Council returned on Monday from its summer break to launch immediately into discussions of broad and significant impact: the Riverfront Urban Renewal District; the state’s rules for Climate-Friendly and Equitable Communities; and the City’s current condition both financially and with respect to our city workforce. This first week is a heads-up on the hard work ahead.
At Monday’s work session, Council reviewed the status of investments that have been funded through the Riverfront Urban Renewal District. It’s an impressive list:
- The Riverfront Park is complete, and the adjoining plaza is in the design phase. It received $5 million of funding from the state.
- The infrastructure to support the emerging neighborhood was completed in June.
- Three new market rate apartment buildings are moving forward, which will provide 381 housing units when completed.
Still to come are the development of the affordable housing units, the redevelopment of the steam plant, and potentially the investment in parking and/or other transportation access for the area. These last three aren’t fully funded under the current district’s timeline or revenue stream. The session was to review the financial status and gauge council’s interest in raising the revenue cap in order to build the funds necessary for some or all of the remaining projects. Raising the revenue cap of tax funds that are diverted to the renewal district instead of going into the general fund would also extend the timeline of the District beyond 2024 and require council action.
Council reaction in general was support for investment in affordable housing; skepticism about the value of further steam plant investment; and lack of support for more parking investments. I join Council’s commitment to the affordable housing – that is a key value of the development. I am perhaps more strongly in support of the steam plant than others for these reasons: Urban Renewal is designed to trigger economic development – and that’s what the steam plant is. Jobs will be created both in construction and in its long-term operation as public space, hotel and offices. It will produce tax revenue; and the City’s investment is small relative to the almost $50 million in private investment that is on the table. Without renovation, the City will shoulder the burden of managing and then demolishing the deteriorating, historic building.
In the second session, Council received its first briefing on the requirements, or rules, to comply with the State’s Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities (CFEC) order. Issued in July, the rules delineate the requirements of eight metropolitan areas in the state to meet state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, while also focusing on the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable communities. Because the rules have just been issued, staff is still analyzing the alignment of the new rules with our existing planning and climate plans. They will return to council quickly to discuss the rules around parking because the State’s timeline for compliance is so short. For example, the rules require reduction or elimination of parking requirements city wide, or in specified areas or conditions, through code changes enacted by June 30, 2023.
This is a very significant state mandate: on one hand, we are well-positioned to comply because of the many associated local plans council has already adopted; on the other hand, fulfilling these requirements will be very costly in staff time and other resources. The timelines are very short.
This is just one of several challenges facing the city. On Wednesday, Council received a briefing on the City’s financial and work force conditions. In a nutshell, funds will be constricted and we will have to prioritize and target our efforts in order to cut $10 million out of the general fund for the coming few years. Secondly, as with employees nationwide, City employees are feeling the impact of the past few years. They have taken on more responsibility and broader or different tasks than originally encompassed in their jobs. An obvious example is the parking employees who were diverted to responding to our unsheltered population during COVID. As with all employers, the City is struggling to fill vacancies, adding to the workload of current staff.
And as people find themselves working harder than ever, the demands for city services continue to increase. After the high spirits that accompanied our successful hosting of the World Athletics Championships and the Riverfront Festival, the edginess and tension many feel in the community should remind us that all things are true. Investments in our public landscape, programming, and people are enhancing our community’s quality of life – we are making great strides in addressing housing, homelessness, transportation and climate. At the same, we face profound challenges in all of those same areas. Council is preparing for two-day retreat next week to help us clarify our collective priorities as we move forward on so many issues.