LO council could ask for public vote on Safeco property

Some voters want the city to keep the $20 million parcel, others want it sold
by: Sam Bennett, John Surrett of Ask Lake Oswegans handed city recorder Robyn Christie about 4,200 signatures for a November ballot measure last week.

Faced with mounting criticism over the city's decision to purchase the Safeco Building and a growing list of high-priority capital improvement projects, the Lake Oswego City Council is considering asking voters whether to keep or sell the $20 million Safeco property.

City council members said they may request an advisory vote for the November ballot. The vote would help the council decide whether Safeco should be converted to a community center or sold.

The council may also back the idea of conducting a survey to test voters' interest in funding a community center.

At the same time, a group that opposes using the building for a community center has turned in 4,225 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that could force the sale of the Safeco building.

Members of the opposition group, Ask Lake Oswegans, are confident they gathered enough signatures to have a ballot measure that would ask residents if they want to require voter approval for city property purchases of more than $2 million.

City recorder Robyn Christie said the group turned in about 1,000 signatures more than the minimum needed. The signatures will be verified by the end of June.

Should voters pass it, the measure would require another vote, most likely in March, on whether to keep the Safeco building, which the city has re-named the West End Building.

'It's absolutely staggering what the city has spent on this without voter approval,' said John Surrett co-chief petitioner and spokesperson of Ask Lake Oswegans. 'It just boggles the mind.'

The city is spending $1.1 million annually in interest on the purchase of the Safeco building, as well as $25,000 each month in operating costs.

Nevertheless, council members Tuesday stood firmly behind the city's decision to buy the 89,000-square-foot building, which sits on 14 acres of land on Kruse Way.

Mayor Judie Hammerstad said the city should not miss the chance to build a community center.

'This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,' she said. 'If we pass this up, generations to come will say, 'What idiots.''

To reconfigure the former insurance building, consultants estimate the costs around $55 million to $60 million. The cost to add a central library to the site would be another $20 million to $25 million.

'When we bought the Safeco building, I thought the purchase would be characterized as bold and visionary or rash and inappropriate,' said Councilor John Turchi. 'I still think it was a good acquisition.'

He conceded that there is 'clearly substantial opposition to the purchase of the property.'

Opponents say that the city cannot afford a community center, at a time when it is faced with infrastructure projects such as the $100 million sewer pipeline system and the need to upgrade or replace city hall.

In addition, council members ruled out the November 2008 ballot as the right time to ask Lake Oswegans if they want to fund the community center. That election could include costly funding measures for county libraries and Lake Oswego schools, and possibly the sewer interceptor project and a regional transportation funding measure. Those would hurt the community center's chance of getting approved, according to Hammerstad.

To fund the community center, a $60 million general obligation bond would cost the owner of a $300,000 property $315 annually, or $105 per $100,000 assessed value.

'As I see it, voters are concerned because they see the costs of the sewer interceptor, the library initiative and the problems with city hall,' said Councilor Roger Hennagin. 'I don't believe the voters of Lake Oswego want to assume the costs of a visionary community center until we address these other issues.'

Hennagin raised the possibility that the Safeco building could be kept as city property until a later date, when the city has money to re-develop it into a community center.

Councilor Frank Groznik suggested the city 'establish a community center fund' to raise money for its development.

'Without a community gathering space, we will just be a bedroom community to Portland,' Groznik said.

'It would be a tragic mistake not to keep the building,' said Hammerstad.

'I don't see anything wrong with putting this off,' she added, meaning that the city could hold the property for a unspecified number of years until there is money for the community center.

The city could rent or lease some of the building, councilors said.

But opponents said holding the property would be a financial drain on the city.

The city has already spent $39,000 in minor improvements to the building and is housing the Parks and Recreation staff there. The cost of moving that staff into the West End Building was $213,000.

'I think they're getting way ahead of themselves,' said Surrett. 'They're staking out turf to give the public the impression that this thing is being used.'

Hammerstad said she would like the re-development costs lowered - possibly by receiving grants, partnering with a private entity or 'philanthropy.'

'The price tag is going to have to come down,' she said.

Councilor Ellie McPeak said she favors a citywide survey on the community center idea.

'I'm prepared to let the citizens of this community decide,' she said. 'I think they will understand why we support the ownership of the Safeco building.'

At Tuesday's meeting, councilors applauded the work of a steering committee, which developed a master plan for the center.

Hammerstad called the plan 'stunning.'

Like other council members, she expressed her appreciation to the committee, but could not promise if or when its work will be carried out.

The city has scheduled a public hearing to discuss the community center at 6 p.m. July 24 at city hall.