Sunday, June 16, 2013

South Willamette Concept Plan Update

I previously wrote about the City of Eugene’s development of its South Willamette Concept Plan. In the year since that post over 600 members of our community have helped refine and advance the plan. The City recently published its final draft of the document, which has already been endorsed by the Planning Commission and now is ready for presentation to the Eugene City Council. 

Some of the updates to the plan in response to input from stakeholders include a reduction in the allowable height of buildings (from seven to five stories, with setbacks at three stories), allowing row-houses in specific areas only, allowing more non-retail mixed use along Willamette Street, leaving options for the Willard Elementary School site open, and eliminating target areas for extra density. Envision Eugene’s overarching principle of compact urban development remains. The plan lays the groundwork for a thriving, compact, livable, and connected neighborhood where services for residents are available within a 20-minute walk in any direction. 

The South Willamette Concept Plan has been somewhat overshadowed by the vigorous debate about the future form of Willamette Street, especially whether the City will reduce the number of vehicular lanes from the current four to as few as two. The results of Willamette Street Improvement Plan will refine the street design portion of the South Willamette Concept Plan; however, the City has been clear in stating the intent of its South Willamette Concept Plan is to more generally address the street-side character for the district as a whole and not solve Willamette Street’s specific transportation issues. 

I do understand the objections of many South Willamette Street business owners and commuters to change of any kind. I use Willamette Street for travel to and from work every day, and I’m not sure I would welcome seeing my daily commute lengthened. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that everyone recognizes how awful the stretch of Willamette between 23rd Avenue and 32nd Avenue is from a pedestrian’s or cyclist’s perspective. The absence of buffering from fast-moving traffic and the profusion of curb cuts present very real safety issues and a generally unattractive streetscape. 

The South Willamette Concept Plan illustrates how the street-side character of South Willamette Street can be vastly improved by implementing easy-to-understand design strategies. It likewise does a very good job of articulating the future look, feel, and structure for the entire study area. The plan is a holistic study of land use patterns, building form, street character set forth as a clear, illustrated vision for how each of these should contribute to a livable, thriving district capable of accommodating greater density over time. I am very impressed by how comprehensive, accessible, well-illustrated, and legible the South Willamette Concept Plan is. I’ve also been impressed by how thorough the City’s process has been for engaging the community, ensuring that all voices have been taken into account. Kudos to Trish Thomas, AIA, Robin Hostick, and the other City of Eugene staff responsible for shepherding the Concept Plan processes. 

The City notes how the plan is intended to result in tangible actions, such as code changes, but also acknowledges that a significant market gap will continue to inhibit needed redevelopment. Additional actions are needed, including community investment and partnerships. Without these efforts, Eugene will need to find another way to accommodate future population increases. I’d rather not see our urban growth boundary expanded in response to that growth. Fostering increased density that results in enhanced neighborhood livability is what the South Willamette Concept Plan is about.

Trish recently sent an email about the latest on the South Willamette Concept Plan to those in the community who’ve expressed an interest in the project. She noted the next steps for the plan will be the continued development of urban design and implementation tools, such as a form-based code, and to set in motion the desired future that emerged from the visioning process. She also included links to webcasts of the Planning Commission’s discussions about the Concept Plan, which occurred on April 15 and 22. Next up is the City Council presentation, which will include both the South Willamette Concept Plan and the Street Improvement Plan. That presentation will take place at noon this coming Wednesday, June 19 in Harris Hall (125 East 8th Avenue) and should also be available for viewing afterward as a webcast. 

Time passes quickly. Before we know it, much will have changed and we’ll have many more neighbors than we do now here in Eugene. They’ll need homes and places to work, play, shop, and go to school. We need to plan intelligently for compact, sustainable growth. The South Willamette Concept Plan is a very positive step toward a future we can all support.

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