November 29, 2022

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Council looks at riverfront housing, steam plant

6 min read
The Eugene city council voted Wednesday to continue looking at options for affordable housing and for the historic Steam Plant on the downtown riverfront.

Acting as the urban renewal agency, members of the Eugene City Council on Wednesday considered next steps for the riverfront.

[00:00:08] Amanda D’Souza (City of Eugene): Urban renewal is one of the few economic tools we have centered on downtown. We’ve talked to you about both of the districts over the past few months. They’ve both accomplished a lot in transforming both the riverfront and downtown, and both are currently coming to an end of their current lives.

[00:00:23] We spoke to you about the downtown district this summer, and you directed us to bring back an action plan for downtown.

[00:00:28] Today we’re here to ask for direction on whether you’d like to keep exploring the use of urban renewal to complete the vision for the downtown riverfront.

[00:00:35] In a September work session, we provided an overview of the affordable housing project the board has previously provided direction on: A project of at least 75 units affordable to households with income at or below 60% of area median income. As you know, projects like this require significant subsidy to offset the reduced rents and be financially viable.

[00:00:58] As we’ve mentioned before, we estimated that subsidy to be in the range of $1.5 to $5 million. Given the rise in interest rates and construction costs and recent experiences with ongoing projects, we expect that the low end of that range is probably now outdated.

[00:01:13] To move this project forward, council and/or the agency board will need to identify whether they want to invest in this project, and if so, with what funds.

[00:01:22] We also heard several board members discuss the importance of the steam plant. As a reminder, the development team’s proposal is a mixed-use building that is financially anchored by a hotel. The plan includes a ground-floor restaurant that opens onto the bike path, dedicated gathering space for performance and arts, and a rooftop bar that will offer an elevated view up and down the Willamette (River).

[00:01:42] The agency board has already allocated $1.5 million for asbestos abatement, SDC (system development charge) permits, and a financial gap remains estimated last year to be over $5 million.

[00:01:54] If the agency does not invest the additional $5 million, the project is unable to move forward. The development team has a gap that can’t be filled with existing resources, and in the absence of a viable redevelopment plan, it’s likely the building would have to be demolished.

[00:02:11] Councilor Alan Zelenka: How much are we willing to invest in the steam plant to make it happen? If it is a good project and it can’t move along on its own merits, that means it requires a public subsidy in order for it to move forward. That’s a really good question for us to ponder, whether or not that’s what we should be doing to make it happen.

[00:02:33] What’s the city’s role in, in moving it forward or, or trying to move it forward? And ‘cause the $5 million gap, that was a year and a half ago, and I can tell you, costs have increased quite substantially since then and don’t look to be abated. So we’re looking at multimillions of dollars more, probably, to have this move forward and, and having the urban renewal district extended and moved forward to be able to do that.

[00:03:02] We get about a million and a half a year out of the district, is that about right?

[00:03:07] Maurizio Bottalico (City of Eugene Finance): Maurizio Bottalico from Finance. Now, the district’s collecting in excess of $3 million a year. I think the (20)23 budget number, the Riverfront District, we expect to collect about $3.3 million.

[00:03:19] Councilor Emily Semple: I really love the steam plant. I think it would be an iconic addition and would help the city in more than just right there around the hotel and performance and shared space.

[00:03:31] But with the way things are right now with housing, and that we’re looking at $10 million short every year for a while, I wonder what the public reaction would be to this. If this went to a vote, would people say, ‘Yes, take this money, keep it downtown on the riverfront, I’m certainly going to be able to come down and at least enjoy the view.’

[00:03:54] Or, you know, ‘I have problems with urban renewal because I think it’s siphoning money from the general fund and the general fund is already not big enough and I just don’t really think it’s a fair way to tax.’

[00:04:09] Yeah, we need housing like crazy and I would like to see some lower-income housing down there. If I had to choose, I’d choose the low-income. I don’t want to waste our time going forward on something just to get information that it wouldn’t work, so I’m not going to vote for it.

[00:04:29] Councilor Greg Evans: Tourism is a relatively clean industry and, we do have a reputation for people wanting to come here and ride the rivers. So I’m curious: What kind of market analysis do we have right now on the tourism industry here locally? Where do we sit with development on the riverfront as far as tourism is concerned? Are we overinvesting, are we underinvesting? I would like to see some kind of neutral market analysis that could give us that kind of feedback.

[00:05:06] Councilor Randy Groves: I asked a question regarding the U of O Land swap and the eight acres that would be extending the riverfront park. We don’t know exactly what we would do with it, but, I personally, I would hate to see us shut down a funding opportunity. It just seems like, we’d be limiting our options if we shut this (riverfront urban renewal district) down too soon. My preference would be to at least extend it until we at least know what’s going on with that piece.

[00:05:34] Councilor Jennifer Yeh: I think that there are projects in this area that are too important to just let go. And I, I think it’s especially compelling, the information about how we can get the affordable housing project done much sooner if we have additional funds and not have to wait for other avenues. And I think that’s clearly a high priority for this council is is that particular part of this larger project.

[00:05:59] Councilor Mike Clark: I feel like I’m watching, a couple of months early, the movie Groundhog Day a little bit.

[00:06:05] We’ve already invested millions in a brand new beautiful park on the riverfront in support of the vision of what this space will become. Part of that is the rebuilding and the reuse of the steam plant. I just heard in the presentation, if we don’t move forward with the necessary plans to see it revitalized and rebuilt, because we don’t want to put in the money necessary to do it, that we have to tear it down and leave a big gaping gravel hole in the ground there.

[00:06:39] I suspect that the public, after we spent on a park, is going to take it very badly if we don’t finish this portion of it, and they end up with that building being demolished. I think that’s a terrible outcome that will haunt us for a long time.

[00:06:57] Councilor Matt Keating: I’m enthusiastic about infusing life and energy into that dormant blight that is. I flash back to when we were at the riverfront for the festival. We were asked: What’s that thing about?

[00:07:09] Well, that thing is a vision that, as has been articulated by my colleagues, we’ve invested in—in a public-private endeavor that I, for one, would like to see it come to fruition. I would like to see life and energy in that riverfront space. And I applaud the mixed economy in regards to affordable and market rate housing. And I want to see that space be successful and not another Sears pit.

[00:07:36] John Q: To continue looking at a riverfront urban renewal district:

[00:07:41] Councilor Matt Keating: Move to direct the agency director to draft a proposal to amend the Riverfront Urban Renewal Plan, to expand the district’s financial capacity and to schedule a work session to allow the board to review and comment on that proposal.

[00:07:52] Mayor Lucy Vinis: All in favor, please raise your hands. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Opposed: two, and that passes.

[00:08:00] Councilor Mike Clark: Mayor, can I ask? (Yes.) Can I ask who the two were? I was not able to see.

[00:08:04] Mayor Lucy Vinis: Oh, Alan and Emily.

[00:08:06] Councilor Mike Clark: Thank you.

[00:08:07] John Q: Acting as the urban renewal agency, the city council looks to support affordable housing and a new tourist destination on the riverfront.

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