The Changing Face of Southtown: Corvallis Seed Bearing Fruit

Alexander Court affordable housing by Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services

Drive down Highway 99 in South Town, and it’s easy to notice the empty lots, storage unit facility, and collection of vehicle-related businesses lining the main artery. Parts of South Town are, admittedly, shabby, and have been for a long time.

But turn off Third Street onto Crystal Lake Drive, pass the Hollingsworth and Vose glass fiber plant (formerly Evanite), and a whole new world opens up. Updated homes with artsy and imaginative yards line the street. Willamette Park, with its enviable athletic fields, multi-use path, and native plantings, allows residents (and their dogs) access to the beauty of the Willamette River. Newer to the scene are an annual Art Walk every spring, and Rainshine Family Farm, a CSA which serves about 50 members. South Town is also the site of the founding store of First Alternative Co-op, the natural and local foods grocery, as well as CoHo Ecovillage, Corvallis’ only co-housing community.

These developments’ seeds were planted more than twenty years ago. In the early 80s, young families, like Jim Moorefield’s, were drawn to South Corvallis for it’s low-cost housing and cheap, abundant land. “We wanted it because the yard was big,” says Moorefield. “For instance, on my street, most of the homes are quarter acre lots, which is a big lot by modern standards.” He notes “It [drew] people of my generation—‘old hippies’ basically; back-to-the-land kinds of [people]. Short of moving out to a rural area, this was a way to put down roots, literally.” East of Third Street, that homegrown lifestyle lives on. Says Moorefield: “South Corvallis has turned into a community of gardeners.”

But parts of South Corvallis—especially west of Third Street–are also home to industrial sites and lower quality housing not typical north of Mary’s River. The less desirable (and therefore cheaper) housing draws people who simply cannot afford to live elsewhere, such as low-income immigrants. “The Corvallis area has been seeing more of an influx of Latino families coming in since the mid-‘90s, approximately,” says Rocio Munoz, a community health navigator who advocates for the local Latino community. “[South Corvallis] is lower income, and families have more access to housing—not necessarily safer housing, or healthier housing—but just housing in general.” However, the Latino residents are hardly transient. “I’ve lived on the Southwest side of 3rd Street for 13 years,” says Robin De La Mora, “I’ve noticed more families moving and staying. It’s a delight to see the same kids walking to elementary school then middle school and beyond.”

Tunison Park today

Over time, more and more Latino families started taking root, and Corvallis noticed: “There have been a lot of great initiatives over the last 5 years that have been very intentional in targeting South Corvallis to identify what the needs are, and identify what the assets are, and just to see in which way, shape or form the community can be more involved in making their own neighborhood better,” explains Munoz. Lincoln Elementary introduced a dual-language immersion program in 2004; the Healthy Kids Healthy Communities neighborhood improvement effort targets the South Town Latino community; and Tunison Park—the only residential city park in the neighborhoods just west of third (versus the three parks east of Third—Lilly, Riverbend, and Willamette), and plagued with out-of-date equipment and inhospitably soggy ground—just won a $50,000 grant to revive the park, with another $50,000 matched from the city. “It wasn’t that many years ago that all the Latino kids arriving at Lincoln school were clearly crossing the street [from the west side]. I’ve watched it be true more and more that there are more Latino kids going to school from my side of the street,” says Moorefield. “These changes are very positive.”

South Town is indeed diversifying, and not just ethnically. While Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services (of which Jim Moorefield is director) has taken steps to encourage safe, quality, low-cost housing in the area (the organization is responsible for Alexander Court, an attractive, affordable housing complex just completed last year), Willamette Landing, a newer development nestled just south of Willamette Park, specializes in small-lot, 2,000+ square foot homes which sell for anywhere from $200,000 or so to upwards of $400,000. It’s really not so strange that these luxurious homes would be developed in South Town; while the area has only one grocery store (and a niche one at that) and few middle or upper income jobs, it does not lack in recreational amenities. Willamette Park has athletic fields, an off-leash dog area, playgrounds, a winding multi-use path, abundant nature, and beautiful vistas of the Willamette River. In the 1990s, the city replanted 85 acres of the park back to riparian forest. “For a government agency to take 85 acres and to plant native trees is just impressive,” says Charles Goodrich, a noted author, director of OSU’s Spring Creek Project, and a South Corvallis resident. “That what makes me happy when I walk down there—seeing the Ponderosa Pines now 25-30 feet tall.”

South Corvallis Epitomized: Diana and Owen Ryan bought their house on the east side of South Corvallis five years ago. They renovated the property extensively—including converting the garage into a ceramics studio for Diana—and now garden and raise chickens. They welcomed their daughter Beatrice last summer.

Goodrich, like many of the back-to-the-land progressives who moved to the area in the ‘80s, was one of the vocal contributors to the South Corvallis Area Refinement Plan (SCARP), a resident-city collaboration, developed in 1997, that aimed to identify a vision for the area (the document is available for viewing at the public library). Many of South Corvallis’ issues—such as lack of a non-niche grocery store; the divisive role of Third Street; and unattractive street-side property—are addressed in the document. Most of the resolutions hinge on more economic development, which, residents hope, will come in time. But along with economic development comes trepidation. “We are the location of one of the largest undeveloped industrial properties in the state,” says Goodrich. There is a 3/4 mile swath of farmland that starts at Airport Road and continues north to Wake Robin Lane, all zoned industrial. The properties are just waiting for interested parties, says Goodrich, “And something will happen with it and we will all go ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’Think of if you put HP there, or a heavier manufacturing industry. It will bring huge changes. If the economy takes a big jump again, it could go very quickly and we might not have much say in it.”

A possibility with many pros and cons, but one which the long-term residents of South Town—vocal, engaged, and grassroots-oriented—would surely engage head-on. The residents who moved in 30 years ago and helped develop South Corvallis into the progressive, nature-oriented and democratic community it is today have mentored newer residents—more young families putting down roots—to envision possibilities and opportunities, to find strength in community, and to strive to protect what they hold dear. Slowly but surely, the seeds sowed decades ago are bearing fruit.


By Mica Habarad