Eugene Weekly : News : 3.26.08

Collaborative Boulevard
Former opponents share west Eugene vision
By Alan Pittman

After fighting over a freeway through the west Eugene wetlands for three decades, development and environmental interests have finally agreed to a long-term vision for the area that doesn’t include a big new highway.

“To me that is a very big deal,” said Mayor Kitty Piercy at a press conference announcing the West Eugene Collaborative (WEC) consensus between the parties that feuded over the canceled West Eugene Parkway.

Friends of Eugene President Kevin Matthews agreed. “It represents a big decision to say west Eugene can work without the new roads.” 

“This provides the community vision, just like the developers do,” said Larry Reed, a transportation consultant for developers. “The strength is in the vision.”

The vision recommends the slow conversion of the West 11th commercial strip into a tree-lined boulevard for cars, transit and pedestrians surrounded by a dense mix of apartments, offices and stores. 

The wide boulevard would eventually include up to four lanes of through cars, two lanes of side access streets, two lanes of parallel parking, two dedicated lanes of EmX buses, wide sidewalks and five park strips with trees, but no dedicated bike lanes. The boulevard could be built incrementally and take two decades and $180 million to $250 million to complete, the WEC’s consensus report estimates.

In the short term, the diverse group of developers and environmentalists recommends improvements to signage, traffic lights, intersections, striping and turn lanes on West 11th and adjacent 5th and 7th avenues to quickly and cheaply reduce any congestion.

The collaborative group of 27 members met in about 20 meetings over two years and included opposite views on contentious sprawl issues. Republicans Jack Roberts and Faye Stewart and Gary Wildish of Chambers Construction and Jim Welsh of the Eugene Association of Realtors met alongside leading environmentalists Mary O’Brien and Deborah Noble, for example.

The WEC report does not recommend forcing out the many existing big box stores in the area. “None of our plans envision taking property rights away from the current businesses,” Reed said. 

Matthews said the boulevard, up to twice as wide as the current 11th Avenue west of Chambers Street, could require a “small strip” of parking lot from some big box stores. He said the boulevard plan is flexible and could narrow, losing street parking and side streets where needed, until land uses changed over time. “As these [changes] accumulate, the traffic gets smoother and smoother,” Matthews said.

Tom Schwetz of LTD said the EmX bus rapid transit system is flexible and could narrow to only one dedicated lane if needed until the full vision was realized. “It can grow with the corridor,” he said. LTD plans a west Eugene EmX line but has not yet made a siting decision.

Councilor Chris Pryor, a collaborative member, said the council may change zoning in the area to protect the planned right of way from future construction and promote the dense, mixed use development envisioned.

Mixed use, multi-story redevelopment of the corridor could accommodate up to 10,000 units of new housing and be promoted by city tax breaks and urban renewal subsidies, according to the report. 

Piercy said the denser development will increase values for property owners. “This will help them.” The density will also reduce urban sprawl and global warming pollution, she said.

Alan Buck of the Churchill neighbor-hood association served on the collaborative and said, “people in my neighborhood would love to have cafés and stores they can walk to.”  

The collaborative plan could draw on federal funding for the EmX and transportation improvements for most of its cost, according to the report. The greener vision would cost about the same or less than the I-5 Willamette Bridge, I-5 Beltline interchange or proposals to widen Beltline Highway. 

WEC members said the admittedly vague report was more about creating a consensus among diverse groups for an overall vision and direction than a detailed technical plan. The next step, they said, will be seeing if the community supports the vision and fleshing out the engineering. “At this early time, it may not have a whole lot of detail in it, but it’s a first step,” said Pryor.

Matthews said the boulevard vision could also serve as a local and national example of how to green the many car-dependent commercial strips in other areas.  “It could be spread across Eugene and many similar cities in the United States,” he said. “It’s a really important vision.”