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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 1.14.2010

 

Park or Parking Lot?

Community fights UO riverfront development

By Alan Pittman

More than 600 UO students, faculty and other community members are fighting a university proposal to convert scenic riverfront land owned by the public into a private parking lot and boxy office building.

UO officials claim that the new four-story building for the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) will be a “major enhancement to the riverfront area.” 

But the opposition group Connecting Eugene (tiny.cc/ConEug) calls that claim preposterous. “The assertion that 245 parked cars and a private office building will enhance our riverfront is completely absurd and ridiculous. This development will be a permanent eyesore on the banks of the Willamette River and an aesthetic nightmare.”

Left to right: Daniel Rottenberg, Sam Dotters-Katz, Allen Hancock , Rena Schlachter, Ron Lovinger, Christo Brehm
An earlier site plan for the ORI project. ORI said a revised design will include less parking and more landscaping, but opponents aren’t sure that will happen. The big parking lots of the ORI design contrast with a more compact proposed design for the EWEB property downriver.

Critics charge that the ORI building will literally pave the way  to a half dozen other riverside parking lots, roads and big building projects the UO has planned as part of its highly controversial Riverfront Research Park (RFRP), a plan that city and UO community members have fought for two decades. 

“This is a major decision point,” said Christo Brehm, a UO landscape architecture graduate student. 

As EW went to press, the UO Faculty Senate was considering a resolution opposing the project. Opponents expect hours of testimony at a 5 pm, Jan. 20 public hearing in the Council Chamber on an appeal of a city conditional use permit (CUP) approval for the project. Opponents have already counted 612 written comments against the project versus 11 for it. 

UO landscape architecture professors Mark Gillem and Ron Lovinger called the UO/ORI car- and asphalt-dominated plans for the riverfront “an example of the worst kind of unsustainable development” in written comments.

But UO/ORI officials claim the new building will be a leading example of “sustainable” development, saying the project will use landscape buffers and high-efficiency lighting, plumbing and insulation. 

“Our project has been unfairly presented to the community” by project critics, ORI Executive Director Cynthia Guinn said. “It’s not a huge parking lot next to the river and, oh my God, what will that look like.”

Guinn claimed the riverfront site “is pretty ugly right now” and will be improved by the office building and parking lot. 

“The entire experience, whether you’re a pedestrian or a bicyclist, will be enormously enhanced,” said Diane Wiley, the UO’s RFRP director.  

But opponents say the community values the undeveloped and largely natural riverfront for its beauty. “If we allow our riverfront to be turned into an office park, this sacred area will lose its aesthetic beauty,” said Daniel Rottenberg, an environmental advocate for ASUO, the UO student government. 

Opponents charge that any environ-mental benefit from fluorescent lights and other small amenities in the building and parking lot will be far overshadowed by acres of asphalt and tons of carbon exhaust from a car-centered development in what has been enjoyed for decades as a largely natural area.

The UO/ORI claims it has listened to the critics’ concerns and reduced the parking to 200 spaces. But it’s unclear how long that will last. A new site map provided by ORI this week includes a large area devoted to “future parking.”

New ORI documents also include a 4-foot high berm planted with trees and shrubs to screen the parking lot. The documents increase the setback from the river of the building from 75 feet to 100 feet and the parking lot setback from the riverside bike path appears to increase from about 15 feet to about 50 feet.

But opponents say they aren’t persuaded by the minor changes which may not actually be included in the development. Jan Wilson, an environmental attorney working with Connecting Eugene, said the UO/ORI could easily change the drawings again after they get the conditional use permit for the project from the city. “None of these design options really stick.”

“Taking away a few parking spaces doesn’t solve the problem,” said UO landscape architecture graduate student Rena Schlachter.  “It’s not a sustainable building at all.”

A key criticism of the project is that ORI did not choose one of the many pits or empty or underused sites available downtown for its building and parking lots rather than the scenic riverfront.

ORI director Guinn said the nonprofit behavioral research group looked at a half dozen other sites but found this to be cheapest with the most space for surface parking lots. “They could produce a building we could afford,” she said. 

ORI has about $20 million a year in annual revenue, according to its tax return.

