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Ducks hoping arena won't be trapped in alley.

Byline: George Schroeder The Register-Guard

It's just a slender strip of fractured pavement and gravel. Weeds poke through the cracks; trash litters the ground. Prime territory for a makeover - or a pitched battle.

The latest obstacle in the path of Oregon's planned $200 million arena is, well, a path.

Villard Alley hasn't been used for anything in a long while. If you're into exact figures, we're talking about a .184-acre rectangle, 2.5 percent of a 7.4-acre tract. If not for the temporary fencing surrounding it, you probably couldn't distinguish it from the adjacent parking lots.

But at a public hearing Monday night, the Eugene City Council will take up the topic. Although the vacation of the public right of way is a pretty narrow subject, it's likely opponents of the arena - whether they're concerned Fairmount neighbors or disappointed McArthur Court buffs or alarmed Oregon-Nike conspiracy believers - will take advantage of the chance to speak out on the larger issue.

We might hear about traffic, noise, parking and litter. Abandonment of history and tradition. Or risky financial schemes and whether Phil Knight pulls UO's strings, making Ducks dance like marionettes.

Quite possibly, some of the councilors might take the opportunity to do a little grandstanding. This is the council's one real chance to weigh in on the project.

So we could be in for an entertaining evening, in person or on low-budget cable.

"I'd think there'd be a fair amount of public interest," says UO spokesman Greg Rikhoff.

Speaking of which, city code allows the vacation "only if the council finds that the approval of the vacation is in the public interest." Eventually, it's highly probable the council will find it is.

The school owns the land on all sides of the alley. And in this case, the public right of way is a concept, not a physical reality. A gate across the alley at the south end of the property has been locked for some time.

No one expects a vote Monday. But UO officials hope for a quick resolution.

"There's not a lot of time to spare," says Jim Bartko, the senior associate athletic director overseeing the arena project.

The conditional use permit process already has UO's timetable stretched to its limit. A decision might not occur until October or November, and if the arena is to meet the goal of opening for the 2010-11 basketball season, construction must start by late November.

If the project is delayed by a year, increased construction costs could reach 4 to 5 percent of the total. Projected lost revenue from men's basketball could be another $8 million or so.

The conditional use permit figures to be a more difficult obstacle than vacating the alley (which politician wants to be on the record against vacation?). But what if the city council gives the wrong answer on the right of way? And how long before it decides?

Until then, as the days dwindle toward fall, Bartko and other UO officials will continue to fret.

"I'd never have thought we'd have the money in the bank, and the funding in place and be stuck on an alley and a conditional use permit," Bartko says. "We can't afford delays. Look what happened to Cal."

He is flashing back to his brief time in Berkeley, shuddering over the school's struggle to expand its football stadium, which has been tied up for years by lawsuits and tree-sitters.

If nothing else, Monday's hearing should give the arena's opponents prime time on the soapbox. Councilors can ponder constituents' concerns and voice their own. Could be lots of fun.

Detractors will get another chance to vent during an upcoming conditional use permit public hearing. Combined, maybe the two opportunities will be enough.

But it might be a good thing for UO that Villard Alley doesn't have any trees.
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Title Annotation:Sports Columnist
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 20, 2008
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