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New U.S. courthouse put on hold.

Byline: Bill Bishop The Register-Guard

Federal officials put a hold on construction of a proposed $70 million federal courthouse in Eugene on Friday, citing a lack of public support and other obstacles.

The delay doesn't kill the project, but raises the specter that the General Services Administration may look to put the long-awaited landmark elsewhere in the metropolitan area.

The announcement came as city and federal officials were on the verge of signing the purchase agreement for the city-owned, 4.5-acre courthouse site south of the Willamette River and east of the Ferry Street Bridge.

GSA officials cited four reasons for the delay - the topmost being "a growing question of public support of the project," GSA spokesman Peter Gray said Friday. The courthouse design has come under increased criticism from advocates for the disabled, architects and others for not including a ramp for wheelchair users and others who can't climb the proposed 14-foot-high grand staircase.

The absence of long-term funding for roads in the site, inadequate public parking and no firm commitments for further development in the courthouse district also are issues that must be resolved for the project to go forward, the GSA told the city.

Gray said federal officials want to continue the project on the Eugene site but that the siting is not certain.

"There is certainly the possibility there could be a different site," he said. "That is not the goal. Everyone is hoping we'll be able to work our way through this."

Friday's announcement surprised city officials, who had begun planning for new streets in the old cannery site to serve a vibrant new neighborhood envisioned to link downtown to the courthouse district and the nearby river.

City officials were close to finalizing negotiations to sell the GSA the land that the city had assembled and cleared for the project, Eugene's Community Development Manager Mike Sullivan said. The city and the GSA are operating under a "memorandum of agreement" concerning the city's duties to prepare the land and the GSA's intent to buy it.

Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey learned of the decision from GSA Regional Administrator Jon Kvistad, who told him the delay had nothing to do with the ramp but with parts of the memorandum the city has failed to meet.

"It's very disappointing in light of the fact that everything we said we'd do, we've done," Torrey said. During their discussion, Kvistad could not recall which parts of the agreement the city had yet to fulfill, but he and Torrey were going to talk Monday.

The memorandum requires the city to acquire title to the entire site and clear it. City officials have not yet considered the implications if the GSA were to abandon its plan to buy the site, Sullivan said.

"We don't see them backing away from the project or the site," Sullivan said. "They want to engage in some problem solving. I believe all these issues are resolvable."

Gray said senior GSA officials decided on the delay and regional managers in Auburn, Wash., agreed to it without consulting federal court officials or other building users.

"Community support is very important," he said. "It is a public building. Here is what will be probably the most prominent public building between San Francisco and Portland. The goal has been all along the public would be proud of that building and site."

However, the GSA has faced a growing chorus of critics who believe the courthouse design fails to meet community standards for accessibility. Critics have focused on the lack of a wheelchair ramp and the GSA's decision instead to provide an elevator for access to the main entrance, situated above a 14-foot-high grand staircase.

Gray said the GSA intends to continue its 45-day design review, acquire drawings of possible ramps and decide whether to add one. The GSA has contracted with the building's designer, Morphosis Architects, to create the drawings. Gray expects the GSA to announce its decision in late October.

One outspoken critic of the building design said the delay may be a tactic to quell public discord over the lack of a ramp in the design.

"If they had no problems until now, I don't see how this ramp issue is enough to destroy the deal. I don't understand how it rose to that," said Dan Arkin, a former president of the Lane Independent Living Alliance. "Nobody has breathed a word about not wanting the courthouse. We all acknowledge the benefit of it. I think it's strong-arm tactics. They're going to pick up their courthouse and move. This city is too unfriendly with them."

Gray said hard feelings have nothing to do with the delay.

"There is no animosity," Gray said. "There is no feeling we cannot find resolution."

Gray said it would be imprudent to commit further funding to the project without resolving the issues and the question of community support.

Sullivan said discussions with the GSA on street construction, parking and neighborhood development were ongoing, out in the open and, seemingly, not creating major obstacles.

Planners expect more parking will be needed as the district develops. In the meantime, they hope downtown parking will serve the area, he said.

On the question of street funding, city officials and a congressional lobbying effort are dedicated to acquiring federal funds to relocate major streets in the district. Legislation carrying the money is temporarily stalled, he said.

The city never promised to develop the neighborhood before courthouse construction began, Sullivan said. Instead, it assumed the courthouse would spur private development.

"Generally, I think the city is very supportive of the courthouse and the redevelopment of this area," he said. "I am hopeful we can resolve these issues quickly and move forward with the property transaction and the beginning of construction."
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Title Annotation:The federal government says questions about public support for the building and other hurdles could lead it to a new site; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 20, 2003
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