Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 6.17.2010


Who you gonna sprawl?
Can Eugene bust the growth monster?
by Alan Pittman 

A huge monster threatens to destroy Eugene.

Urban sprawl can smash livability with snarl, crush neighborhoods with traffic and suck away downtowns with big box strip malls and suburban office parks. It can lay waste to community by destroying any there there. It can bloat human beings into obese blobs. It can rob citizens of money to feed its rapacious appetite for freeways. Sprawl can turn oceans to oily gook and roast the very planet we live on.

But Eugene citizens can bust the banshee and prevent the gates of a sprawling hell from opening here, and they don’t even need an unlicensed nuclear accelerator from the Ghost Busters movie. They can use Oregon’s nationally acclaimed gift to city planning: the urban growth boundary.

Holding Eugene’s urban growth boundary (UGB) against sprawl was once a given. In 1995 the city conducted a $400,000 Growth Management Study that asked thousands of citizens what they wanted. The study found they overwhelmingly wanted to hold the growth boundary and “recycle” Eugene with redevelopment. The city council adopted a Growth Management Policy calling for holding the UGB against sprawl.

Today, just looking around at all the vacant or nearly vacant lots, empty buildings, underused land and property owners slashing prices to beg for buyers in Eugene after the housing bust, calls for a need for yet more land to develop appear divorced from reality. “I don’t understand,” said veteran Eugene Councilor Betty Taylor. “There is so much vacant commercial land right now and underutilized commercial land.”

But now development and land speculator interests who stand to make millions off selling cheap farm and forestland outside the UGB for McMansions and big box stores are pushing hard to cash in on sprawl. They lobbied the Legislature to pass a law in 2007 forcing Eugene to begin to evaluate whether it must expand its UGB. 

Eugene city staff appointed a committee heavily dominated by development interests to produce a study and a “Envision Eugene” process that assumes Eugene must destroy neighborhoods with growth and/or blow the UGB and sprawl by at least 1,798 more acres, or almost 2,000 football fields.

But signs of resistance have emerged. The citizen group Friends of Eugene commissioned a study last month from local consultant Eben Fodor, author of a leading book on sprawl, that finds that the city grossly exaggerated the 20-year need for more land in its Eugene Comprehensive Lands Assessment (ECLA). Fodor said Eugene had a land need of only about half as much.

Fodor found that the city’s ECLA:  

unreasonably assumed that employment will grow about 50 percent faster than population. In reality, data shows that employment has closely tracked population for decades in Eugene.

ignored a national and local trend toward an increase in working at home.

failed to account for jobs infilling in existing vacant or not fully utilized buildings.

failed to calculate the maximum added development potential of the city’s land based on current zoning.

ignored the trend to denser employment.

assumed Eugene would have less than half as much redevelopment of employment land as other cities.

ignored the Eugene trend toward an increase in multi-family housing and decrease in single family homes and more dwelling units per acre.

Overall, Fodor found a 729-acre baseline need for more residential land, a 98-acre need for commercial land and a 632-acre surplus of industrial land.

The ECLA estimate of land need also includes many other apparent failings or questionable assumptions. For example, the study fails to include results of the West Eugene Collaborative plan last year by a diverse group of developers and environmentalists to accommodate up to 10,000 new residents in a dense, mixed use neighborhood served by a walkable boulevard with dedicated EmX lanes. 

The study also excludes many sites that are likely to redevelop, including a vacant 195-acre industrial site owned by the sewage treatment plant, several large sites owned by 4J schools that the district has said it would like to sell to developers and a 300-acre, largely unused rail switching yard that the railroad has said in the past it may sell. 

Many other obvious big redevelopment sites are also left out of ECLA. The study assumes the vacant Hynix land, which the company said could accommodate up to 5,000 workers, won’t be redeveloped. ECLA assumes the largely unused PeaceHealth hospital and clinic sites in Eugene won’t be redeveloped even though they accommodated 3,400 workers before the hospital moved to Springfield. EWEB has proposed high density redevelopment of its large piece of riverfront land with hundreds of apartments, offices and restaurants, but ECLA assumes nothing will be built on the land, not even parks.

The study assumes that large pieces of parkland the city owns outside the UGB will never be used as parks. It also ignores the city’s policy of sharing parkland with schools to use as dual-use playing fields. The study assumes that large acreages of playing fields and natural areas owned by the UO and used as parks shouldn’t count as parkland.

ECLA is also haunted by a host of other phantasmagorical assumptions:

The study assumes that Bethel needs a new high school with about twice as much land as South Eugene High School and a middle school the same land size as South.

The city’s Walnut Node plan includes a vision of massive high density commercial and residential redevelopment along Franklin Blvd. But the city’s ECLA plan assumes that plan will never work.

The city’s downtown, urban renewal and cannery district plans describe much of the city center as vacant and or underutilized and envision massive redevelopment with many 20-story buildings, but ECLA assumes none of that will happen. 

ECLA assumes that Eugene will defy a longstanding local and nationwide trend of a sharp decline in manufacturing jobs due to factories moving for cheaper labor.

The UO has said it plans to build 1,500 new dorm beds by 2017, but ECLA assumes that will never happen. 

