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Revitalizing a waterfront: What Albany wants to learn from Independence

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Albany is spending millions to better connect its downtown to its waterfront, and local leaders believe the city of Independence is leading by example.

On Wednesday, April 20, members of the Albany Revitalization Agency visited Downtown Independence to get inspiration for for their waterfront project.

Independence, a city of some 10,000 people, formed its own urban renewal district around the same time Albany did in 2001.

As far back as 1996, Independence forged a plan to dress up its downtown and draw more visitors from wine country. Today, the end result is what the 177-year-old city calls "Independence Landing."

It includes the Independence Civic Center, completed in 2011, along with a park on the Willamette River, 110 apartments and 14 townhouses finished in 2020.

Among the landing's key developments is the 75-room hotel built by Tokola Properties of Gresham, which opened in November 2019. 

"We don't want to become a 'tourist town,'" Independence Economic Development Director Irvine said in an interview. "But we do want tourism to be one aspect of our greater local economy."

That plan came at a fateful time for Independence. When a riverside gravel and company folded, local leaders saw an opportunity and bought the land for $800,000 to add to its dream downtown. 

"When we invest in infrastructure, it creates opportunities," Irvine said on Wednesday. "It's important that you have that vision and know what you're trying to achieve."

It's unclear what economic impact Independence's downtown construction has made, Irvine said. A 2016 study commissioned by the city estimated its redeveloped downtown could generate $6 million in consumer spending.

Today, Albany is attempting to do the same with its own waterfront project along Water Avenue where overgrowth and parking lots abound.

Local leaders have wanted to turn Albany's concrete jungle into a walkable attraction. While the war in Ukraine has delayed its search for a contractor,  the agency is determined to see it through.

Members of the agency, who also serve on the Albany City Council, learned more from Irvine about the philosophy behind Independence's waterfront.

The city's waterfront, he said, was designed to be as accessible as possible. That meant widening sidewalks and brightening up the downtown in winter with hanging lights.

"People might think it's crazy how widening sidewalks is going to help you build a library," Irvine said. "Part of our process was making the downtown warm and comfortable."

Some of that meant including amenities along the waterfront, like a dog washing station and a bike repair kit station on its riverside walking paths.

Most of all, Irvine said, the key to the project was thinking about it in more than monetary terms. 

"How does that help bring income come back home?" Irvine said. "I can tell you, making a place more welcoming and more enjoyable will always bring one more person into a business than somewhere that's not."

Members of Albany Revitalization Agency were impressed with the work Independence has accomplished in recent years. Agency member Alex Johnson II said it shows what Albany could do if it sets its mind to it.

"I think (the waterfront project) is necessary and will spur a lot of economic development," Johnson said. "A hotel like that would be a game changer."

The agency, which governs Albany's downtown renewal district, has spent the past 21 years repaving city streets and restoring old buildings as part of its efforts to beautify the city's core.

Agency member Marilyn Smith said on Wednesday she was struck by how Independence approached the waterfront as a people-first venture.

"I think it was remarkable that their vision was so well laid out," Smith said. "I think it was wise for them not to think of their return on investment in monetary terms."

Next up, the Albany Revitalization Agency is scheduled to meet online and in-person at 4 p.m. Monday, April 25 in Albany City Hall. On the agenda is a discussion of the status of the vacant Wells Fargo building in Downtown Albany, among other topics.


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