Is urban renewal the proper path for a brighter downtown?

by: Submitted map Central Beaverton Urban Renewal Area

When he first moved to Beaverton in 1967, Jim McCreight remembers washing cars in the shadow of planes taking off and landing at Bernard's Airfield.

'It was called Bernard's Mall at first. Now it's Cedar Hills (Crossing),' he says.

Forrest Soth, who served on the Beaverton City Council for 24 years, recalls emergency vehicles helplessly stalled when Burlington-Northern Railroad trains would roar through town, halting traffic on both Canyon Road and Cedar Hills Boulevard.

'There was a lot of frustration and trepidation with the public safety people if they should get a call to go north from Fifth (Street) and Hall (Boulevard),' Soth recalls. 'You couldn't get there from here.'

Changing both scenarios, among numerous other urban alterations and expansions, was made possible largely through Beaverton's first urban renewal plan passed by voters in 1972.

The funding mechanism helped generate the property tax revenue the growing city needed to make transportation- and infrastructure-related changes that many residents today couldn't imagine being any other way.

As they say, what goes around, comes around. And urban renewal has re-entered the lexicon of Beaverton leaders and residents.

Now that the voters' forums have wrapped up and ballots have been mailed, the future of urban renewal in Central Beaverton is now - and for the 12 days until Election Day - in voters' hands.

In the long run

Naysayers express concern that the lingering economic malaise makes this a questionable time to alter a property tax formula that helps support public agencies from schools to fire and rescue to parks.

Others, however, say the long-term benefits from a re-energized downtown core is an effective way to look beyond the current abyss and plan smartly for recovery that's inevitable, if not quite on the immediate horizon.

'There is a very, very small (revenue) decrease in the early years of the program,' McCreight says of the projected financial impact to the Beaverton School District budget.

The projected loss to the district in the first year of urban renewal amounts to less than 1 percent of the annual budget, according to figures provided by the district and city.

City leaders have support from the area's public and service agencies whose funding levels are directly related to property-tax revenue. The Beaverton School District, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, Washington County government and the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District have all endorsed the plan.

'I don't see this as a bad time to be putting it on the ballot,' says Jerry Jones, chairman of the Beaverton Urban Renewal Agency. 'The citizens have asked for a revitalization of downtown. They realize this is a conduit to make it happen, so I think they'll pass it.'

Jones refers to Beaverton's visioning and civic plans. Those citizen-driven planning scenarios outline projects large and small to improve the quality of transportation, pedestrian appeal and access, aesthetics and overall vitality of the city's Central Business District.

The Central Beaverton Urban Renewal Area (see accompanying map) is defined as blighted or underutilized property near MAX transit stations, historic Old Town, the Central Beaverton office and commercial area, and a designated 'employment area' east of Highway 217 and south of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.

Downtown's future

Here are some of the projects the visioning and civic plans propose could be started or expedited with the passage of Beaverton's second urban renewal plan.

  • Canyon Road: Improving the walkability, livability and safety of the thoroughfare through wider sidewalks, slower vehicular speeds, on-street parking and bike lanes.

    'I'd like to see a more pedestrian-friendly Canyon Road,' McCreight says. 'It's not very attractive to walk down Canyon Road. Anything we could do to improve that would be a positive step.'

  • Beaverton's creeks: Restoring banks, creek beds and creating public open spaces and paths to incorporate hidden or neglected streams into the overall feel of the downtown.

  • Central city development: Establish a clear downtown identity by focusing on opportunities where investments in infrastructure and plazas can attract and support desired commercial development; acquire land for shared parking lots and pedestrian-oriented districts.

  • Citywide bike and pedestrian network: Improving insufficient or non-existent crossing facilities and unnecessary wait times, particularly along Canyon, Farmington and Allen thoroughfares; developing a non-arterial bike corridor network using low traffic volume streets known as 'bicycle boulevards.'

  • Central city housing: Partner with nonprofit organizations to build affordable housing; work with landowners of key catalyst sites to demonstrate alternative ways to redevelop properties; create a 'vertical' housing tax credit and transit-oriented development tax-exemptions zones.

  • Employment lands: Working toward the goal of 30,000 new jobs by 2030 by identifying urban reserves for future employment use; redevelop lower-density employment units such as older retail strip malls to higher-density sites; provide incentives such as offsetting SDC fees and building new infrastructure.
  • Interlocking programs

    City Councilor Marc San Soucie calls the Civic Plan the 'nuts and bolts' of the urban renewal plan.

    'We didn't develop the urban renewal plan as an afterthought,' he says. 'They were done in parallel with each other. Urban renewal is the mechanism to be used to fund those projects.'

    So, how might an urban renewal district make these and other improvements possible in the Central Beaverton Urban Renewal Area?

    The scenario goes something like this:

  • If voters approve a new urban renewal district, Beaverton's Urban Redevelopment Agency could, through a period of 30 years or less, sell up to $150 million in bonds to finance improvement projects within that area.

  • Rather than adding new taxes, the urban renewal formula is fueled through projected future property tax revenue - generated from development or redevelopment of a voter-approved area - to finance revenue-generated (as opposed to general obligation) bonds.

  • Once a property tax assessment of the area is 'frozen' at a current rate, the difference between that and the property's post-improvement assessed value is the amount of funding the redevelopment agency has to finance public infrastructure projects such as those outlined earlier.
  • In its simplest terms, the urban renewal funding mechanism reduces short-term revenue gains while building toward a long-term payoff that, if all goes - even conservatively - as planned, will provide considerably more revenue than what came before the revitalization.

    'Some might call it a windfall at the end of the urban renewal plan's life,' says McCreight, a citizen who sits on the Beaverton Urban Renewal Board of Directors.

    The plan, he notes, calls for less than half of the maximum $150 million in bonding authority.

    'We wanted to be very conservative in terms of the maximum amount potentially sold in bonds.'

    Tax revenue, of course, doesn't allow such changes all by itself. Forrest Soth recalls the complex mechanizations that eliminated the railroad bottleneck back in the 1970s.

    'To do that, we had to have the cooperation of Washington County as well as ODOT,' he says. 'But it worked out quite well. That was a big relief to (emergency responders) and those who moved the freight.'

    San Soucie says if voters approve the urban renewal plan on Nov. 8, the same principles will apply.

    'None of these projects are funded entirely from urban renewal,' he says.

    Funding and planning will involve county, state and federal agencies as well as grants from a variety of sources.

    'But without urban renewal funding, we've got a big hole. That funding will fill that hole and give us an opportunity to complete these projects.'

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