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Future of EWEB land still unclear.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

In a rare joint meeting and walking tour, Eugene city councilors and Eugene Water & Electric Board commissioners learned Wednesday that they all agree on one thing: EWEB's headquarters along the Willamette River is one choice piece of property.

Less clear, however, is when EWEB might vacate most of the property and be ready to sell it, and to whom, and for what price, and for what kind of development.

EWEB General Manager Randy Berggren, for example, wondered aloud if the city wants to buy the roughly 20 acres that will become available when the utility moves its electric and water industrial operations to a new site off Roosevelt Boulevard in west Eugene.

But the answer to that question, City Councilor Bonny Bettman said, likely depends on EWEB's asking price. "Basically, it's a business deal," she said. "Bring us an offer."

EWEB officials contend they need to get top dollar for the property in order to pay down the bonds that will be sold to build a new industrial complex at Roosevelt Boulevard, at an estimated cost of $72.3 million. The utility wants to begin construction next summer, a year earlier than originally proposed, to save as much as $5 million in rapidly rising construction costs.

But the utility needs the city's blessing, and in more ways than one: The council must approve any bonding scheme for underwriting the Roosevelt project, and also has the right of first refusal when it comes to buying the riverfront parcel.

Several councilors said they had never before considered outright purchase by the city, and at least one said she liked the idea.

"It's worth considering," Councilor Betty Taylor said. "That way the community, through its influence on the council, could have more of a say" on how the property is developed.

The councilors devoted 25 minutes to a tour of the EWEB property, walking through the utility's operations building and warehouse, and eyeing the structures used for fleet repair, equipment repair, vehicle washing and transformer storage.

Councilors got the best view of the property's potential when they gazed through a chain-link fence to the riverfront bike path and Willamette River just a few yards to the east. Members were sufficiently intrigued that they also asked for a quick tour of EWEB's steam plant to the south.

The steam plant and adjacent substation, however, are not expected to be sold, nor are the utility's two headquarter buildings to the north. The property that would be vacated, however, accounts for roughly two-thirds of EWEB's 27 acres along the river.

In response to a question asked by Councilor Gary Pape, EWEB's Berggren noted that there is sufficient space at the Roosevelt site to build a new headquarters there, should the utility choose that option sometime in the future.

The riverfront site's "highest and best" use is still an open question - high-density residential, commercial or mixed use, open space or something else. The property is inside the city's Riverfront Urban Renewal District and could be eligible for tax increment financing.

The property's value is also uncertain, and would likely depend on a successful rezoning. Two years ago, Triad Hospitals Inc. offered $24.8 million for 22.5 acres at the site, slightly more than the $24 million value cited in an appraisal commissioned by EWEB.

Bettman noted that any development would need to closely follow the city's Downtown Plan, which she said includes "strongly worded" language about the EWEB property. For example, the plan says the EWEB parcel should include a "people place" that is accessible for multiple uses; appropriate setbacks from the river; and educational aspects.

Participants said they are hopeful EWEB and the city can avoid political turf battles as they look for ways to take advantage of the property's availability, and pledged to keep meeting on the issue.

After all, EWEB President Sandra Bishop noted, when it comes to looking out for constituent interests, EWEB ratepayers and city of Eugene taxpayers are, by and large, the same people.
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Title Annotation:Government; City councilors consider possible uses for the prime piece of riverfront property
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 16, 2006
Words:669
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