Friday, May 20, 2016

Next Generation Downtown

I’m a member of the Emerald Executive Association (EEA), without a doubt the best business networking group in Eugene. We meet each Thursday morning over breakfast, most often enjoying a presentation by one of our members but we occasionally welcome outside speakers who provide news or programs of interest to our group. We had the pleasure this past Thursday to hear from Brittany Quick-Warner, the Director of Business Advocacy for the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, about her organization’s efforts to sustain and strengthen downtown Eugene’s revitalization.

As the Director of Business Advocacy, Brittany leads the Chamber’s efforts to support local businesses by advocating for policies that promote a thriving local economy. The focus of her presentation to EEA was the plans the Chamber of Commerce and its business partners have for the future of downtown. The Next Generation Downtown team includes the following organizations:
  • Eugene Chamber of Commerce
  • Downtown Eugene Inc.
  • Downtown Eugene Economic Development Group
  • Downtown Eugene Merchants
  • Lane Transit District
  • Travel Lane County
  • Eugene Water & Electric Board
  • Technology Association of Oregon
  • American Institute of Architects-Southwestern Oregon Committee on Local Affairs
Brittany told us the Next Gen team surveyed thousands of community members, and reached out to multiple organizations and interested groups to identify a collective set of goals and priorities for the city’s core. The team is committed to increasing high quality jobs, improving downtown as a destination for activity, and supporting the whole of the community with infrastructure and amenities that promote education, arts, and sustainable living. 

The Next Generation Downtown principles and recommended projects outline a plan for using tax increment financing within the Downtown Urban Renewal District to achieve the following goals and significantly impact the success and vibrancy of downtown Eugene: 

ENCOURAGE AN INVITING & SAFE DOWNTOWN – Downtown Eugene is everyone’s neighborhood and everyone should feel safe and welcome there. Strategic infrastructure investments downtown can create a beautiful place and improve the safety of the area.  

PROMOTE ECONOMIC PROSPERITY – Businesses locate themselves in areas with high-quality infrastructure that increases business capacity. Eugene has the opportunity to capitalize on world-class technology infrastructure downtown and should do so as quickly as possible. 

REIMAGINE OUR PUBLIC SPACE – Great cities dream big, and Eugene should be no exception. Quality public space in the heart of our community will invite all Eugeneans to enjoy downtown. The Next Gen team believes the downtown Park Blocks have enormous potential to become an attractive, high-functioning public space in the heart of our community. Citizens also passionately agree the Farmers’ Market is a staple and needs a permanent home in the historic center of our city.   

TRANSFORM OUR VACANT PLACES – It’s hard to believe the notorious and disheartening pits are now only iconic memories of downtown’s past. While the physical pits are filled in, key buildings in our downtown core still sit vacant or underutilized and work against a vibrant retail and commercial atmosphere. Urban Renewal funds can help transform these spaces into important community assets. 

INSPIRE THE WORLD - As our community prepares to welcome thousands of visitors to the 2021 IAAF World Track & Field Championships, we have the opportunity to capitalize on this wonderful event. We can leverage it by undertaking community projects to benefit Eugene far beyond 2021. The Next Gen team believes Eugene must take advantage of this event and embrace its urgency and opportunities to realize a downtown Eugene ready to “Inspire the World.” 

INVEST IN DOWNTOWN – A thriving downtown requires carefully targeted public investment in order to promote economic development, increase the tax base, and maintain the amenities that support the community’s unique image. As Brittany pointed out, downtown Eugene has come a long way, but there is still great opportunity for improvement; we aren’t finished. 

Encouraged by valuable input from over 775 survey respondents, the Next Gen team believes the continuing, targeted use of tax increment financing, with its proven track record of success, is crucial to accomplishing our shared goals for downtown.  

DOWNTOWN IS A HUB FOR BUSINESS & HIGH QUALITY JOBS – Downtown Eugene is home to many businesses and a large portion of our growing technology sector. Eugene may be unique, but it is no different from other cities in one significant respect: Investment is necessary to shape a vibrant downtown that attracts economic development and helps recruit and retain talent and businesses looking to locate in a lively community.

