Downtown Eugene


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Minority report from the WBAC

The West Broadway Advisory Committee (WBAC) was created by the City Council in response to public pressure against their hell-bent plans to destroy West Broadway. The point, from the City's point of view, was to imprint the rapacious developer, and the horrors of Urban Renewal, with a kind of public-looking stamp of approval. In the middle of the WBAC deliberations, the public forced the City Council to put the funding for the disaster in front of the voting public. Here's the report of a dissenting member of the WBAC committee, Citizens for Public Accountability (CPA)'s Rob Handy:

What went wrong? One member’s view:

1) BEGIN AS WE MEAN TO GO ON

When CPA was asked to participate on the Committee by several decision-makers, CPA made it clear that our issues and interest reside in discussing and considering the balance of public investment with demonstrable public benefit---how will the public money be spent and for what.

We were assured that though the Council motion was silent on the topic, it was inherently obvious that the Committee needed to address the Five Elements in a climate of fiscal discipline, with a goal to prioritize the ultimate recommendations to Council. Given this, CPA agreed to participate.

Once the Committee began to meet, support for the CPA perspective vanished. Our hard-working Co-Chairs and one City Councilor unilaterally decided on a narrow interpretation of the Council motion.

2) CART BEFORE THE HORSE

Many communities have successful downtowns by first having public charrettes that identify design principles and a community vision, before asking for bids and specific design proposals from the development community.

City of Eugene chose to skip engaging the public as an important first step. Instead, by issuing a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for West Broadway redevelopment, out of town developers essentially took the lead on designing our downtown.

Backfilling a public involvement process COULD have been successful, if the Committee had found balance in weighing the interest of the broader public with the interests of the developer.

Sadly, a majority of the Committee seemed content with one perspective voiced several times at different meetings:

“ Don’t upset the developer with ideas different than his.”
“ Don’t scare off the developer by including public input that varies from his plans.”
“ Keep our recommendations general, stay away from prescriptive specifics”

3) BUT, ISN’T THAT HOW OUR REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY WORKS?

Successful majority rule involves compassion and understanding for different points of view and incorporating some of the views into the ruling framework. Ideally, diverse political and social groups coexist with respect. The result is good,balanced governance.

Disappointingly, many on the Committee failed to address the political realities before us: To gain the trust of the broader community for the Committee recommendations to Council, we needed to be inclusive, creative and very specific in our recommendations. The inability of Committee members to recognize the importance of public trust will most likely doom the success of the necessary funding measure on this November’s ballot.

The Committee majority’s indifference to broader community concerns makes Council’s job of finding a balance all that more difficult.

4) COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS: I’LL TAKE MINE VANILLA

Overall, the Committee recommendations are broad, weak or so vague that they are open to multiple interpretations. The developers and City Council, for that matter, can interpret them in whatever way best supports their particular agenda.

The vague recommendations don’t provide much direction to the developers other than to encourage requests for more public subsidies. The Committee majority failed the community by remaining silent on providing a prioritization matrix for the recommendations to Council (save for a generic mix of uses). Many Committee members did not feel it was the charge from Council to make their recommendations in a context of fiscal discipline and prioritization.

With few specific recommendations and a lack of interest in setting priorities, the Committee has created a dilemma for the Council. They must be mindful of the public money funding any private development project. Therefore, it will be impossible for them to direct the developers to enact all of the recommendations. So how will the Council prioritize the recommendations when the Committee making them has provided no direction for doing so?

KWG”s guaranteed 13% return on investment is solidly set as backdrop in further negotiations with the City, while potential estimates for City expenditures of public dollars continue to climb.

5) MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

By doing the public process first, we would be championing that which many in the public want:

* A true downtown park like many great cities and a magnet for development interest.

* Preserving more of the remaining historic buildings that define a downtown.

* Valuing local downtown businesses and non-profits with affordable rents.

* Transit-oriented development across from our EmX hub.

* Priority for public investment given to housing, parks/public open space and ped/ transit infrastructure improvements, NOT for parking nor to guarantee a return on an investment of a private developer.

And most importantly: showing our community that we can spend taxpayer money responsibly, with genuine public value for public subsidies.

6) IN SUMMARY

Most Eugeneans share CPA’s excitement about downtown. We have varying perspectives about the value of an incremental approach that doesn’t displace successful businesses and non-profits, and the value of insuring little risk for the developer and significant risk for our community’s public dollars.

Some say: be careful with public money, accrue quantifiable public amenities as part of any public-private relationship. Some say: “just do something” downtown, let the developers design our downtown, and don’t do anything to scare them off.

Given the integrity and talent brought to the table, I believed the Committee could come to find balance with the specificity the public needs for a return on their tax dollars, and the flexibility a designer needs to mesh a myriad of values and design elements.

Sadly, our Committee collectively failed in this effort. We failed to address the concerns and values of the broader public, but instead adhered to the mantra “keep recommendations vague, don’t upset the developer”.

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