Linn Benton Community College (LBCC) finds itself embroiled in a controversy involving parks, parking structures, and a few statements it’s made over the last year. Despite their continuing assertions to the contrary, LBCC is interested in Washington Park as a site of expansion for their Corvallis campus, they envision new classrooms and surface parking where the park is currently located—a number of community and environmental groups oppose the idea.
As background, LBCC asked voters to support a $34 million facility expansion levy last year, earmarking about $10 million to add classrooms and parking at the Benton Center. They also proposed to purchase the adjacent Washington Park from the city. At the time, vociferous opposition arose to the sale of the park, so LBCC withdrew the purchase proposal and the measure passed.
On Sept. 9 of this year, The Advocate checked in with LBCC’s Regional Director for Benton County, Jeff Davis, about progress on the expansion and he talked of breaking ground in 2016. The paper asked Davis about Washington Park and he said the college had no plans to revisit expanding there. We later learned that Davis had chaired meetings at which the matter was in fact revisited. For purposes of this story, we evaluate the college’s proposal without regard of Davis’ actions.
On Nov. 2 of this year, Linn-Benton Community College President Greg Hamann addressed the Corvallis City Council, stating the college would like to revisit the possibility of purchasing the park.
LBCC Case for Growth into Washington Park
According to Dave Henderson, Vice President, Finance and Operation at Linn Benton Community College, the college has received feedback from residents all over Corvallis and so far, people seem to be reacting positively. The bond measure that LBCC is working with calls for expansion of both structural space and parking at the Benton Center.
Henderson said they have a few options right now. If they build on the space they currently own, they will have to build a multilevel parking structure. He also said that if they are able to purchase another piece of land, they will be able to construct surface parking, which has the potential to save them a quarter to two-thirds the cost on that component of the project.
Henderson argues that the college has to balance the cost of parking with classroom space, because the more they spend on parking, the less they can spend on classrooms. He said that if the college does purchase the park, the current plan would be to leave some park space available and to do some drainage work to improve the property.
Asked for rough dollar figures comparing costs of a prospective park purchase and build-out of surface parking compared with a parking structure, Henderson said there are no precise cost figures yet.
LBCC has shown a number of drawings but said it has no actual plans.
Former City Councilor Says Concept Lacks Homework, Public Process
Kenton Daniels is a former City Councilor and is currently the treasurer of the Central Park Neighborhood Association. He finds fault in LBCC’s refusal to follow public process when it comes to their general parking issue.
“Even though they’ve got a general plan, which they haven’t really developed yet, they’ve never done a parking study,” Daniels said. “Usually, when you have some kind of a plan to do a building or an expansion, it’s just one of the things you do because you have to meet whatever requirements the city has for parking. They’ve come up with a number, saying they need 200 more parking spots than they currently have, but that’s never been documented by any study or anything. It’s just a number that’s been generated from I don’t know where.”
“One of the things that’s been a real problem from the beginning is that there has never been any public process that involved people in the community and the neighborhood about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it,” Daniels reiterated. “That really should have occurred long before they developed this plan.”
Daniels is also concerned that expansion into the park may infringe on city plan policies. “There’s a city resolution that was passed in 1994 about not using or selling park land,” Daniels said. “The city has documents developed in the past that are part of the vision for the city that are being trampled on here.”
Daniels is referring to Comprehensive Plan Policy 5.6.4 which states: “Land that has been acquired for park purposes shall not be used for any other purposes unless the use is strictly temporary in nature and is compatible with park use. These temporary uses shall be sensitive to, and compatible with, the environment and abutting uses.”
The plan policy was brought up last time the purchase was attempted and held no sway on the actual purchase of the land, but may come up if after a purchase plans were submitted that contradict the policy.
Audrey Hatch, a member of the Benton Center Expansion Advisory Committee, criticizes what she views as LBCC’s consistent refusal to look at alternative solutions. “I have urged LBCC and the city not to just create more pavement, but to look for creative alternatives such as sharing parking space with local landowners or leasing space for parking,” Hatch explained. “So far we have not seen any of these alternatives.”
Hatch also has some overarching concerns, saying, “Their plan has no long-term vision [beyond five years, or so]. They have previously promised not to pave the park, but the recent revival of ‘the park as the only option’ has resulted in some lost trust with the community.”
