Eugene council extends life of downtown urban renewal district

Content: Register Guard


Concluding a months-long discussion, Eugene city councilors voted Monday to prolong the downtown urban renewal district after deciding not to seek approval from city voters.

The decision allows the urban renewal agency, governed by the City Council, to spend up to $19.4 million on four public projects downtown.

The projects would expand the publicly owned high-speed fiber network downtown; build an open-air pavilion or covered structure for the Lane County Farmers Market; convert the former Lane Community College building on Willamette Street into an “innovation hub” to nurture new businesses; and improve the Park Blocks and other open areas downtown.

The council voted to amend the renewal agency’s plan that dictates how much diverted property taxes it collects and how the money is spent so it can collect the additional dollars. The vote was 5-3, with councilors Mike Clark, George Poling, Chris Pryor, Claire Syrett and Greg Evans in favor, and councilors George Brown, Betty Taylor and Alan Zelenka opposed.

Before the vote to prolong the district, councilors on a 5-3 vote rejected a proposal by Brown to let city voters have the final say.

“This would be an outstanding way to restore some of that trust (in city government) that has been eroded the last few years,” Brown said.

The majority of councilors disagreed, saying they are elected to make tough decisions and raising concerns that an election could draw big money from companies that seek to thwart an expansion of the publicly owned fiber network.

Syrett said the network represents a “real threat to private corporate interests like Comcast that have lots of money to kill our efforts.”

Taylor and Zelenka joined Brown in voting for a referral.

Residents could still collect signatures of registered voters to put the matter on the November ballot, but they must submit them before the ordinance extending the life of the district takes effect in 30 days.

The urban renewal district shifts a portion of property taxes away from local governments to the district to pay for projects identified in the plan.

The question of keeping the 48-year-old district in place was controversial. When councilors last extended the district, in 2010, they agreed to terminate it when previous projects was completed.

The three councilors who voted against prolonging the district said the council should abide by its earlier commitment. But other councilors said the 2010 vote shouldn’t tie their hands to pay for projects that will aid downtown’s ongoing revitalization.

“Things change, and it’s not chiseled in stone that life is going to continue the same way every day,” Poling said.

Councilors voted to set maximum amounts for the separate projects, though the total spending, including on expenses, cannot exceed $19.4 million. The city will pay millions of dollars more in interest to repay the debt on the projects.

Councilors increased the spending limit to $19.4 million from $18.4 million to provide additional money for the LCC downtown building project.

Councilors must approve specific amounts to be spent on the projects following public review, including a public hearing.

Follow Christian on Twitter