The South Willamette Special Area Zone and Area Planning effort has become so removed from its original goals, that at this point WE CAN recommends that City Council cease work on this area, and direct city resources to other projects that will better and more efficiently further Eugene's goals related to housing and transportation options. As of March, 2017, the City Council has postponed all work sessions related to this topic, and there are no clear next actions on the agenda.
What is the South Willamette Special Area Zone?
The South Willamette Special Area Zone (SWSAZ) was the proposed amendment to the Eugene City Code that would translate the South Willamette Concept Plan into enforceable code that would go into effect as properties in the area redevelop. The South Willamette Special Area Zone code was withdrawn by City Council on May 10th, 2016.
While Eugene and Springfield historically shared a comprehensive plan, in 2007, the Oregon State government required that Eugene manage its Urban Growth boundary separately from Springfield. This lead to the Envision Eugene process, which began in 2010. Through an extensive community engagement process, Eugene developed a shared vision of how Eugene would grow in the future.
In South Willamette, the City seeks to turn the Envision Eugene Vision into Action. The South Willamette Concept Plan is a pilot project for creating walkable, 20 minute-neighborhoods along key transit corridors and enhancing housing supply in Eugene. The Concept Plan was created between 2011 and 2013, and involved neighborhood associations, residents, property owners, and business people in a public engagement process that included four public design workshops, three postcard mailings to residents and owners, and regular updates through neighborhood association newsletters and meetings. The Interested Parties email list included 600 names, and over 450 people participated in surveys about the plan. The Concept Plan was accepted by the Eugene Planning Commission in April of 2013, and presented to the City Council in June of 2013.
Once the Concept Plan was complete, the next step was to translate its ideas into enforceable code. The Special Area Zone project converted the Concept Plan-- including proposed zoning and area boundaries, housing types, and design features into code language. As with the Concept Plan, a number of outreach events, including community workshops occurred throughout 2014. In June, 2015, the proposed code was presented to the Eugene Planning Commission, who made some adjustments and recommended it to the Eugene City Council.
In response to concerns expressed by some residents, the City Council voted to postpone the public hearing on the South Willamette Special Area Zone until after the completion of a facilitated discussion between affected residents and businesses and the City.
Oregon Consensus was selected as a neutral facilitator, and produced a report indicating that, while many people cared deeply about getting it right, there was a great amount of mistrust among residents and between residents and the City. They recommended a trust building process before moving forward with the code.
On May 10th, 2016, City Council voted to withdraw the SWSAZ code. The Mayor has proposed a public forum about South Willamette, tentatively set for September 2016, and a possible Council work session thereafter, but there are no concrete plans to move forward. In October of 2016, Council instructed staff to work with neighborhood associations to develop a refinement planning process for South Willamette, based on the South Willamette Initiative proposal, with a limited scope focused on the commercial corridor itself. As of February, 2017, the work session to discuss this proposal has been postponed several times at the request of neighborhood leaders. It is not currently on the City Council agenda, and it is unknown when or if the Council will revisit this issue.
In the controversy over the South Willamette Special Area Zone, mistrust and confusion overshadowed the actual content of the plan. In the paragraphs that follow, WE CAN offers a brief analysis of the SW-SAZ, including why it remains relevant for future planning.
Why a special area zone?
Special Area Zones are a common tool in the Eugene Code to allow for a specific neighborhood vision to be applied to a specific area. In the past, they have been implemented for areas such as Jefferson Westside, Downtown Riverfront, Blair Boulevard, and Walnut Station Special Area Zones require buildings and development to reflect the desired neighborhood character in specified ways. If there is no Special Area Zone in effect, new construction simply follows with the same zoning requirements used throughout the city.
What did the SWSAZ do?
During the South Willamette Visioning Process, the community expressed a desire to create a more attractive, healthy, walkable neighborhood with successful businesses and new opportunities for jobs and housing. The SWSAZ sought to apply that vision to future redevelopment in several main areas:v
A key element of the new zoning was to create smoother transitions between higher impact uses and lower density uses. Currently, some low-density, single family housing borders directly upon commercially-zoned land that could be developed at heights up to 120 feet (or 10-12 stories.) Recent construction of taller buildings at Cascade Manor, under existing code, had made neighbors acutely aware of the impact a tall building can have on its neighbors. The new zoning attempted to create transitions between higher and lower density uses as properties re-develop. The goal was to avoid one tall building towering over adjacent one to two story homes.
The height limit for the commercial stretch along Willamette Street would have been lowered from 120 feet to 65 feet, and required stepbacks and setbacks to ensure solar access and privacy for adjacent usages. Under current zoning, low-density R1 housing abuts directly on the commercial zoning, resulting in single family homes with busy stores and restaurants in their back yards. The new zoning created a step-wise transition in which compact housing (apartments and condos) would be located next to commercial sites and on higher-traffic streets. Next to the apartments/condos would be mid-level housing such as townhouses, then lower-density options like cottage clusters, and then finally single-family homes on lots that are outside of the current area for proposed zoning change.
