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Since the late 1990s South Corvallis has been seeking neighborhood improvements.

The South Corvallis Area Refinement Plan (SCARP), developed in 1997, calls for enhancements such as a neighborhood town center, a full-service grocery store and safety and connectivity improvements on Highway 99W, which slices through the neighborhood.

A grassroots effort has helped put a proposal on the ballot to address some of the challenges. Corvallis voters will cast ballots in a March 12 special election on Measure 2-121, which calls for an urban renewal district for South Corvallis.

The commonly used but often difficult to explain urban renewal tool uses “tax increment financing” to help prime the pump for projects. The money comes from increases in property tax rolls inside the boundary as a result of development. Revenue bonds also can be issued based on projected increases in the urban renewal fund.

There is no general property tax increase for residents inside or outside the district, and school funding is not affected. In addition, no property tax levies or bonds are impacted. Taxing districts such as those that pay for the library, city and county services and Linn-Benton Community College, will not receive the additional revenue that might otherwise go their way from the property taxes that build up in the urban renewal fund.

However, in the case of the South Corvallis district, all of the above entities have backed the plan.

Corvallis School Board Chair Vince Adams, who participated in a Feb. 13 urban renewal forum at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, noted that because state funds are required to make school district funding “whole” in areas in which urban renewal is in place, Corvallis residents have been paying school taxes for their own schools as well as additional taxes for those districts with urban renewal.

“South Corvallis has been waiting for this for a long time,” said Adams, who also served on Corvallis’ urban renewal technical advisory committee. “From the Corvallis School District’s point of view this is a no-brainer.”

Albany, Lebanon and Philomath all have urban renewal districts. This is the second vote for a district in Corvallis. A 2009 vote for a district for the downtown core and portions of South Corvallis from Fillmore Avenue in the north to Crystal Lake Drive in the south, and from Sixth Street in the west to the Willamette River in the east, failed on a 55-45 percent vote in May 2009.

One key difference between the new proposal and the 2009 version was that no specific projects were designated in advance for urban renewal funds in 2009. 

The South Corvallis plan includes these specific projects:

$10.4 million: street design and improvements.

$8.5 million: affordable housing.

$7.5 million: neighborhood town center.

$4.6 million: plan administration and refinement.

$1 million: business support, enhancement.

$930,000: natural resources management, Millrace restoration and enhancement and mitigation of natural hazards.

$670,000: multiuse path.

The project list totals more than $33 million, but accounting for inflation, project officials estimate the district will spend more than $62 million by the time its 30-year lifespan expires. Project officials also say that urban renewal money will help “leverage” other public and private funds that will increase the total amount available by perhaps as much as six-fold.

Jim Moorefield, a longtime South Corvallis resident and former executive director of Willamette Neighborhood Services, told a Feb. 12 Corvallis City Club session that he recognizes the challenge voters face in understanding the urban renewal process, particularly its funding mechanism.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my career is explaining how urban renewal works,” he said.

The town center

Moorefield used to live near the Corvallis Auction Yard on Highway 99W. He remembers hearing the cows lowing every Friday as they were brought in to be auctioned off.

“They made quite a racket,” Moorefield said at the City Club forum. “And then they were silent.”

One Friday, more than two decades ago, there was no more lowing because the auction yard had closed. The auction yard remains closed, and you can see graffiti — and painted images of cows — on its stucco walls as you pass by.

The auction yard and another long-vacant site nearby that used to house the Ford New Holland farm machinery business, are being targeted as a possible spot for a neighborhood town center, which could include a grocery store and commercial, retail and housing elements.

There is an artist’s rendering of what such a development might look like in that 1997 SCARP plan.

“There has to be a better way,” Moorefield said. “We need a place where people can live and work and play. We’ve been waiting a long time, and it hasn’t happened. We want to kick-start the right kind of development. We want a neighborhood we can all be proud of.

“You can see what needs to be done in South Town. You can see how dangerous Highway 99 is. You can see properties that have been vacant for decades.”

One challenge for the town center model is that grocery companies usually require a population of approximately 10,000 before they go into a community. South Corvallis is at about the 7,750 range.

Housing

And the best way to boost that population total would be to build more housing in South Corvallis. All types of housing: affordable housing, starter homes and workforce housing.

“It’s ridiculous that people who work here and want to live here can’t do it,” said Sara Ingle of the League of Women Voters of Corvallis in a briefing before the Gazette-Times editorial board. “It’s good for all of Corvallis the more housing we have.”

Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services is hoping to assist with the affordable piece. It already has a presence in that market with the Alexander Court project across Highway 99 from Lincoln Elementary School. And WNHS bought the 7.7 acre New Holland property for approximately $1 million in November 2017.

