Eugene Weekly : News : 3.10.11

Envision Sprawl
City manager pushes to blow growth boundary
By Alan Pittman

In an abrupt change from decades of city policy and planning to rein in urban sprawl, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz last week proposed a 400 to 500 acre industrial expansion of the city’s urban growth boundary (UGB).

“The 400 to 500 number is bogus,” said Kevin Matthews of the anti-sprawl citizen group Friends of Eugene.

Almost eight Valley River Center malls, including all of the shopping center’s vast parking lots, would fit in 500 acres. Almost 18 of the now closed Hynix factories, including parking lots, would fit in the sprawl area envisioned by Ruiz.

Serving such a large area with city streets, sewers, fire protection and other services would likely cost millions of dollars. But Ruiz’s plan offered no way to pay. In the past the city has reduced services for existing taxpayers or increased taxes to subsidize urban sprawl that fuels millions of dollars in land speculator and developer profits.

Sprawl also has large societal and environmental costs in increased global warming, toxic air pollution, farmland loss, habitat loss, congestion, decreased livability and increased obesity and traffic accidents, numerous studies have shown.

Ruiz’s call for industrial sprawl appears to conflict with the city’s own study last year that showed such an expansion was not needed. The Eugene Comprehensive Lands Analysis (ECLA) found that already “Eugene has about 434 acres of industrial land, on 39 sites, in excess of the demand for industrial land.”

Even the ECLA estimate, based on a continuation of past industrial growth, appears unrealistic. Nationally and in Oregon, manufacturing employment has steadily declined with automation and the movement of manufacturing to extreme low-wage nations such as China. Both the federal and Oregon state employment analysts predict the decline will continue.

The ECLA estimate for land need was also based on job growth estimates for Oregon that are 55 percent higher than the state’s current estimates, according to Matthews.

To justify a higher job growth rate, the city would need a “concrete” economic development plan explaining how that would be realistic. But Matthews said the city’s current plan developed by Ruiz “is completely general, it’s just mush.”

Matthews said there’s little evidence indicating industrial sprawl leads to more and more high paying jobs. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said of the sprawl argument for jobs. Many cities have large numbers of high-wage jobs in compact downtowns, for example, rather than a few low paying jobs in industrial warehouse sprawl, he noted.

Of course, the “industrial” label for the expansion may be simply a job guise for office and big box sprawl. Eugene’s loose zoning regulations allow office buildings on industrially zoned land.

The Register-Guard and Oregon Community Credit Union moved hundreds of employees out of downtown Eugene in the past decade for new office buildings with acres of surface parking lots on Chad Drive near a freeway interchange.

Once its in the UGB, the “industrial” land could also be relatively easily rezoned for Walmarts and other big box commercial development.

It’s unclear where the big UGB expansion proposal from Ruiz came from. The draft from Ruiz claims it “is the result of collaborative and in-depth conversations with a wide variety of thoughtful and knowledgeable community members.” But Kevin Matthews, who serves on the Envision Eugene Community Resource Group, said the 400 to 500-acre expansion was never a consensus recommendation of the group. “No, not at all.”

The large expansion has been pushed by Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce head Dave Hauser and Metro Partnership head Jack Roberts. Ruiz meets frequently with Hauser and Roberts, the city’s two leading pro-sprawl lobbyists. The Chamber and Metro Partnership have received a big chunk of their funding through contracts from the city manager.

Ruiz argues that the city “lacks available land for large lot industrial development.” But it’s unclear what kind of new factory would realistically need a 100-acre site in Eugene. The Hynix fab took up only 28 acres.

State law requires cities to use existing land before expanding, but it doesn’t appear Ruiz’s plan includes much effort to consolidate existing industrial parcels inside the UGB into larger lots. Even land outside the UGB would likely require consolidation.

In the past, the city has allowed numerous rezones and developments that have broken up large industrial lots, and Ruiz includes no concrete protections to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

Ruiz’s plan also includes no effort to count recycling of large industrial “brownfield” lots that may require some cleanup but have long been sitting empty in the current UGB.

Matthews said that even if the city realistically needed such large sites it could meet most of the need by recycling and consolidating existing sites inside the UGB. Matthews said he’s also willing to compromise with a 150-acre UGB expansion near the airport. But Matthews said the Chamber of Commerce appeared only interested in the 500-acre expansion.

The city’s current plans calling for not expanding the UGB were the results of a public process involving thousands of people and scientific surveys indicating overwhelming support for a “recycle Eugene” approach of compact redevelopment. Ruiz’s approach has been to stack his advisory committees with advocates of sprawl.

The Envision Eugene group Ruiz named is “really lopsided” to pro-sprawl interests, Matthews said. “It’s oppressively dominated by the homebuilders and the Chamber.”

Given Ruiz’s approach, the next recommendation from the city manager appears likely to be a large expansion of the UGB for housing sprawl. Ruiz said he’ll make his housing recommendation in May.