‘Anthropogenic Decline’

With the Steam Plant now in their hands, its development team has a long way to go before construction starts in 2023 

The old Eugene Water and Electric Board Steam Plant sits in an industrial yard on the southeast corner of the city’s Downtown Riverfront property, sandwiched between East 6th Avenue and the Willamette River. Its pale concrete walls and multi-story windows tower ominously over the low-lying shrubs, chain-link fences and remnants of ongoing construction activity. 

The Steam Plant anchors the southern end of the city’s Downtown Riverfront development — a sprawling urban renewal project that will see the construction of a brand new neighborhood in the coming years, along with an urban plaza and a three-acre park set to open in the summer. In January, the city agreed to sell the 28,288-square-foot structure to developers for $1 — a legally symbolic gesture, as the building was appraised for negative $8.3 million in 2019. It’s soon to be the site of a $56 million redevelopment project that will one day transform the near century-old Steam Plant into a luxury hotel and cultural hub. 

But the building has seen better days. After decades of processing river water into steam used to heat and power downtown Eugene, EWEB slowly began to phase out of the building until its total abandonment in 2012. The city bought it in 2018, but by then, the “anthropogenic decline” — as it was described by a city planner in a December 2021 City Council meeting — had begun to set in. 

On a recent tour of the plant, Eugene Community Development Analyst Jared Abbott stands outside the building, beside a rusted white electrical power box with the face of an angry clown in red spray-paint. Wood panels line the building’s lower half, while smashed-out windows and graffiti scrawled high into the façade loom overhead. Human debris litters the area, as if a dumpster or two had been emptied along the building’s perimeter. 

The city announced a hard deadline of Sep. 30, 2023, for the Steam Plant’s official groundbreaking, with construction expected to take 18 months. But before construction can begin, Abbott and his colleagues must first secure the premises, which they hope to have completed by the opening of the Downtown Riverfront Park in the summer.

This has proven to be no easy task. The building is exposed; the surrounding fence is only about seven feet tall. Abbott points out the many spots where it’s been cut. A big generator sits nestled against the wall, draped in silver tarp. Directly above is an open window. 

“Every time I come over here, there’s a new place someone’s gotten in,” Abbot says. 

Usually, it’s to steal copper wire or bits of scrap metal. He says he used to find iPhone and Android chargers plugged into the sockets inside, until the EWEB shut off the power as a deterrent. Sometimes, Abbott will park his truck out front after work and stay there until evening, hoping that his presence will deter the bands of youths who come roaming through at night, armed with spray paint.

“We’ve never actually caught anyone inside the building,” he adds.  

The city’s hired a handful of security companies since its 2018 purchase of the building, Abbott says. 

The last company quit after guards stumbled upon a man with a gun behind the plant one night, the company’s manager told Abbott. The guards retreated and called the cops. “That was the final straw,” Abbott says. “They were already having staffing issues.”

As of May 1, the Eugene Police Department has a surveillance trailer stationed near the Steam Plant, according to EPD’s public information officer, Melinda McLaughlin. 

Just past the front entrance’s thick, blast-proof metal doors lies what was once an office. Long and narrow, the room’s cold tile floor is scattered with paper. Late-afternoon light leaks in behind the wood panels bolted over the windows to keep out vandals and marauders. 

Clearly, they haven’t worked. 

“This is all new,” Abbott says, motioning to fresh, blood-red graffiti on the wall to his left reading, “KILL KKKOPPS,” and “BURN THE PRISONS.” 

A low bookshelf has spilled its contents — mostly old safety manuals and industrial parts catalogs — onto the floor. Filing cabinets filled with EWEB documents line the walls to Abbott’s right, some dating back to the 1980s. 

A metallic bang rings from somewhere deep within. “No one’s supposed to be in here,” Abbott whispers. “Hey!” he shouts. “Someone in here?” 

The Steam Plant’s atrium is a cavernous multi-level maze of steampunk contraptions, echoing with the ghosts of a forgotten industrial past. Soaring platforms with grated floors hang precariously over iron canyons, whose shadowy depths are littered with memorabilia of days gone by: dismembered swivel chairs, office supplies, spray cans, entire filing cabinets worth of maps, carried into the building’s dark corners by a late winter wind blowing through the shattered, school bus-length windows. 

