Saturday, January 25, 2014

City Council, January 27th - Boise and Pringle Square Back from the Dead!

The big news at Council for Monday is a reset on Pringle Square and the Boise Redevelopment.

The Boise parcel and slab over the creek
Even in winter the water is irresistable!
In a nutshell: The developer says, we'll sell you the park parcel as long as you approve the rest of the project.

More on the quid pro quo:
The Developer has indicated a willingness to sell the Property to the City if the Developer is able to determine that development plans for the remainder of the former Boise Cascade site are feasible. If the Developer is unable to develop the remainder of the former Boise Cascade site according to their Master Plan (Attachment C), the Developer desires to retain the Property in order to preserve maximum development flexibility in the future.
(Though what really does this mean?  If the land is so encumbered by the prospect of a Federal review for non-park uses, what is its market value?  Surely the price in the deal on the table represents an overpay by the City and an indirect element of subsidy.  How significant really is the "maximum development flexibility" in the shadow of the Federal review?

Maybe it doesn't matter what "really" is the case.  Pretty much we all want the project to move forward, right?  And the reality is, it's not going to happen without some application of emollient.  The City has made far worse investments.  If you think this is too much subsidy, please drop a comment!)

So, what about the design? I think at this point the only think I really want to address is the way the design treats people on foot. (Previous thoughts here and here.)

Commercial Street Sidewalk Environment

The redevelopment still doesn't embrace the sidewalk with much enthusiasm. Behind the urban setting, it's still auto-oriented.

The edges along Commercial Street will be inert and dusty,
the concrete bowels of a parking garage at street level.
As we've mentioned before, the border along Commercial will be the concrete bowels of a parking garage. Some of it may be glazed with frosted glass or something, but there won't be any retail activity. The ground floor sidewalk environment offers nothing inviting for people walking who don't already have a car there.

For an analogous situation, see the Marion Parkade along Marion Street:

The Marion Parkade shows the street level environment for walking
at the Boise project:  Blank, inert, dusty, not very inviting
That's what we're talking about.  It's an open, dusty void. It's not a place to be, or to go; it's a space to pass through as quickly as possible.

A really fine version of a Boise project would have a focus on street-level attractors on Commercial for people on foot.  This is its greatest deficiency, I think.

Because the project previously went through only an administrative design review, it is not known whether there are significant changes or whether a second round of administrative review was necessary.  Even though the City doesn't require a public design review for it, it would have been nice to open the process because of the special nature and compelling public interest in the success of the project.

The Boardwalk

Boardwalk detail - not for bicycling, really
And are there any connections from Commercial?
One level below the street, the new path along the creek under the bridge would jump three feet up to the existing concrete slab and then run over a green roof as a boardwalk.  The concept for "daylighting" the creek looks like it was value-engineered out as a cost-cutting measure. The boardwalk would be nice for walking, but too bumpy and meandering and narrow for bicycling.

When I first encountered the idea earlier this week, I was bummed that path wouldn't go down along the creek bank.  But in thinking about this, I remembered High Line Park in Manhattan.  In some significant ways it's a similar concept - maybe even a model:

High Line Park, New York City
Iwan Baan, Friends of High Line Park
Check out the other images of the park. It's an old elevated rail line turned into a linear park, and it works that seam between garden and industry, verdant green and rust.

Probably the same kind of thing here.  The design is winning me the more I think about it. If it's handled right, not in every place made too pretty, it could connect people with the former industrial nature of the site in a really direct way.

You know:  Gritty charm.  We have ugly grit and pretty charm, but Salem doesn't have much gritty charm.  Take the eco-earth acid-ball thing:  They painted away any gritty charm, leaving it cute, but neutered!

Here's an older iteration of the path for comparison:

In October 2009, the concrete slab intended to be gone
So the new question is whether there will be a stair from the Commercial Street Bridge on the west side of the street down to the boardwalk.  I think there should be a direct connection there - but, again, I don't think there will be a formal design review process.

Funding and Tax Abatement

It looks like funding this out of parks SDC funds will not short-change other proposed park acquisition and/or improvements. In an email to a constituent, Councilor Dickey indicated she was satisfied that it would not rob Ward 5 of nice things:
Unfortunately, due to state law, we are limited where we can spend the funds, and most areas in Ward 5, and many throughout the city that are lacking parks also do not qualify for sdc funding, which is calculated by a complicated formula of new development, growth and a few other factors. So I don't have concerns there, and in fact, that was the first question I asked when I heard about the project.
Presumably this holds true in the other wards, and so maybe this is even a good use for SDC funds.

As for the tax abatement, see notes on the nursing home's request (and here).  That was a bad idea, and was denied last I heard.

For this request, even if you think the tax abatement is a bad idea, the project satisfies the requirements as the abatement is written, and there is no good reason to deny it - other than a philosophical opposition to the concept in general.

The project is supposed to meet some "public benefits" and the ones it identifies are all plausible! An important one is transit.  With close proximity to the Liberty/Commercial couplet, and not far from the transit mall, this is much better served by transit than the "park parcel" apartments, and you could go lower-car, at least by Salem standards, here.  The project isn't necessarily going "above and beyond" but it's also not "stretching" things the way the "park parcel" apartments sometimes did.

Expected rents from $714 to $1,650
Maybe more interesting is the list of "public benefits" it declines to try to meet:
1. Unit sales prices or rental rates accessible to a broad range of mixed incomes
2. Day care facilities;
3. Facilities supportive of the arts;
4. Facilities for the handicapped (the Project will comply with ADA requirements, including the provision of handicapped accessible units and spaces);
5. Special architectural features;
6. Service or commercial uses which are permitted and needed at the project site but not available for economic reasons;
7. Dedication of land or facilities for public use;
8. Development on sites with existing single-story commercial structures;
9. Development on existing surface parking lots;
10. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification by the Green Building Council of the project;
So no LEED, no low-income housing component, no fancy architecture - how critical is any of this?  Not really.