INVESTING IN DOWNTOWN PAYS BACK IN A BIG WAY – We have learned from studies in cities like ours that investing downtown generates higher property tax returns to the public sector than comparable development on the outskirts of town. The incremental costs of downtown development are smaller because infrastructure like roads and water are already largely established. 

DOWNTOWN MAKES A STATEMENT ABOUT THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY – The cultural and commercial vibrancy of a community’s downtown defines what a city is all about and reflects its economic vitality. It should be a point of pride and stability. Our downtown can be an inspiration for the world in 2021 and beyond, but investing public funds downtown is essential to making that happen. 

Brittany described how the Next Gen team identified a select few improvements as those most likely to provide the impetus necessary to realize widely shared goals for Eugene’s downtown:  High-speed fiber Internet, improved space for the Lane County Farmers’ Market, redevelopment of the old Lane Community College (LCC) building, and Park Blocks & open space improvements.  To use urban renewal funds for these projects, the City must adopt an ordinance substantially amending the current Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to increase the renewal district’s debt limit and expand the district’s boundaries. The current limit of $46.6 million is mostly expended, with the bulk invested on the Eugene Public Library’s main branch, LCC’s Downtown Campus on 10th Avenue, a variety of downtown public safety enhancements, and paying off the debt on the Broadway Place parking structures. 

Providing high-speed fiber connections downtown creates a competitive landscape for telecommunications, which has been shown to expand service options and lower prices for consumers. Improving telecommunications infrastructure would also support our growing technology sector and other businesses in the downtown.  

The Farmers’ Market has maximized use of the existing space, and the configuration and limitations of the site make it difficult for the market to grow and reach its full potential. The Market has long wanted to establish’ a larger and more prominent, year-round market in downtown. This project focuses on possible improvements to the Park Blocks, or another downtown location, in order to create a more attractive, functional, and permanent venue. Options range from a simple pavilion to a full-service building, and from no land acquisition or site enhancements to land acquisition and significant improvements for the project.  

The LCC Building at 1059 Willamette Street, vacant since the opening of the new LCC Downtown Campus in early 2013, is located across Willamette Street from the Lane Transit District Eugene Station. The old 66,000 square foot facility has three floors with a full basement. LCC is currently working to identify potential redevelopment opportunities with the goal of contributing to and supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem anchored by RAIN Eugene, the regional accelerator and innovation network. The structure is large enough to house an “innovation center’” with maker space, wet labs, and other equipment useful to an art and technology incubator. Redeveloping the building as an incubator space would benefit downtown and the broader community by:
  • Improving the physical appearance of the building and the adjacent downtown streetscape.
  • Providing affordable incubator space for early-stage creative industries and start-ups that will create new economic opportunities for community members.
  • Creating a dynamic public space to stimulate additional public and private investment in the surrounding area. LCC is collaborating with the City, RAIN, Lane County, and others to develop a concept that will benefit the community in the long term.
  • The historic Park Blocks, located in the heart of downtown, are a critical component of Eugene’s identity and economic health. They are home to two beloved organizations—the Saturday Market and the Lane County Farmers’ Market—and a key part of the Willamette to Willamette initiative. Improving them and increasing the opportunities for desired activities requires a focused, strategic investment in the amenities, character, and public identity of the Park Blocks and other key public open spaces downtown. 
Brittany’s presentation was highly informative but as a member of AIA-SWO’s Committee on Local Affairs, I already knew of and am supportive of the Next Generation Downtown initiative and extending the Downtown Urban Renewal District. The Eugene City Council is holding a public hearing to discuss the possible renewal this coming Monday, May 23 at 7:00 PM in Harris Hall, 125 East 8th Avenue in downtown. If you have strong feelings about the fate of the urban renewal district, particularly if you endorse its extension, plan on attending the hearing and voicing your support.


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