Sunday, April 28, 2013

MURA Facade Program-The Big Finish

About 10 years ago Medford Urban Renewal Agency asked us to help re-design a proposed awning at a new restaurant facing the railroad tracks.  It wasn't much, an industrial style corrugated metal feature that transformed a former loading dock into an outdoor seating area.  But it worked, and from that MURA developed what began as an awning and paint program.  If a property owner wanted to improve their property in that way, the agency would pay 50% of the costs, up to several thousand dollars.

Well, pretty quickly owners found all sorts of other ways that they wished to improve their properties.  MURA expanded and renamed the program as the Facade Improvement Program, up-ing the available, one-time, match to $17.5K.  I, mostly through inertia, stayed on as the designer, working with owners to come up with suitable projects, developing the design, and then helping the contractor during the construction phase.  We did a "landmark" business.  We started bringing neon signs back to downtown, and established a "MURA standard" approach to awnings.  We demolished bad 1960s blocked-in storefronts at bars and returned pedestrian friendly glass and bulkheads, often with tile, to the street.  Over the next 5-6 years something like EIGHTY separate projects took advantage, including the former Joseph Winans Furniture Building, Lawrence's Jewelers, the ACME Hardware Building, The Fluhrer Bakery Building (with its cool painted sign), Mellello's Coffee (on Holly), The Central Fire Hall, Woolworths, Habaneros, the Palm-Goldy Building and many many more.  And people noticed too. Medford's annual historic preservation award almost always goes to a Facade project  and the innovative MURA Facade Program was awarded the John Howland Gold Medal by the National League of Cities several years ago.  The MURA program has served as a model for numerous others, including local examples in both Talent and Phoenix (for whom we are also the designer).

Back in Medford, for a short period,the program went away, as MURA concentrated on other things but the push back from property owners was pretty high.  When MURA was re-organized by the City, they brought it back as the Facade Improvement Grant Program, and expanded it again, this time to include structural upgrade and removing the limit on re-applications and raising the match to $100K per property.  The Holly Theatre and the Sparta Building are probably the best examples of the transformations that occurred under this program.  Then, with the economic downturn, much of the activity elsewhere in downtown Medford slowed and the funding was not being used as quickly as MURA hoped.

As MURA moves into its final phase, the push to identify facade projects was on, before the program goes away in the next fiscal year.  And I am pleased to say that the Medford's business community has responded with vigor.  In the past month we've opened files on a half-dozen or more projects, including some really exciting ones like a car-lot turned tavern/eatery, a restored non-profit, some 2nd floor residential conversions, a brew pub, a coffee shop, and a storefront re-do, several of which will bring new life to buildings that have been vacant for years!  Almost all of these projects have the potential to transform former eyesores (or unnoticed buildings) into something special. 

As it nears the end of its run, the award-winning Medford Urban Renewal Agency Facade Improvement Grants can look back at having touched more than 100 individual properties in downtown.  Not a bad investment and one that MURA should be proud of.  I know that I am.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Covered Bridge(s) of Chitwood, Oregon

Among the several covered bridge projects at the moment are two in Lincoln County.  As recently as 1963 Lincoln County had a dozen covered wooden spans but, of all parts of the state, the coast is especially rough on wood over water so for a variety of reasons only four covered bridges remain in the county today.  Two are currently in line for some rehab work, one of which is a great span at Chitwood, right off or Oregon Hwy 20.

Chitwood was founded in 1881, as what would become the Corvallis & Eastern Railroad line passed through, roughly following the Yaquina River.  Joseph Chitwood, who had settled here in 1879, set up a town, opened a store, and became the postmaster.  By 1915 Chitwood had 50 residents, and provided service to the larger area surrounding the community.

Getting to Chitwood by rail was easy, since there was a depot.  Getting a wagon across the river required fording and in Spring 1893, the good people of Chitwood approached the County and offered to build a bridge if the county would supply the material.  They did, and the first Chitwood Bridge was completed under the direction of L. T. Pepin in October 1893.  The Lincoln County Leader reported on the young town’s pride in its achievement; “The work is first class and we have the best bridge in Lincoln County…It fills a long need in our community.”  But, wood over water being what it is, that first Chitwood bridge apparently failed and by 1904 the County built another Chitwood Bridge, again under the direction of Mr. Pepin.

Here is where it gets interesting.  The county paid J. Clarence Altree $874 to build a bridge at Chitwood in 1915.  Nobody seems to know much about this bridge, but buried my collection of covered bridge photos I found this one, which looks to be dated in 1923 (though it’s not postmarked).  Is this the Chitwood Covered Bridge that is normally dated at being built in 1926?  The one that is universally credited to Charles Otis Hamar?  Did the 1915 bridge only last 10 years, just like the 1894 and 1904 bridges did?  Is the 1926 really ten years older?  Doe anybody know?

Chitwood, the community, hit its peak about WWI and then slowly declined.  Today’s its often included in reports of Oregon Ghost Towns, but since they tore down the remnants of the store, all that’s really left are few houses and the third (or Fourth?) Chitwood Bridge. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

New Rails at McCullough's Cape Creek Bridge

Conde McCullough, Oregon’s prolific State Bridge Engineer, was responsible for something on the order of 900 bridges constructed over the first decades of the Oregon State Highway Department’s effort to “Get Oregon out of the Mud!” that began in 1913.  McCullough has achieved near iconic status in Oregon, and in fact nationwide, for the combination of beauty and function that he brought to the task.  Many of Oregon’s most scenic places, at river crossings and canyons, benefit from his skill.  Nowhere is McCullough’s impact more noticeable than on the Oregon Coast, where what is now US 101 wouldn’t exist without the many McCullough-designed spans that cross the rivers and creeks draining into the Ocean.

Last week I was at the Cape Creek Bridge, at Heceta Head, just north of Florence.  While not as dazzling or well-known as the famed “Coastal Bridges” that span major rivers, Cape Creek is still a pretty spectacular design.  It’s probably fair to assume that some of the lessons learned here in 1931-32 helped guide the design of the landmark bridges that were to follow.  Cape Creek is also important for its recent history, being the first bridge in Oregon to benefit from “cathodic protection,” a nifty system where a low-wattage (900w) electrical charge is run through the all the reinforcing steel inside the concrete, providing protection against the salt-spray intrusion that doomed the Alsea Bay Bridge.

Unfortunately when that system was installed at Cape Creek in 1991, the bridge rail wasn’t included (it was likely already damaged).  Years earlier, in 1978, a standard “flex-beam” or w-rail had been installed to keep an errant vehicle from crashing through (lovely, isn’t it?).  Last week it was obvious that major elements of the starburst pattern railing (it looks really cool when the light comes through…sort of a shadow-picture) are literally crumbling away.

This week, through HERITAGE,  I am working on findings for OBEC Consulting Engineers, of Eugene, to document a project that will remove the damage and replace it with new, pre-cast, rail sections that will look almost exactly the same as the originals.  They will just be stronger.  And the reinforcement steel will be “tied” together electrically, so that ODOT can connect the rail to the cathodic system and assure it doesn’t crumble away.  AND, because the new rail and sidewalk are stronger, and meet code, we get to remove the lovely flex-beam!