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Streets top renewal list

Four downtown beautification projects top the priority list that was adopted March 24 by the Columbia Gateway Urban Renewal Agency.

Sprucing up First, Third and Fourth streets as well as Third Place during 2014 will increase the value of properties, according to the agency’s advisory committee that recommended the ranking.

Also on the top tier for 2014 is redevelopment of the Granada block and construction of the Washington Street undercrossing.

City Manager Nolan Young told the agency board, comprised of city councilors, that he was closing in on funding to get the Washington Street undercrossing project started. The plan is to expend about $7 million — much of it from grants — to build two 60-foot tunnels under First Street and the railroad line. That will provide passage for large crowds going to and from the Lewis and Clark festival area. Eventually, there will be a sunken plaza that provides even more space for community and tourism-related activities.

Young said, even though projects are prioritized, they will be completed as soon as funding becomes available, which could move things around on the list. The 13 most important areas of focus on the work plan also include: Civic Auditorium renovation, construction of a parking structure to accommodate a new hotel on First Street (if the developer can find $15-20 million for that proposal), a fountain for the Lewis and Clark festival area, the Mill Creek greenway, and a grant program for business owners want-ing to improve façade appearances.

The urban renewal district will be in existence until 2025 and generates about $1.3 million per year for revitalization projects. Young said the city is attempting to maximize these dollars as much as possible by seeking grants and both state and federal funding to offset the cost of improvements.

Director Carolyn Wood disagreed at the March 24 meeting with adding the goal of having urban renewal as a vehicle for increasing property values. She said the purpose was to revitalize the historic business district so that it attracted businesses and tourists.

The goal was recommended by the advisory board and staff to match the description in the Best Practices Guidebook of the Association of Oregon Redevelopment Agencies.

“It was understood that, ultimately, that’s what urban renewal would do, but that wasn’t the stated goal,” said Wood. “It’s the investment you make in property that you are going to have a use for that helps its value go up.”

Young said the focus of urban renewal had shifted away from infrastructure in 1998 to increasing private investment downtown by upping property values and, thereby, the desirability of setting up shop there.

Mayor Steve Lawrence suggested the city look at adopting a “Dark Store” ordinance that would require landowners to keep vacant buildings aesthetically pleasing. He said part of the problem with vacancies was caused by rents being too high and owners unwilling to reduce the square footage of commercial space to accommodate potential tenants.

“I think increasing the value of properties in our area is critical,” he said.

In February, Michael Leash, principal for Rapoza Development, updated the agency on plans to site a Hilton Garden Inn on the Granada block.

Although the size and structure are being re-configured to avoid disturbing the ground at a site deemed of archeological significance by the state, Leash said there would still be 117 guest rooms and four stories. He said an updated redevelopment plan and conceptual design would be unveiled later in the spring.

In December, the agency granted Rapoza another year to obtain $15-20 million in financing the project that includes renovation of the Granada theatre, which will have its historical character left intact.

John Lee, principal for VIP Hospitality, which has partnered with Rapoza, told city officials that there were 27 hotels proposed in the state, most involving much less money, and only three were under construction.

“It is difficult to do hotels; if it wasn’t everybody would be doing it,” he said. “We are really going to get this done but we need more time.”

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