Downtowns are getting a new life
By Robin Doussard
TINY BAKER CITY in far eastern Oregon will unveil its new arts center in March, a $1.5 million renovation of its 1909 Carnegie Library. Since the overhaul of the Geiser Grand Hotel in the mid-1990s ignited a downtown renaissance, Baker City has been a model for historic revitalization, and it shows no signs of slowing: 80 of 110 historic downtown structures have been rehabbed and there are currently eight other renovation projects worth $1 million under way.
On the other end of the spectrum and state is Portland, which famously has been undergoing a downtown revitalization since the 1970s, when it made several early, important moves that kept its central core from collapsing: a downtown transit mall, a new waterfront park, creation of the Pioneer Courthouse Square and the Pioneer Place mall. South Waterfront, the Pearl and the Brewery Blocks are only a few of the more recent high-profile projects, along with new transit infrastructure that is currently ripping up downtown streets. Despite the recent housing downturn that has cooled an over-built condo market and an entrenched street population, retail and office building growth continues.
These two very different but well-known successes stand alongside other high-profile examples of newly thriving small historic downtowns such as Hood River, Lake Oswego and McMinnville. But around the state, many more of Oregon’s cities are undergoing steady, often quiet revivals. Driven in part by increasing demand for downtown housing and helped along by savvy private/public partnerships, local love and out-of-state interest, dozens of Oregon’s Main Streets hit in past decades by economic collapse, suburban flight or malls once again are thriving – and hopeful.
And hopeful, thriving Main Streets mean the hearts of distressed communities beat again.
“The downtown core is a testimony to how successful a city is in providing for its citizens,” says Linda Ludwig of the League of Oregon Cities, a lobby group for the state’s 242 cities. “A deteriorating downtown core doesn’t inspire confidence,” Ludwig says. For instance, she says Albany’s improved downtown had to be key in landing the $200 million PepsiCo bottling plant that is set to open next year, bringing 200 jobs with it.
“We look like a construction zone,” says Rick Rogers, executive director of the Albany Downtown Association. “The whole downtown is under renovation.” The change has been recent and fast, sparked by a first-run movie theater opening only two years ago. Now the second stories of late 1880s-era buildings are being converted to offices and lofts, new restaurants have opened, and “it’s becoming a desirable place to live,” says Rogers.
Pendleton mayor Phil Houk, also the president-elect of the Oregon Mayors Association, puts it this way: “Communities that have lost their downtown have lost their identity.”
To prevent that, Pendleton is focused on renovating facades and creating second-story access to its downtown buildings; the city will help with funding for elevators if builders will rehab their upstairs. It’s a simple idea used by many downtowns, including The Dalles, Corvallis, Salem and Portland: Increase foot traffic by promoting living above the retail ground floor and you’ll encourage businesses to return to the area.
Pendleton created an urban renewal district three years ago, a move that Houk says was key for downtown revitalization. Around the state, that private/public partnership is cited as critical to getting traction. To help, the state this fall launched its Main Street Oregon program, part of a national initiative, with a $500,000 grant fund. The program combines historic restoration with economic development to help downtown business districts. A national study estimated that each new downtown employee spends between $2,500 and $3,500 downtown each year, and each new downtown resident spends between $7,500 and $14,000 annually in the downtown.
Eugene found that the private sector cannot do it alone, says Russ Brink, executive director of Downtown Eugene. Revitalizing downtown Eugene has been a long process, Brink says. Classically sapped by malls, suburbanization and a failed pedestrian mall, the downtown core languished. But now two private developers have plans that include office, retail, housing and entertainment components — a private investment of $180 million. Why now?
“Because the city of Eugene and its urban renewal agency have control over those properties, and there’s a very active market for downtown redevelopment locally and nationwide,” says Brink. Downtowns across the country are seeing incredible redevelopment. Housing is in demand and retail follows housing. Brink says the strategy is to make Eugene’s downtown denser.
DOWNTOWN IS THE HEART of any community and fixing a broken one is about a sense of place and pride. Several river towns across the state have recaptured use of their watery beginnings: Corvallis, Independence and The Dalles all have created new riverfront parks that snuggle their historic downtowns. Troutdale plans to cut a road through its outlet mall to create a gateway to the Sandy River.
