Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Oct 20

October 20, 2023

Posted on October 20, 2023 at 6:09 PM by Cherish Bradshaw

Public safety, public health development standards, Riverfront Development, and a discussion of regulating gas stations were topics covered by council in the last two weeks.   I missed posting a blog last Friday because Eugene was hosting the League of Oregon Cities for their fall conference, so I’ll try to be succinct in catching up on all of these big topics.

Last week, October 9th, Council received an update on the investments made in public safety thanks to the revenue generated by the Community Safety Payroll Tax.  As you may recall, that tax is designed to address needs in specific areas. The funds have been used to meet immediate needs with police staffing, on-going needs through investments in Community Court and unhoused services, and future oriented needs directed at youth.   These investments are part of a larger vision of our public safety system that is targeting alternative responses in three areas: a Downtown Incident Commander to increase safety and cleanliness, a Fire and Emergency Medical Services Alternative Response coordinator, and a Public Space Incident Commander to address the impacts of unsanctioned camping.  The take-away from this robust report is that the city continues to refine programs to coordinate our teams and target our efforts.  I am particularly excited about the Youth Programs which invite teenagers to socialize, to learn, and to support one another.

Addressing safety in a different arena, Council on October 18th, moved forward on an initiative to update development standards with an eye toward public health.  This work is a response to the community’s call for a Public Health Overlay Zone in light of the contamination caused by the JH Baxter plant in Bethel.  Neighbors of the plant have long been subjected to noxious odors from the plant, and soils tests have also discovered significant dangerous contamination in yards.   Council’s goal is to avoid this kind of pollution and health impact in the future through increased and tightened requirements. New development standards for industrial development can be incorporated into the land use code that could require increased buffers, fencing and other physical barriers, as well restrictions on noise and vibrations.   Staff will return to council with more specifics and will also reach out to the public for insights, preferences and concerns related to potential changes.

In a subsequent discussion on the 18th, council also considered regulating gas stations.   In particular, council is considering either a  permanent or temporary ban on the construction of new gas stations, or increasing the development standards for them.  The reasoning is two-fold: from a public health perspective, gas stations emit toxics into the air; and leaking tanks also contaminate soil.  Second, given the trajectory toward electric vehicles, continued construction of gas stations may burden the community with “stranded assets” within a decade or two.  As with the residential gas ban, the idea is to “stem the flow.”  Alternatively, instead of banning or limiting the construction of gas stations, council could regulate them. Linked to the motion proposed by Councilor Keating, was a possible requirement for EV charging at new gas stations.  This topic will return to council.  There was strong interest in separating the decision about a moratorium on gas station construction from the broader decision about our build-out of the EV charging system, which is already underway.

Last week, my Blue Ribbon business panel met for the second time.  Their topic was communication – where, when and how the city could better communicate with businesses.  These planning topics related to development standards and gas stations are a good case in point.  We need to take the time to talk to the community before we travel too far along the path of regulation.  Council’s direction to staff – engage the community in discussions about development standards, and take more time to clarify the benefits and impacts of restricting or regulating gas stations – do just that.  We need public input from businesses and neighborhoods that would be affected by these changes.

Last week, Council voted on three key items to enable the next apartment building to be constructed in the Downtown Riverfront district: an increase in the number of apartments, the associated increase in height to seven stories; and a Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption.  There was also discussion about how much and what kind of retail space would be included in this development, as well as interest in hotel development.  As a reminder, while this next building will be residential, the Riverfront District is home to the former steamplant, which is intended to include a hotel when it is renovated.

Finally I will close by recognizing that the crisis in Israel and Gaza is deeply upsetting to us all.   It is hard to see the way out; the loss of lives already is appalling; and there is an abundance anger and many calls for retribution.  Our city is home to Jews and Palestinians who are all anguished and grieving.  Anger is understandable; but it is clear that violence begets violence.  I will repeat my call to this community to extend compassion and understanding to our Jewish and Palestinian friends and neighbors.  They are not combatants in this terrible fight, but they are profoundly impacted.