In the end this is pretty much exactly the kind of development the abatement was designed to encourage. All of us will benefit when there are more people downtown. (But again it would be interesting to read a detailed financial analysis of the return-on-investment of this kind of thing to see if the payoff is more general "cultural vitality" downtown or if it will have a measurable financial return.)

(For all previous notes on the Boise project, see here.)

Other Stuff

There's a bunch of right-of-way acquisition for the Brown Road project.  (Just to note in passing.)

An update on the road bond projects.  There didn't seem to be anything new or surprising in it, but some of the sidewalk, pedestrian median, and other bike/walk elements are finally getting designed and some look to be constructed this summer.  So good news there. 

Brief updates on "Economic Development" activities, including toolbox grants/loans and EPA-brownfields assessment program.  But neither of the reports have enough detail for any significant observations.  No list, for example, of toolbox grant or loan recipients.  These are ususally in tens or hundreds of thousands, and the City estimates at least in the Riverfront-Downtown area that they leverage 5.4 private dollars for every public dollar.  See the August 12th meeting for a more detailed list of some Enterprise Zone tax abatements, several of which are mentioned again in Monday's report. (And, again, someone with finance chops should go through these and really see if we can tell how much they really return on the investment!)

And two audits on part of the Urban Renewal Agency (all financial reports can be seen here):  A compliance report on Federal grants, and a giant Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (tl;dr).  Here also someone with finance chops should read these, analyze 'em, and blog about them.

(If you're interested in the cel phone towers, Salem Weekly has two pieces, here and here.)


Susann Kaltwasser said...

As you pointed out, based on what Linda Norris said at a recent meeting of Neighborhood Association chairpersons, the plan and the tax abatement is pretty much a done deal. The public can comment on Monday, but not likely to matter as usual in City Hall.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Quick notes from the paper today...

The overpay:
"The city would be paying a high price. Salem Urban Development Director John Wales said the property had been appraised about $700,000 to $800,000 as undeveloped park land."

Using Park land for bridge construction staging:
"City officials noted that using Riverfront Park, the other alternative for staging equipment, could be costly. By one estimate, damage to irrigation equipment, lighting and other park infrastructure caused by construction equipment could be as high as $700,000".

Value of Tax abatement:
"The tax incentive would provide up to 10 years of property tax abatement, which would be worth about $1 million to the developer."

and on the Editorial side, the Paper's opinion on the overall value of the investment:
"Riverfront Park is one of Salem’s most popular assets, and expanding it makes sense. Because the 3.8 acres lacks traffic access, its appraised value for park use is $800,000. But if the city had allowed access, as was included in last year’s Pringle Square proposal, the property would have been worth $3.6 million to $5.7 million. That makes the $2 million purchase price a good deal for the city. The city also would provide about $2 million in property tax abatement and financing.Overall, the city’s cost could be about $4 million, while also saving $700,000 on the adjacent bridge project. That is an excellent investment in the community.."

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Wheee! Relatively speaking, Council zoomed through the Boise/Pringle project.

Unanimous votes across the board.

One item: The park parcel is in the South Waterfront URA, and there's no tax-increment money in that district, so that's an important reason that the Agency proposed Parks SDC funds for acquisition.

I didn't see all the public comment, but I don't think there was any opposition to the plan.

It doesn't feel like a "backroom deal." Instead, it feels to me like a negotiated compromise - real diplomacy - in a somewhat delicate situation that might have been harmed by too much public involvement. There was plenty of public airing in the last round, and it's time to move forward. Others might disagree - but I'm excited rather than alarmed.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

There continues to be some angst about the City paying $2m for property only worth $800k. Sweetheart deal! backroom deal! etc.

I think the price is actually reasonable and here's why.
Councilor Bennett asked for some clarification, and as I recall it went something like this:

As land-locked, orphaned land appropriate only for park development, it was valued at between $700 - $800k

As developer-ready land with transportation access, it had three valuations. One by the City for close to $4m, and one each by the developer and a third party at a bit over $5m.

Although traffic access is a remote possibility at this point, it has not been ruled out 100%, so the low-ball park-only figure of $800k is too low. At the upper bound, because traffic access remains quite problematic, the upper figures of $4m +/- are too high.

So from a pure negotiating standpoint, the parties met in the middle at a figure of $2m. Neither side gets all that they want, but it looks like a pretty classic deal.

But wait, there's more!

Without the park parcel the City estimated that staging and construction for the Minto bridge would trash the existing park for about $700k worth of damage.

So in addition to costing the City $800k, the City gets $700k of additional value in not trashing other parts of the park.
Additionally, there's a section of path - the boardwalk - that will connect the Civic Center to Riverfront Park along Pringle Creek. No estimate on the value has been given, but if a simple pedestrian median costs $40,000, the boardwalk is worth much more than that. The developer will be paying for this project.

So let's say the boardwalk's value and the public access is worth $200k.

$800k + $700k + $200k = $1.7m

But this calculation, then, the City overpay, the actual level of unearned subsidy, on the park parcel is only $300k.
And, again, there's great public interest and value in getting this development going. So I have a real hard time seeing the deal that the City struck as being bad, grafty, or any way shady. It seems like a pretty straightforward meeting of buyers and sellers, and a deal whose parameters the public really pushed for last year in the extensive debate over the Carousel entry and access issues. This is not something that arose in a vacuum or in secrecy without public comment.