Thursday, March 24, 2011

Medford-One Step Forward and.....

I have written before about the great things that are happening in downtown Medford, what with the restoration of the Sparta Building, the on-going Facade projects, and the planned rehab of two long vacant buildings by Jefferson Public Radio.

I have also written about the city’s unfortunate penchant for “Silver Bullet-itis,” as most recently exemplified by a $14 million public investment in “The Commons,” a multi-block stock urban renewal project built around a new 4-story HQ building for Lithia Motors.  That project, which is finally scheduled to start construction later this spring after a two-year delay, has been much in the news lately.  And, as is my wont, and occasional failing, I have not been shy about voicing my opinions about its potential for improving downtown Medford.

The Commons includes the demolition of eight buildings to clear the land, two of which are clearly historic (and one of which, the Littrell Auto Parts Building that was recognized for its renovation just a few years ago by the Medford LHPC).  Lithia, toward whom I hold no ill will, should stay downtown and I don’t blame them for consolidating their offices into one structure.  I might quibble with the design (which is fairly aluminum and car-dealery for downtown IMHO), but it is just a building.  The problem, of course, is that Medford (and Lithia) can’t help but see this mega-project as the mega-answer to an entire host of downtown issues (hence the loss of eight buildings).  Two new blocks of hardscape park will either be virtual wastelands (my guess), or will be so attractive that they suck the slowly renewing life out of the rest of downtown (apparently the City and Lithia’s expectation). 

Downtowns, as the perceptive Jane Jacobs told us, are rarely improved by tearing them down and, having done so, it is very difficult to create a great place out of whole cloth.  Those obvious, and fairly accepted, rules appear to have little effect on a certain segment of downtown Medford, Oregon. 

Many years ago I was a part of a design team in downtown Medford that was pulled together right after the city’s Urban Renewal Agency had invested $7 million in southern Oregon’s first “Parking Structure.”  Don Rypkema, who was also a part of that team, pointed out (wisely) that instead of building a parking structure (which is STILL largely underused), Medford could have instead purchased EVERY single vacant building in downtown and given it to somebody who agreed to open a business there.  15 years later Medford has yet another parking structure ($8 million, I think), and about half a dozen new surface parking lots, many largely vacant, particularly after the community college closes down for the night.  Oh, and lots of vacant buildings.  Are we learning yet?  Apparently not.

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