Corvallis Votes on Urban Renewal

On March 12, Corvallis will vote on Measure 2-121, also known as the South Corvallis Urban Renewal District. The vote will decide whether or not to approve a 30-year plan to create an urban renewal district, which is an area designated by the city for enhancement and development, in this case about 425 acres in the southern part of the city.

Along with designating an area for the district, the measure also creates an Urban Renewal Agency. This Agency is made up of the members of city council, who will manage the approximately $33.5 million in 2018 dollars ($62.3 million in inflation-adjusted 2048 dollars) that is planned to be spent on affordable housing, mobility, and access improvements to the Highway 99 corridor, building a neighborhood town center, and attracting much-needed businesses such as a full-service supermarket.

Various plans to redevelop South Corvallis have been in the works for over twenty years. Recently, that effort has become more focused. Over the last few years, community organizers and advocates from groups like Living Southtown and Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services (WNHS) worked with South Corvallis communities to identify their needs and incorporate them into what is now Measure 2-121.

Measure 2-121 includes a list of specific projects and budgets, as well as a list of priorities to guide development. This new district proposal also plans to finance development in a way that will not raise individual taxes or take funding from other districts, using the method “tax-increment financing.”

Plan of Action
The proposed urban renewal district has over 20 years of political and economic history behind it. In 1997, the “South Corvallis Area Refinement Plan” (SCARP) was drawn up, laying out a variety of improvements that could be made to the neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this plan largely remained just a plan, and while some of its more achievable goals were met, SCARP ultimately fell dormant.

In 2009, an initial urban renewal district proposal was brought to voters. Despite urban renewal districts being fairly common in Oregon (Albany’s waterfront district is an example), this was the first one for Corvallis. This may be due to Corvallis’ high bar to pass such a district, which requires them to be brought to the voters, whereas in most cities they can be created by a vote of city council. The 2009 measure failed to pass, with 45 percent in favor and 55 percent against.

There are important differences between the 2009 measure and the upcoming vote. The 2009 measure defined the district differently, including parts of downtown up to Fillmore Avenue, while the new district is almost entirely south of Mary’s River. The goals of the 2009 district were largely undefined, whereas Measure 2-121 has a set of specific projects and community goals to guide decision-making.

At a City Club of Corvallis meeting last Tuesday, Feb. 12, WNHS community engagement manager Rebecka Weinsteiger spoke about navigating the difficulties of living in South Corvallis. To get out of her neighborhood to go anywhere, Weinsteiger had to ride her bicycle across multiple lanes of traffic on Highway 99, sometimes with her small children. She began organizing in her community to rally support for improving the neighborhoods and described how excited she was when she discovered the old SCARP plans a few years after the first urban renewal vote failed.

“I found everything I wanted in there,” she told the audience.

The old area refinement plan served as inspiration for Weinsteiger and other supporters like WNHS former director Jim Moorefield to begin organizing the greater South Corvallis neighborhood to contribute to and support what is now Measure 2-121.

Projects, Goals, and Accountability
The urban renewal district plan has nine goals, which “represent its basic intents and purposes.” These goals are meant to guide the Urban Renewal Agency members in making long-term decisions for the district. Their goals are housing opportunities, neighborhood enhancements, transportation alternatives, connectivity improvements, economic advancement, resource awareness, climate mindfulness, environmental protection, and operational accountability.

The district also has a laundry list of pre-budgeted projects, such as $8.5 million for affordable housing, $10.4 million for street design and improvements (as well as an additional $670,000 for a multi-use path for alternative transportation), $7.5 million for a neighborhood town center, $1 million for business support, $930,000 for natural resource management, and $4.6 million for plan administration and refinement.

The Urban Renewal Agency is comprised of the members of city council, who would meet as a separate legal entity.  Some members of the City Club of Corvallis voiced concerns about accountability from the agency. Councilor Hyatt Lytle, representing the South Corvallis ward and a supporter of the district, said that if people are unhappy with a councilor’s decisions as a member of the agency, then “you can vote us out.”

Taxes & Financing
Mayor Traber called tax increment financing “a simple and elegant way to generate funding.”  While its simplicity might be debated, it is a clever way of financing future development; by diverting or “capturing” future taxes.

The property tax revenue generated by a certain area (like the urban renewal district) changes over time, as assessed values rise and new properties are developed there. For existing properties inside the district, the district is allocated a portion of existing property tax revenue, not raising property taxes to pay for the district. It is property tax that would have been paid either way when the property’s value went up the next year.

With a source of revenue, the district can then issue revenue bonds or take loans to finance its larger-scale projects and encourage commercial development that will ideally create a larger, stabler tax base for the district as a whole. Moorefield said the “real power” of an urban renewal district is bringing in new development, which brings in more tax revenue that would not be there otherwise.

There have been multiple points of confusion about the financial effects of the district’s passage. Voting for the urban renewal district would not increase general property taxes for anyone (in or outside the district boundaries), and would not affect any levies or bonds from property taxes. According to Traber and Moorefield, the school district is compensated by the state for income that would now be directed to the urban renewal district. Other districts will not be compensated in the same way, but all have backed the district plan, including the school district, recognizing it as a long-term investment.