The city and the developers’ plans for the Steam Plant are ambitious. If all goes according to plan, once completed, it will house a 77-room “boutique” hotel owned and operated by the Embarcadero Hospitality Group — a Columbia Gorge-based hotel management and consulting company — which will serve as its financial foundation. The ground floor will include a public performance space and exhibit venue, with a publicly accessible deck overlooking the river on the backside, incorporated as part of the Downtown Riverfront Park. There is also talk of office space, elevators up to a rooftop bar, a large, river-facing restaurant with outdoor seating and an in-house Arcimoto electric vehicle rental station. 

“It’s not just a hotel,” Mayor Lucy Vinis said at an October City Council meeting. “This is a self-sustaining economic engine. We are not putting money in that we’ll have to invest again and again. We’re investing in economic development.” 

According to Eugene Community Development Co-Director Will Dowdy, the inclusion of lucrative businesses like the hotel allows for the maintenance of the publicly accessible pieces — like the performance space and the overlook — without further financial investment. 

“The proposal embeds within it revenue-generating pieces, so it has the ability to maintain itself,” Dowdy says. “By having parts of it that are revenue-generating, it allows other parts of it to be more focused on public use.” 

Beyond the security issue, the Steam Plant’s developers and city planners still have a long way to go logistically before they can start construction. For now, the city has set the September 2023 groundbreaking deadline, but there are factors that may hinder this date. Parking, for example, has presented a particular architectural and logistical problem, as the Steam Plant site has limited outdoor space. 

Parallel street parking is one option, Abbott says, as is the utility lot next to the EWEB substation on the east end of the building, which could fit up to 70 spots. 

“But that doesn’t really solve all the parking needs,” he says. “We don’t want parking to be the only solution. Maybe there’s a way of using a parking garage downtown with a little shuttle or something like that.” 

Another potential option is leasing paid parking spaces from nearby downtown businesses on weekends and evenings, says John Rowell, who’s part of the Steam Plant’s architectural design team. He also says it’s possible that by limiting on-site parking spaces, out-of-town hotel guests might be encouraged to use alternative forms of transportation, like bicycles, public transport or rented Arcimotos. 

“If you go on a trip somewhere and stay downtown, the chances that you’re going to park on a surface lot in a developed city are pretty low,” Rowell says. 

The city has prioritized the use of electric heating and cooling, but the owners of the restaurant may have a say in how they power their business. 

At a Jan. 26 Eugene City Council meeting, city planners outlined the Steam Plant’s deal points, the result of a negotiation between the city’s Urban Renewal Agency — a subset of the council — and the building’s development team, Dream Plant LLC, a partnership between Arcimoto CEO Mark Frohnmayer and local developer Mark Miksis. 

Now, the next step of the Steam Plant’s development process is to draft a more detailed development agreement between the city and the developers based on the deal points. This agreement will be legally binding, and will include a more specific outline of the building’s construction process. According to Miksis, the city is currently working on drafting this agreement with input from the developers. 

Frohnmayer did not respond to Eugene Weekly’s repeated requests for comment. 

The project is funded primarily by the developers, providing $49.3 million of the total budget, while the Eugene Urban Renewal Agency will contribute $1.5 million. The agency’s contribution includes $350,000 to remove asbestos collected around one of the plant’s boilers, as well as $1.1 million to assist with construction charges and permit fees. Currently, the city and the developers are brainstorming ideas to close the project’s remaining $5.2 million funding gap. There are talks of requesting $5 million from the state as part of the city’s 2022 state funding requests, Dowdy says. 

The city’s budget for the project has been set by the deal points, so any additional expenses that arise between now and the building’s groundbreaking are the developers’ responsibility to pay. No further public investment, beyond the city’s $1.5 million, will go into the Steam Plant, city planners say. 

According to materials from a January City Council work session, the Steam Plant is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Dream Plant team will pursue that designation, allowing them to receive Historic Tax Credits.

 Because the developers have yet to finalize a detailed analysis of how much the building will actually cost to renovate, the estimated $56 million cost outlined in the deal points could potentially increase as the project moves forward, Miksis says. 

“We’re working on our best assumptions right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of due diligence for us to do in order to vet the financial feasibility of this project.” 

If the project ends up costing more than the projected $56 million, Miksis and Frohnmayer might finance construction through debt, equity or selling the building’s state tax credits, Miksis says. 

“Costs have been going up every day, Miksis says. “We’re in an inflationary environment. We don’t have that operational model built yet.”

Part 2 in a series on Eugene’s Downtown Riverfront Development.