Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fixing Downtown, one facade at a time

Six or so years ago the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, MURA, hit upon an idea to spark renovation of the buildings in downtown Medford. The agency had been formed about a decade earlier and initially concentrated on large public infrastructure projects…a parking garage, some surface lots, new sidewalks, underground systems and street lighting among other things. They had developed some marketing models, helped support the creation of the Craterian Theater to spark some nightlife and helped fund the designation of the core Medford Downtown area as a National Register Historic District. A few intrepid owners took the plunge (the restoration of the Southern Pacific Railroad Passenger Station, the Medford Depot, comes to mind) but there wasn’t the resurgence of interest in restoration or renovation MURA hoped for.

So, they took a novel approach. They decided to help property owners pay for facade improvements, offering matching grants of up to $37,500 per lot for qualified projects. I was lucky enough to end up as the project designer, participating in more than 75 separate renovations over a five year period (you have to understand that there are only 200 properties in downtown). Many of those were simple paint, awning or signage but some were major projects, including two Certified Rehabilitation's and many more that took advantage of the Special Assessment program the State of Oregon offers. Most though, including the Southern Oregon Gas Company Building, shown here "before" and "after" simply involved chipping away at the accreted ugly of the decades, taking off 1940s stucco or 1950s-1960s metal that covered up the original facade (or at least the one that had pedestrian scale windows and detailing). There is hardly a block in the city that hasn’t been touched by the Facade Grant program in one way or another.

Two years ago MURA ran out of funding for this program, diverting its efforts elsewhere. This year, funding is back in place and, as of last week, I am lucky enough to be involved in the project again. We already have FOUR projects either formally enrolled in the process or soon to be. Hopefully that pent up interest will continue. You can read more about the project, and see more before and after photos, at the MURA website

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Price History?

In 1948 the voters of Jackson County, Oregon passed a “Historic Levy,” to support the restoration of the Jacksonville Courthouse and fund the operations of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, SOHS, that would operate it. Twenty-five cents of every $1000 in assessed value would go to support the Society, a huge amount of money then and now. For decades SOHS enjoyed stable funding from this tax base and built what at one time was the largest local historical society west of the Mississippi River. In addition to the Courthouse, the County allowed SOHS to take over, manage, and maintain for its own or interpretative uses, an entire series of County-owned properties in Jacksonville, most of which it had acquired for back taxes during the Great Depression. From this Jacksonville built a strong tourism/history based economy, ultimately becoming one of the highest value community's in the region, raising property values, raising the County's receipts, and generally showing that a small investment in history pays.

As Jackson County’s property values rose, SOHS began to take only a portion of its .25 mil rate, usually about a dime. Over the years the County itself, in an effort to fund its own operations without having to go to the voters for more money, began to take a greater and greater portion of the remaining fifteen cents of the historical levy. In 1995 Jack Walker was elected to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and for whatever reason embarked upon what can only be characterized as a vendetta against SOHS. At some point he decided that since the Jackson County Courthouse (the current Courthouse, in Medford) was a historic building (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and that SOHS should, out its portion of the levy, help to maintain it. Specifically, he wanted SOHS to pay for a new roof. SOHS, with its own building projects in mind, said no. Jack has never forgiven them. SOHS, like many historical societies, has traditionally been run by well-meaning historians who among many skills do not count political savvy or brinksmanship. Walker and the Board of Commissioners, which collected the levy for SOHS and so controlled its dispersal essentially took the position that THEY, and they alone could determine how SOHS would spend the funds that were levied for their support.

Long story short, Jack concocted a “split” whereby SOHS got 75% of the .10 cents it levied, the Jackson County Historical Fund got 12.5% and, you guessed it the County got the other 12.5% to “maintain” the courthouse. For a realm of scale, the total 10 cent levy toward the end amounted to about $1.5million annually. (And, of course, Jackson County still kept the other .15 cents per thousand for its own purposes). SOHS, nice SOHS, befuddled SOHS, said nothing.

Then, in 1996 and 1997, came Bill Sizemore’s Ballot Measures 47 and 50 which, among other things, made all existing special levies permanent and melded them into the County’s general tax rate. Jack and the Commissioners now had ALL the .25 cents (along with the existing levy at that time intended to fund library operations, but that’s another story). Guess what they did? They announced their intention to retain the entire proceeds of the now permanent .25 per $1000 historical levy, ending all payments to SOHS and the Jackson County Historical Fund. One can assume they still use some of the levy proceeds to maintain the Courthouse. There was a painful transition period, lawsuits, and ultimately a shotgun wedding of sorts phase out of support to SOHS but, as of a few years ago, Jackson County keeps all the money, even denying any payments to take care of the Jacksonville buildings that it still owns. SOHS made valiant efforts toward self-sufficiency but, with the recent downturn in the economy and shrinking donations, they have faced a harder and harder road.

SOHS announced earlier this week that they are going to close their operations for six months in an effort to develop a sustainable funding model. Jack Walker and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners continue to benefit from the .25 per $1000 of assessed value, a sizable portion of the County’s general fund income worth millions of dollars annually. I think that stinks. I don't think I'm the only one that does.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't Shoot the Resources! Part 2

So, three days ahead of schedule, I handed in the draft of the Lithia Springs Property Management Plan to the City yesterday. This boiled down to a more elaborate discussion on the basic theme of "keep them clean, keep they dry, and don't shoot at them" approach to resource conservation that I'd suggested earlier.

It was rather an eye opener to trek around that property and assess the wide variance in condition between those resources in the middle of the Gun Club's activities with those located at the periphery of them. One resource, the pumphouse, is a stucco-coated concrete building that the City had seen fit to "de-roof" in 1975. While the Gun Club would have you believe that the major damage to the masonry is due to weathering (despite the TARGET they had hanging in the doorway) it was informative to compare the three sides of the building facing the gun club users with the one side facing the creek and so inaccessible. Guess which side is in really good condition and which ones have been pock marked, exposing re-bar and interior masonry to the weather? Go on....guess.

On the plus side, there are several near pristine concrete "monoliths" located at the edge of the property, far outside the ranges (though directly upon the bow hunting course) that while damaged have at least not been knocked over like the similar features in the middle of the site. These each relate, I am sure, to the c1940s Carbon Dioxide processing plant on the site, presumably as some sort of extractor or reducer to separate the gas from the water. They are HUGE, about 30" square and 12' tall, with various ports and flanges.

The Gun Club, for whatever reason, hasn't been as good of a steward of this important historic site as I had hoped. The guidelines include various recommendations to isolate the resources from their on-going activity such as weather protection, berms and fencing. My favorite element to prepare was the education component, suggesting that the Club take pains to notify all of its members and visitors that they share a site with Ashland's history and should protect them from damage. But what I really enjoyed was designing the sign, to be located near some of the major features.