A Full-Service Grocery
One of the long-term laments of South Corvallis is the lack of a full-service supermarket or grocery store. At the City Club meeting, this question was posed to Councilor Lytle, who responded with a few commonly-offered reasons why Safeway or Fred Meyer haven’t made their way to the area: Not enough density; Not enough traffic flow.

Mayor Traber said he has heard explanations ranging from “like entities cluster in like places to compete on features,” or, “there’s not enough volume down there.”

Grocery stores want to go where there are already developed buildings for them to occupy, not develop new properties themselves. They also want to go where they know people already buy lots of food so they can out-compete other brands for their customers, rather than take a chance on a community with few existing options. In other words, South Corvallis hasn’t gotten a grocery store because South Corvallis doesn’t have enough grocery stores.

The First Alternative Co-op is the area’s only true grocery store, but is located somewhat far from many existing neighborhoods. There is also an existing perception of the Co-op as being expensive. While some attempts have been made to compare prices of staple foods between the Co-op and other chain groceries, it is difficult to compare the two as their methods and business models are quite different. Some prices at the Co-op are higher by nature of the  products they carry and from where they source them, a concern with quality and locality not always shared by national chain stores.

Speaking with Rebecka Weinsteiger about the possibilities of a chain grocery versus a possible second Co-op location, she thinks getting “an affordable grocery store… is the most important thing we can get into our neighborhood town center.”

“That being said,” she continued, “there’s no promises on making that happen.”

Her description was similar to Traber’s, in that larger chain stores don’t believe South Corvallis has enough density to justify a new location. Weinsteiger added that the kinds of groceries that would move into the neighborhood town center are “small-footprint” stores like Trader Joe’s, while some people are hoping for a large Winco location in South Corvallis. Weinsteiger doesn’t think that would be possible for the time being, given how zoning laws work and where chains like Winco are willing to locate stores.

“What’s really exciting,” she said, “is that there’s a grocery store in South Corvallis that’s been here for 50 years, serving the needs of its community.”

Weinsteiger thinks that the Co-op, which she believes is “built on the principle of providing for their neighborhoods,” is aware that they have an opportunity to do just that. She hopes that he Co-op can become the affordable grocery store South Corvallis has dreamed of.

The issue of rising rents is a citywide problem, but particularly brought into focus by the neighborhoods of South Corvallis, which frequently serve to house those who work in Corvallis (or want to), but who cannot afford to live there. Mayor Traber said that experience from around the country tells us bringing any new development into a predominantly low-income area can pose the risk of gentrification. New housing is more expensive, and can be rented at a higher price.

“This causes existing housing to want to raise their prices,” Traber said, “or to evict people, do some renovations, and charge higher rents because it looks like there’s a bigger return on it.”

Both Traber and Moorefield recognize that any kind of new development coming into a low-development area poses risks, but can also offer opportunity. The district plan calls not just for low-income or affordable housing, but what Traber called “affordable housing across all income levels.” Affordable housing is one of the primary goals of the district, Moorefield said, but also pointed out that there is a different set of problems that results from packing large amounts of low-income housing into one area.

Their goal, by encouraging mixed-form housing (low-income apartments, condos, single family homes etc.), is not to turn South Corvallis into a low-income housing neighborhood, but to build out the kind of infrastructure that would allow residents to have some internal mobility within their neighborhood. They want someone in an apartment in South Corvallis looking to buy a home to have options within the neighborhood they already live, rather than the common story of moving out of Corvallis to be able to afford to live in Corvallis.

Two young men at the City Club meeting spoke about rising rents and their worries that new development could push them out of the neighborhood or force them into an unaffordable housing situation. Weinsteiger and Moorefield both emphasized the fact that, over time, prices and rents go up either way. Weinsteiger added that rents are already going up, and people are already moving out. Placing control of that development in the hands of local officials rather than private developers creates accountability and control over changes in the neighborhood that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Battling Confusion, Not Opposition
The South Corvallis Urban Renewal District is a long-term vision. It won’t change things right away – it’s not designed to. And its challenges aren’t necessarily fierce opposition to improving the communities of South Corvallis. Measure 2-121 has widespread organizational support in the city and county governments as well as the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Corvallis School Board. However, no individuals or groups filed official materials opposing Measure 2-121. According to Mayor Traber, the challenge of this measure is conveying to voters a clear understanding of what they’re voting for.

When asked what is the one thing that they wished Corvallis voters understood better about this issue, both Rebecka Weinsteiger and Jim Moorefield had the same answer. For them, it’s about giving the community more control over what their neighborhood looks like, and making that development accountable to the community.

“Corvallis is going to change. It has been changing,” Weinsteiger said, “This is a tool that can help us make sure that the changes [in the urban renewal district] are the ones we want to see in our community.”

By Ian MacRonald