The city assured state regulators that it would use nodal development to increase density and reduce the need for car trips in its TransPlan, but ECLA assumes none of that will happen and the city will violate state transportation planning rules.

ECLA admits that less land supply will result in more density but doesn’t do anything to account for “the reality that growth is a result of demand and supply-side interplay with prices.”

ECLA ignores the fact that Springfield and other adjacent cities and towns planning huge population and employment growth could substantially reduce the need for land in Eugene as workers move readily among the cities.

ECLA assumes that a huge vacant lot in a prime area will never be redeveloped if it has a shack or other improvement on it worth just $1,000. 

The city’s TransPlan assumes a close interrelationship between transportation and development and plans to control sprawl by controlling transportation and vice versa, but ECLA doesn’t link transportation and land use.

Kevin Matthews of Friends of Eugene said the city ECLA and Envision Eugene process have presented a false choice between two bad options: Either sprawl, or damage residential neighborhoods with density. But Matthews said the city has ignored a third choice of mixed use residential development in commercial zones.

ECLA admits that such mixed use “is a key city strategy that is embedded in the Metro Plan, TransPlan and other policy documents.” But then ECLA ignores that fact and assumes that only five percent of the housing need will be accommodated in mixed use areas. Then the study reduces the commercial land supply by assuming that the residential development in commercial zones won’t actually be mixed use. 

“That’s deeply irrational,” Matthews said. 

Matthews said mixed use in commercial areas could accommodate much of the city’s housing need while making the city more green, attractive and livable. “You have a lot of capacity,” he said.

If the city also rezoned some surplus industrial land in West Eugene to commercial, the city could largely meet its land need without a UGB expansion, Matthews said.  

City staff have argued that its ECLA figures are meant only as a “baseline” of present regulations and that the assumptions could be adjusted as a result of the Envision Eugene process. 

“This does not trigger a UGB expansion” city planner Jason Dedrick said.

But Fodor said his figures show a more accurate and likely “baseline” for Eugene that reflects current reality. “All these revisions are within current policy and require no changes in local regulations,” he wrote. 

There’s clearly a major advantage of being included in the current ECLA baseline rather than hoping for something in the coming Envision Eugene process. Changing ECLA will require convincing the city staff and/or getting the city council to take action to defy staff. That could be a high hurdle.

City staff have said in the past that they favor more growth to increase revenues for the city bureaucracy.  The staff is led by powerful City Manager Jon Ruiz, who left a job two years ago as a city executive in Fresno — a California freeway city widely derided as one of the worst examples of urban sprawl in the nation. 

The part-time city council approved ECLA in April with little substantive discussion of the numbers and assumptions. Mike Clark, a Republican political consultant who’s worked for a developer, did most of the talking in arguing in support of more sprawl. In a vote that may foreshadow a UGB expansion, the council voted 5-3 last year to back a state bill to subsidize urban sprawl.

But the sprawl fight may not be won at the city level.

Lane County has a progressive majority that could potentially block or reform a city push to sprawl onto county farm and forest land. County Commissioners last week voiced concern that Springfield was not using land efficiently in its move to expand its UGB. “The county’s job is to protect resource land,” Commissioner Rob Handy said.

Eugene could also run afoul of state regulators. The Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development has already voiced concerns that ECLA ignores TransPlan commitments.

Eugene city attorney Emily Jerome warned that expanding the UGB is a “highly regulated area” and can’t be done without showing efforts to control sprawl. “We can’t just have any UGB unless we are able to show we are using the land within our UGB efficiently.”

The city’s UGB decision could also wind up in court. The state land-use watchdog 1,000 Friends of Oregon set up a Eugene office this year and has sued cities for sprawl in the past. The group has already filed detailed comments showing that Springfield’s proposed expansion is an “expensive and unnecessary over-expansion of the UGB.”

Sprawl advocates are pushing to rush the Envision Eugene process so it’s done in time to expand the growth boundary by February 2011. But several councilors have pointed out there is no legal deadline for a UGB decision and argue the process needs up to two more years to more fully consider the assumptions and density options. “It’s one of the most important things we have on our plate this decade,” Councilor Alan Zelenka said. “It’s necessary to do it right.”

The Envision Eugene process could eventually come up with a consensus for new regulations and/or assumptions for less sprawl.

But it’s unclear whether the city really wants a meaningful process. Former Eugene City Councilor Shawn Boles attended an Envision Eugene meeting last month and criticized it in an email to the city as “deeply disappointing.” Boles wrote the meeting lacked substance and city staff didn’t even take notes of citizen comments. 

The city has proposed using a group of about 50 citizens and city staff they selected as a key workgroup on Envision Eugene. A list of the 50 appears weighted about 4 to 1 with pro-sprawl advocates. 

But Matthews said he’s hopeful Envision Eugene will be a good planning process. He said a three day workshop with the city’s $2,500-a-day facilitator he attended with the group of 50 did spend more than half its time talking about talking. But he said there was also some real substance and communication between sharply divided attendees.

Matthews said he hopes Envision Eugene will provide an opportunity to convince developers that they should try to help building a more livable and environmentally friendly Eugene with mixed use infill redevelopment. “We’re not going to build a greener Eugene without them. They are the builders.”