Parking beneath the building would have preserved more of the riverfront, but Guinn said ORI also rejected that idea as too costly. Downtown sites offered free parking in half-empty city garages, but Guinn said the riverfront building with surface parking was cheaper. Guinn said ORI also rejected other vacant sites at the RFRP on the south side of the tracks away from the river as too small for the large adjacent surface parking lots they wanted.

But instead of parking lots along the riverfront and a big office building, opponents said the land would be better used for a system of parks connecting with downtown and/or a needed bike path connecting Alder Street to the river.

The UO said that Hilyard Street offers a better bike connection. But Connecting Eugene criticized the existing Hilyard alternative as “highly dangerous” and “highly inconvenient” for cyclists. The group noted the opposition to the ORI project from the city’s official Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and other area cycling groups. “This connection is critical,” BPAC wrote to the city about the Alder path, “strongly urging” the city to deny a project permit. 

Critics of the site also view it as a foot in the door for a riverfront street and other large building and parking lots the UO has said it wants to build along the riverfront between EWEB and the Autzen footbridge as part of its RFRP plans.

RFRP director Wiley said the UO won’t build out the rest of the street and the research park along the river until it reconsiders its 20-year-old master plan with community input. Critics say the community input should come before the controversial ORI building, not after it.

Connecting Eugene has appealed a city decision to allow the UO to build the ORI building without re-doing its 20-year-old permit for the RFRP. Opponents argue that the permit expired last year and shouldn’t be renewed because the first building north of the railroad tracks represents a major change for the development. 

Opponents also argue the area around the RFRP has significantly changed since the permit was approved 20 years ago. They cite EWEB’s plans to redevelop its land, the new U.S. Courthouse and proposed courthouse neighborhood redevelopment, the basketball arena, EmX, Walnut Node, new downtown plan and other changes to the area as examples of major changes. 

“About the only thing that has not changed in 20 years is the failed plan for the site,” UO professors Gillem and Lovinger wrote. 

The city keeps most other conditional use permits from going stale by giving them only one or two years, not the 23 years the city and UO want, attorney Wilson said. “It’s so ridiculous.”

Thousands of UO students, faculty and community members have fought the RFRP plans for decades as a failed economic development strategy that wastes public money and land while threatening a natural area that they argue would be better used as parkland for students and the community.

In 1988 citizens gathered thousands of signatures for a charter amendment that could have blocked the development. But the grassroots effort failed after it was outspent 12-1 by record political donations from development interests.

A decade later testimony to a UO committee ran 50-1 against the project, and 650 members of the UO community signed a petition opposing the riverfront development. The UO Faculty Senate voted to oppose riverfront development in 1999, and opponents at that time hoped that they had secured a lasting commitment from the university to not jump development north of the tracks.

A quarter century ago, the UO claimed the RFRP would create 3,000 high-paying jobs. But despite more than $13 million in tax revenue and other public funds diverted to subsidize the project, there’s little evidence the FRP has actually created many jobs. The UO claims about 400 people now work in the RFRP, but most simply moved or were diverted from other offices in town, like ORI with offices near Franklin Boulevard. With the new building, “We’re not adding jobs,” ORI Director Guinn said.

The RFRP plans call for $29 million in subsidies from an urban renewal district that diverts tax revenues from local government revenue and state university and public school funding. 

That could be a sore subject in the current budget crisis with the UO, schools and the city cutting salaries and services. The UO and the city claim that no urban renewal money will be used for the ORI project, despite previous plans. But UO administrators have clearly already devoted considerable staff time to the project while demanding furloughs of professors. 

The UO’s agreement for the ORI project appears designed to increase the profits of the Trammell Crow corporation, one of the nation’s largest developers and land speculators. The UO will rent the 4.3 acres to Trammell Crow for at least 55 years for an up-front payment that works out to a rate of about $27,000 a year, according to UO documents. Most of that  rental income will go back to paying for the new road and other infrastructure to subsidize profits for Trammell Crow’s $17 million private investment in the building it will then rent to ORI. 

Critics of the riverfront development question why ORI, which has long claimed strong environmental and social values and has conducted research promoting parks and less driving to fight obesity, would want to be involved in such a controversial, car-focused development.

Guinn declined to say whether support at ORI for the project is unanimous, but she said that putting the office building and parking lot along the riverfront matches the group’s values. 

She praised Trammell Crow, one the nation’s largest developers of shopping malls and big box stores. “It was a good partnership,” Guinn said.