Environmental Impacts, Probable State Level Appeals
David Eckert, a member of the Mary’s Peak group of the Sierra Club that will be presenting a letter against the expansion, detailed the potential environmental impact of the contemplated surface parking concept. “First of all, it’s in the 100-year floodplain,” Eckert explained. “And it’s not any typical 100-year floodplain, it’s a very important one that’s both for Dixon Creek and for the Willamette River. If they build a parking lot there, it does a couple of things. It will restrict the ability for the water to sink into the ground, there will be a lot of pollutants from the parking lot into the ground, and it may cause pollution issues for the Willamette.”
The 100-year floodplain is land that may be affected by a potential “100-year flood,” which has a one percent chance of happening any given year. Washington Park sits on land that would help collect runoff from both Dixon Creek and the Willamette River in the result of said flood.
Washington Park is also listed as a Level 1 crucial habitat for fish in the case of very serious storms or floods by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. By placing the parking lot on this land, Eckert states that it would negate its purpose as a refuge.
Eckert went on to explain that, if LBCC were to pursue Washington Park, the issues listed above (and multiple others) would cause further land use decisions to be appealable up to the state level. That only means more time and money that LBCC would have to invest into the location before it would be deemed suitable for construction. Eckert expressed interest in following through with those appeals if the situation deemed it necessary.
What the Neighbors Are Saying
Interviewing residents in the Washington Park area, some reported not being aware of what’s going on with the park or Benton Center. Others, especially on streets directly adjacent, are very informed.
Paul and Sarah Farrell, who are only a few houses away from Benton Center and the park, have lived in Corvallis for over 30 years, and are very well informed about the possibilities that could be coming to their neighborhood. Paul believes that a parking lot in Washington Park would take pressure off of the residents. Currently, the Benton Center overflow parking tends to be on 6th Street and 7th Street. Many of those houses belong to families and elderly couples who don’t have driveways or garages, so they may be forced to park several blocks away from their homes. He believes that a multilevel parking structure on Benton Center property wouldn’t provide the parking spaces needed, and that not enough people use the park to justify keeping the whole thing as open park space.
His wife, Sarah, is on the opposite side of the argument. She said that although an additional parking lot may help the current parking and traffic problem, it won’t be able to accommodate the additional students that more classrooms will bring. She also worries that taking away a large portion of the park will decrease the livability of the neighborhood which will just encourage more of the homes to be turned into student housing which, in turn, means more cars per house.
The Farrells’ next door neighbor, Mariana Mace, has also lived in the area for over 30 years and says she has spent a lot of time and energy on this issue. Her children, grandchildren, and dogs have used the park for years and she is a community member of the Site Planning Committee. She believes that a parking lot in Washington Park, even part of it, goes against everything that Corvallis stands for. She would like to know how many students they can’t serve now due to parking. She says the Benton Center claims that the lack of parking is preventing students from signing up for classes that are held there. One of the major issues that she believes is not being addressed by either a multilevel parking structure at the Benton Center or a parking lot at the park, is the traffic turning to and from 9th Street. She also doesn’t believe that the proposal should even be considered, because Washington Park is part of the Historic Preservation Overlay.
Residents in student housing directly next to Washington Park say the parking lot wouldn’t affect them very much since they have private parking and are OSU college students, not permanent Corvallis residents. They reported seeing people using the park on a daily basis to play football and take walks. Others claim that the park is severely underutilized.
It is notable that letters against the prospect of Washington Park being sold have been drafted by the League of Women Voters and PreservationWORKS
On first glance, it could look like two well intentioned municipal impulses have collided, public park space and educational access. More significantly however, the college has not offered enough facts that a reasonable public conversation can occur so that it can be found out if that is the case, or not.
Mayor Traber says that although the City Council hasn’t received a proposal yet, they will consider it if they do, as long as it will improve the park and give LBCC the parking that it needs.
This is probably a good approach.
LBCC has not yet offered even rough penciled numbers for what different parking scenarios will cost and their affects on classroom construction or, what mitigations it can offer in terms of traffic and environmental impacts. The college alludes to preserving some park space, but no details are offered. Direct neighbors appear to be divided on the issue, but some additional assessment should be made. All these components should be in any proposal the college would like considered in this matter.
Given the college’s pre-election assertions, it would be fair that the standard for specificity now be heightened. If the city does receive such a proposal and believes it should be considered, a vigorous public process can be put into place.
From another viewpoint, over a year has passed since voters approved the bond measure. It should be acknowledged that LBCC has managed its process and communications about all this in a materially poor manner. The city and general public may be challenged to judge the merits of a potential future proposal exclusive of these flaws.
By Nathan Hermanson and Hannah Darling