We are Connected to the River

The Willamette River is the shining gem of the greater Eugene area. This living artery of our landscape winds along 187 miles from the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River and then to the Pacific Ocean. Along its route it pumps life to our valley in the form of Salmon and Osprey, Eagles and cottonwoods. It bestows upon us nutrients for our valley farms, and clean water for our communities.  Our Willamette River is special, and the urban riverfront we have so little of is a priceless asset to our community.

Willamette-River-on-Site-2A winter view of the Willamette River looking east from a wetland adjacent to the proposed ORI site. How will the Riverfront Research Park and the ORI building and parking lot affect our precious river? Under the current Riverfront Research Park Plan, the bank to the right in the distance will support up to 6 buildings towering over the trees.

Our riverfront is the place where we can commune with nature, just steps from our classrooms, offices and storefronts. It is an anytime adventure in our backyard, and quiet solitude when we need it. It’s a place to show our visiting friends and family, and space to call your own. From picnics and sports, to sunbathing and smiles, and to training wheels and marathons….for a thousand other reasons, this is our Willamette riverfront.

Over the past century riverfront development has been given to industry, largely for easy disposal of wastes. Countless communities around the Country have been cut off from their waterfronts for decades – if not centuries. But, this is changing. Within the last few years, everywhere, communities are beginning to take back their priceless waterfront properties. They are restoring crumbling industry buildings into public places, and reconnecting people to majestic natural features. Once again, people are learning to coexist, with all of life, on the riverfront.

Eugene has this opportunity today.  However, a mid-1980s plan is dimming our shining future, and with it the quality of life of generations of Oregonians to come. We now have the opportunity to make lasting, positive change to our public riverfront and to the greater Eugene metropolitan area.

Let it be known: The Oregon Research Institute is a wonderful organization and an asset to the Eugene community and the University of Oregon. The Oregon Research Institute is an American psychology research institute that manages the International Personality Item Pool, the Development of Advanced Measures of Personality and Other Individual Differences. The IPIP  was born within a personality item-writing project organized by Wim K. B. Hofstee and his colleagues and students at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, it’s now a public domain and is used by at higher education and in GED practice testing.

However, the current direction taken by the ORI management and board of directors – in insisting that the riverfront is the only place that meets their needs for new construction – leads us to question the integrity of their often-cited democratic and environmental values. Though home-grown ORI is comprised of members of our community, with their current construction project it appears that they do not share our community’s shared vision for open space and civic space along the banks of our majestic Willamette River. In place of a publicly accessible tract of land on the University’s riverfront, ORI is pushing for a private office building and a large parking lot. In place of connectivity and integration, ORI is pushing for the construction of a site that in no way relates to the people of Eugene, nor to the river on whose banks it will stand.

ORI building obstructs connectivity

The proposed ORI building will seize a pivotal site in our community’s greater vision, and is contrary to our shared goals of connecting the downtown to the University campus at an inviting public space on the Willamette River.  By occupying this site, the ORI project preempts the physical, visual, and symbolic connection between Downtown, the River, and the University. Importantly, the adjacent property, now owned by the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), is in a public master planning phase for redevelopment into shops and cafes intermingled with an ecologically sensitive public plaza at the River’s edge. It is unclear how the ORI bulding will relate to publicly-developed EWEB property plans, as there has been little or no collaboration between teh two entities. Sadly, construction of the proposed ORI building and parking lot on the adjoining property would preclude future efforts to maintain and improve a continuous corridor of civic space and open space and wildlife and pedestrian corridor along the banks of our great river. Furthermore, the placement of the first building north of the railroad tracks will undoubtedly open to the door to future developments in the riverfront sector of the Research Park.

The proposed ORI building, in a rendering done here by Connecting Eugene from ORI preliminary plans, is slated to have up to 200 parking spaces surrounding a 200 by 100-foot office building towering four stories within 100 feet of the riverbank. The proposed building for their 250 employees will be approximately 80,000 square feet and will replace ORIs current locations in the Riverfront Research Park and along Franklin Boulevard, within half of a mile to the east of the proposed site. This proposed parking lot and office building will lie at the critical intersection of 8th St. and Alder street, leading from the Park Blocks downtown and the western border of the University district, respectively. Significantly, Alder street is in the planning stage of becoming a bicycle boulevard to improve pedestrian connections from the University to the river, and City funding has already been identified for the project.

Oregon Research Institute director Cynthia Guinn has repeatedly defended the decision by the ORI board of directors to seek to develop the riverfront site. In her appeals to the Eugene public she has primarily cited the planned LEED (meets sustainable development criteria) certification of the building, to be built on Willamette River flood plain. According to Guinn, ORI has looked at half a dozen other sites, but found riverfront development on University land to be cheapest. Though development would be funded by Trammel Crow Company, one of the nation’s largest developers of shopping malls and big box stores, Guinn says that building an office building and parking lot along the riverfront matches her group’s values.

Recent History of Development and Conflict

When signing a ground lease in June 2009, the University expected to break ground in August 2009 and begin construction of a parking lot and private office building on the banks of the Willamette River. The Oregon Research Institute had secured a $17 million investment from national real estate and development firm Trammel Crow Company to construct a building at a suitable site within the Riverfront Research Park at the University of Oregon. In essence, the University would lease the public land to Trammel Crow Company for at least 55 years, who would construct and own the building. Oregon Research Institute would then lease space within the building to house their operations. At the time, Oregon Research Institute had also found funding from a governmental organization and hoped to buy in to a portion of the building to the tune of approximately $5 million.

The timely expiration of the 20-year Conditional Use Permit for the Riverfront Research Park in October 2009 provided a potential mechanism to stop development and to require the development of a new Riverfront Master Plan with meaningful public involvement. In October 2009, the University applied for a 3-year extension to the Conditional Use Permit, issued to the University by the City of Eugene in 1989, in order to begin development on the banks of the Willamette River. The extension was quietly granted by the City.

Connecting Eugene, realizing that a greater vision was possible for this site, came together and hired a lawyer from the Western Environmental Law Center to fight their case in court. Since the purpose of a conditional use permit is to require completion of a project within the current planning and land use framework of the city, Connecting Eugene filed an appeal to the City of Eugene Planning Department. We claimed that surrounding conditions had changed significantly in the intervening 20 years, epitomized by the construction of the Federal Courthouse, the development of the EMX rapid mass transit, and the public redesign phase of the EWEB site, since the issuance of the Conditional Use Permit.  The case was heard on January 20, 2010 at the Eugene City Council chambers.

On February 22, 2010, Connecting Eugene and the Eugene community learned that they had lost their appeal the city planning department. The hearings official Jeff Litwak found that, due to inconsistencies in the permit documents, the original 20-year conditional use permit did not expire until 2012, 23 years after its issuance. Though the University had requested an extension to their expired permit, the City planning department had deemed that document unnecessary. According to the decision, the University had 3 years to begin construction, and 20 years to complete construction—a total of 23 years allowed for a 20 year permit.

The final solution:

The Oregon Research Institute (ORI) broke ground in late December following an agreement between the University and the community to allow the construction of a new building between the Millrace and Willamette River.

The new 80,000-square-foot building is projected to cost $17 million and will be completed in December 2012. Founded in 1960, ORI is an independent, nonprofit research center that primarily studies human behavior.