Active Frontage and Streetscape
One of the key elements of a walkable neighborhood is to have an interesting walk-- things to look at as you walk by. Unfortunately, the view for much of the walk along Willamette Street now is parking lots and blank walls. The Active Frontage requirements in the new code required that parking be located behind buildings, and that entrances connect directly with the sidewalk. Blank walls more than 20 feet in length would have been prohibited. Pedestrian scale-lighting was required. Window displays were encouraged and building articulation was required. Incentives would have been provided for buildings that provide public or semi-public open space as part of their design (such as pocket parks, landscaping and furniture for pedestrians, or cafe seating.) All of these requirements ensured that new development in the neighborhood would meet high standards of walkability.
In addition, the new code ensured that the street itself would evolve with the neighborhood. High quality sidewalks, pedestrian scale lighting, street trees, and other right-of-way improvements would have accompanied all new development.
The SWSAZ was a form-based code. This means that it had a focus on the physical appearance of buildings. The codes laid out design standards for each type of use. For example, commercial buildings would have had to use high quality, durable materials, have articulation and color variation to enhance interest, and include sustainability features. Any buildings that did not meet these specific standards would have had to go through a separate design review process intended to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
In 2007, Eugene had 41,923 detached single family homes (60% of the housing stock) i and 26,972 units in attached single family homes or multi-unit buildings. Between 1990 and 2007, 63% of all new homes added were single family homes. At the same time, the average household size has been decreasing. About half of Eugene's households are single-person or non-family households, and only about a quarter of households have children. While Eugene’s housing stock is primarily single family homes, families with children are a minority of our households.
The SWSAZ supported the creation of a multitude of housing types besides traditional single family home. This includes apartments and condos, rowhouses, cottage clusters, and courtyard houses. More information about housing types can be found on the Housing Choice Gallery. As these additional housing type developed, Eugene residents would have had more options to find housing that meets their lifestyle, and gradually freed up more single-family homes for those who want them.
High parking minimums have a chilling effect on walkability and density. In America, there is an average of eight parking spaces per car, and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to build each parking space. Walking past half-empty parking lots greatly reduces a pedestrian’s experience of walking. At the same time, Eugene is still primarily a car-dependent city, and we will still need parking places for the foreseeable future.
The SWSAZ worked to find middle ground between ensuring that there is parking for those who want or need to drive to businesses or park at their homes, while reducing some of the negative effects of excess parking and allowing more control for property owners to determine the need for parking on their property.
The code had lower parking minimums than the city as a whole, reflecting the fact that residents and visitors to walkable neighborhoods near transit lines will have less need to drive and park. -- Households that might need two cars in other areas of the city might need only one--or none-- in the future South Willamette area. Similarly, businesses would not need to provide parking for all of their customers or employees if many are walking, biking, or taking transit.
The code also required that parking be designed to minimize its impact on the street-- South Willamette Street is currently plagued by an overabundance of driveways that disrupt the flow of traffic and reduce the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. To reduce the number of driveways on Willamette Street, new parking for buildings on Willamette would have been accessed off of alleys, rather than directly off the street. Buildings with different uses that need parking at different times during the day would have been allowed to share parking, thereby increasing the efficiency of car storage and making more land available to serve people rather than cars.
What Doesn't the SWSAZ do?
The SWSAZ code didn’t require any particular property to redevelop. Someone who currently owns a home or a commercial building in the neighborhood wouldn’t have had to make any changes to their property. It didn’t require anyone to sell their property. It didn’t require individuals who are redeveloping to build to the maximum density-- a property owner could replace a single-family home with another single-family home.
Since much of the land in the area is already developed, changes as a result of the plan would have been relatively slow. While there are a few properties that are currently ready for redevelopment, such as the former site of the bowling alley, most properties won't be redeveloped in the foreseeable future. Projections indicate that, based on market factors, about 60-250 new housing units would be added to the neighborhood over the next 20 years. Only a handful of properties need to redevelop in order for that amount of new housing to be added. This is consistent with the neighborhood's desire, expressed during the South Willamette Concept Plan process, for gradual change.
Provide Funding for Improvements or Redevelopment
The Zoning Code was just one piece of the South Willamette Concept Plan. Other elements that will help increase the walkability and livability of the neighborhood, such as sidewalk infill and other streetscape improvements, will need to be completed separately. For example, the South Willamette Street Improvement Project involves using Street Repair Bond funds to repave the street in 2018, and a federal grant will allow sidewalk, lighting and other pedestrian improvements at the same time.