Salem has a tremendous opportunity opening up around its riverfront with Boise Cascade exiting the downtown core and freeing 13 acres of riverfront property. The city’s vision for the area is to increase pedestrian usage and connections throughout the downtown area.
Being the capital presents unique challenges with overlapping state and local needs. But suddenly, it’s all coming together. “It’s like a perfect storm,” says Rick Scott, Salem’s urban development director. Scott says Salem used to be an example of what not to do, but now it’s an example of what to do. The Salem Conference Center, opened in 2005, was a 35-year-old vision that’s now turning a profit. The city has invested $8.5 million in restoring 27 historic buildings and there has been a $26 million public/private investment in the core to date. Scott estimates that over the next few years there will be 275 condos, apartments and townhomes built downtown.
The key to success? “You have to have the political will and alignment,” says Scott, “and a development community interested in taking some risks.”
It also helps to have a strong identity, and some downtowns are focusing on arts and culture as their niche.
Hillsboro had to grapple with how to keep an older downtown vital after it had started to slide. The city decided that the arts were the answer (part of a larger strategy to attract the creative class, according to John Southgate, the city’s economic development manager) and formed the Downtown Hillsboro Renaissance Project, which includes a cultural arts center, a regional theater and a visual arts facility. After creating an artist relocation program in 2000, 45 artists have moved into the area. Another top priority is building the residential base of downtown.
Gresham, too, sees the arts as vital to a healthy downtown. Its $16 million Center for the Arts, still in the feasibility stage, is sited on a two-acre parcel in the historic core donated by the Fourier-Larson family. The design includes two buildings connected by a large community plaza, which is envisioned as Gresham’s public gathering place.
Like many small towns, Springfield was timber-dependent and suffered from that collapse. But now, “We are slowly changing into a culture center,” says Dan Egan, executive director of Springfield’s chamber of commerce.
Egan says that for 27 years there were no new buildings downtown and it lost its place as a commercial hub to malls at the outskirts. Then the economy picked up in the 1990s (Sony came to town in 1995), and now there is $25 million in new construction going on. Key is a $3.2 million community theater and a new mass transit station. Voters will decide on establishing an urban renewal district this fall.
“We were on the verge of being a ghost town,” says Egan. “Now we have momentum. An urban renewal district will be one of the things that says the city is serious. We’re almost at the tipping point.” Many city officials statewide cite urban renewal districts, enterprise zones and historic designations as key tools in creating the public/private partnerships that they see as so vital to downtown revitalization.
ASTORIA KNOWS SOMETHING about tipping points. Astoria’s history is as deep as its Columbia River channels. The first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific Coast, named for John Jacob Astor and rebuilt after two devastating fires, it has suffered the collapse of timber and its storied fish canneries. Through the early 1990s, “when the sun went down, downtown was a scary place to be,” says Paul Benoit, Astoria’s city manager.
Eventually, the city got rid of the three notorious bars that blighted downtown, which began a complete turnaround, says Benoit. The city focused on its assets, starting like many of its brethren with its river. Now there’s a riverwalk along the face of the downtown with five miles of paved trails and three parks.
Then the $6 million renovation of the 1925 Liberty Theater, launched in 2000, helped spark Astoria’s revitalization. It soon was followed by the renovation of the 1924 Hotel
Elliot. The downtown took off.
“Optimism was born,” Benoit says.
But plans for three new mixed-use developments on the waterfront with a total of 120 residential units has led to local angst about what Astoria could become, which has led to a riverfront visioning project.
“There are towns that get so successful they become something different … a tourist destination,” says Benoit. “Astoria’s never been too fancy. There’s a real desire that we understand what the essence of the community is.”
With this kind of success inevitably comes some angst about losing identity. You see it in the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers and expressed in smaller towns from Baker City to Hood River to Astoria. Despite that, few seem to see the downtown momentum slowing.
“There’s a saying,” says Eugene’s Russ Brink. “Downtown is never done.”
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