more bridges.

As plans for the Knight Campus develop, the opportunities and motivations for rejuvenating the millrace are coming clearly into focus. The city should seize the moment and leverage the parking lot purchase. The university should commit to improving this historic waterway that flows beside its complex.

Robert Guldberg was just named the executive director of the Knight Campus. When he arrives next September, his most important task will be to recruit top researchers and support staff. Will he want to be showing his recruits a dormant cesspool or an alluring stream?

Trickle-down economics has been debunked in the past generation, but trickle-through economics has not been similarly challenged. Waterfront property is always more valuable. People will pay more to live near water. Employees will work harder or for less money when such an amenity is outside their window.

The timing could be very close to perfect, because the city is also negotiating terms for a different land deal, less than a half mile away.

EWEB’s surplus riverfront property will soon be redeveloped. The city began negotiating this summer with Portland developer Williams/Dame to transform those 16.6 acres into a bustling hub similar to Portland’s Pearl District. Williams/Dame knows that an active millrace enhances the value of the project, even if it slightly reduces the available acreage to develop.

Taken together, these two parties can join the city’s effort to restore the millrace. They can handle the beginning and the end, leaving only the middle. Connecting those dots shouldn’t be difficult. It doesn’t matters how they connect, so long as they do.

The millrace was always carved by convenience. If its path today is different from what it was in the 1800s, that shouldn’t matter We’re not using the water to power our industry anymore. We’d be using it to fire the imaginations of young researchers, to create a promenade between campus and downtown, and to provide waterfront experiences that don’t harm our river or its habitats.

With hundreds of millions of dollars being invested on either end of our millrace, there must be a path and a plan and the will to connect them. We’ll never have a better opportunity.

Eugene City Council was right to pause the purchase of that humble parking lot. If the university partners with the city on this grand vision, it will become a “sweetheart deal” for both sides. City Councilors should instruct City Manager Jon Ruiz to “go with the flow,” enlisting both strategic partners to revive the millrace.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.