In addition, there are approximately 65 acres of property south of Wake Robin Lane and west of Highway 99 that project managers hope to use for housing. Approximately 50 acres of the land was rezoned for residential use in 2016 and identified by the city last year as a prime candidate for high-density residential use.

Urban renewal officials hope that the property taxes that come in with development of the acreage will be a key source of the revenue that the district will use for its projects. Officials also hope that the addition of urban renewal funds will help provide incentives to builders to target the more affordable housing segments.

Some community members remain skeptical.

“Are developers going to be altruistic?” asked resident and downtown business owner Ruby Moon at the library forum. “They have not been building affordable housing to date.”

Yes, the housing piece will be a challenge, said Brigetta Olson of Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services. “But we’re in a housing crisis,” she said. “What we are doing right now isn’t working.”

Patience

One of the challenges for urban renewal backers is that even if Measure 2-121 passes not much will happen right away. Unlike, say, the formation of a nonprofit foundation in which donated seed money would be in the kitty right away, the urban renewal fund will start with a zero balance and build up gradually as new development within the district boundary starts paying property taxes.

“We try to make sure we explain that urban renewal is a long-term commitment,” said Elaine Howard, the consultant hired by the city of Corvallis to shepherd the process. “Given that the projects people have hoped for have not occurred in the past, we find that there is incredible patience for the new funding tool to be effective.

“In South Corvallis, as in many communities, there have been visions/plans for what that community could be, but there has not been funding to accomplish those plans. Urban renewal, although it takes some time to (accrue) large funding amounts, can be the tool to make those plans come to fruition.”

Shawn Irvine, a Corvallis resident who works as the economic development director for the Polk County city of Independence, emphasized that revenue bonds can help bridge the gap between a slow-starting fund and a flush bank account.

“URD works best through fostering and capturing the revenue off new development,” said Irvine, who has worked on the Independence urban renewal district that has spawned a movie theater, a riverfront amphitheater, streetscape improvements and a new mixed use hotel project on the Willamette River.

“To do that you really need to bond against future proceeds and try to make something happen. If you form a district and wait for the annual 3 percent assessment increase to pile up enough to do something useful you’ll be waiting for a long time.”

Revenue bonds, as noted earlier, can be issued based on projected increases in the urban renewal fund and paid off later when the higher tax proceeds start to kick in.

Ultimately, Howard said, “I think the issue is do the voters want to see improvements in South Corvallis? If so, then the question is do voters believe urban renewal is an effective tool to help make that happen? And if they think they want to see improvements … and urban renewal is not the tool they want to use then what is the funding source?”

Agency of record

The nine members of the Corvallis City Council will serve as the “urban renewal agency” that implements the plan if Measure 2-121 passes.

“I believe in ‘we the people,’ “ Moorefield said. “This is not the heavy hand of government making people do things. We have control over who is on the City Council.”

“This is different than most communities,” Ingle said. “There will be lot of public participation. This will not be run by developers in back rooms.”

“Voters will have the final say,” said Ward 3 Corvallis Councilor Hyatt Lytle, who has been a tireless champion for urban renewal since her election in the South Corvallis ward in November 2016. “We serve just two-year terms.”

Opposition/support

Measure 2-121, is being supported by the League of Women Voters of Corvallis, the Yes for a Better Corvallis political action committee, the Corvallis School Board, the Benton County Board of Commissioners, Mayor Biff Traber and the Corvallis City Council, Living Southtown and Friends, the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce and state Sen. Sara Gelser and state Rep. Dan Rayfield.

No individuals or groups filed material opposing the measure for the voters’ pamphlet.

The Gazette-Times has received approximately a dozen letters to the editor, with the vast majority favoring the ballot measure. Tom Cordier, a North Albany resident, wrote in opposition, calling into question city spending and borrowing estimates as well as the impact of urban renewal on other taxing districts.

John Detweiler, a former Corvallis City Council candidate, wrote a pair of letters in which he noted that whether the city initiated urban renewal or not there would be something in the nature of $30 million to $70 million that the city could spend on urban renewal or projects or save for future needs.

Detweiler, who spoke on the funding issue at the library and City Club forums, said he does not oppose the measure. Instead, he said he wanted to make sure residents knew what the tradeoffs are.

Costs to city

The city of Corvallis budgeted $45,000 to study the formation of an urban renewal district, with Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services matching the outlay with another $45,000.

Paul Bilotta, community development director for the city, estimates that approximately $68,000 has been spent thus far, divided between consultants and public outreach costs.

“We don’t expect any large consulting bills between now and the election, so that probably is the total,” Bilotta said.

Corvallis is one of just a handful of cities statewide that requires a public vote on urban renewal. And because no other issues, either countywide or statewide, will be on the ballot, Corvallis must pay for the election voters’ pamphlet and ballots. Bilotta estimates the city ultimately will pay $45,000 for the election itself.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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