With the city’s recent approval of the South Lane School District’s rezoning of the old Harrison School property, some pieces of Cottage Grove’s housing puzzle seem to be moving into position.
Though the property’s rezoning and eventual purchase by a developer will undoubtedly have impact on the city’s long-term plans for housing, some in the community wonder what these developments mean for their neighborhood.
“On their list of priorities, I don’t know that they checked in with the community,” said Molly Patterson, who resides in the old school’s neighborhood.
While concerns about Harrison’s rezoning have only recently been raised in public hearings, the school district’s current step in the process is just one among many.
When South Lane School District’s measure 20-240 passed in 2016, the nearly $36 million list of proposed bond projects included $513,455 for the old Harrison property’s reuse by salvaging the gym and field space for community recreational use.
Last fall, the board began looking at the costs associated with the 6.84-acre property more deeply. As bond projects were implemented and price estimates shifted, the district found it had three options in front of it regarding the fate of Harrison’s property.
The first option included the full package: a parking area, athletic field, asbestos abatement, some demolition and the rebuilding of the gym.
Though initial costs were estimated by the school district to be around $900 thousand for the whole endeavor, the discovery of additional structural issues shot the cost of maintaining the gym alone up to around $1 million.
With the other items still on the price list, final estimates on the first option came to more than $2 million — more than double what was initially expected.
A second option, which excluded salvaging the gym, dropped those costs to between $800 and $900 thousand — still not an entirely attractive option for a district trying to manage a gradually draining bond fund.
Lastly, option three was to sell the property off with conditions.
This April, the school board enlisted the services of the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG) Chief Financial Officer Howard Schussler to facilitate a dialogue regarding these options.
“The intent was being able to really thoroughly go through these [options],” said South Lane School District Superintendent Larry Sullivan. “And Howard’s really a masterful facilitator — he makes sure everybody gets heard and that we really exhaustively go through these things.”
In considering the third option, the board also received advice from the city on rezoning and how it could play into the city’s housing plans.
According to a strategy adopted earlier this year from the city’s latest housing needs analysis, the city committed to working with the school district to look at surplus lands and how they may help the city meet its housing needs.
“One of the major things they were looking at was how the city can help the school district figure out what to do with this property,” said City Planner Amanda Ferguson, “and more specifically, how can we meet some of our housing needs with this property?”
In May, the board voted unanimously to sell the property under the assumption it could be rezoned and that abatement of the asbestos could be stipulated upon sale.
“We want to be good community members and if we couldn’t afford to build a big complex there or salvage that, what could we do?” explained Sullivan. “And the goal was really to find some way to work with the city — which we did collaborate with — to figure out a way where this could be potentially what they also need, which is housing.”
Though appraisers at Duncan & Brown put the property value at around $745,000, Sullivan said the sale is likely to come in around $300 or $400 thousand due to the necessary abatement and demolition work.
Despite the board’s unanimity on selling and rezoning, not all local residents have agreed with the plan.
According to one area resident who asked not to be named, housing was not first on his list.
“I’d just as soon [prefer] it wasn’t residential,” he said. “Looking back, they’re doing the new swimming pool. What I think it should’ve been in the first place was a big rec center.”
As part of the 2016 proposed bond projects, the school district is currently renovating the Warren H. Daugherty Aquatic Center.
“It would’ve been nice to have just a big rec center where people can go,” said the resident. “Even if you pay monthly dues, that would’ve been great. I would rather see something like that …”
Another resident of the Harrison area, Simon Martinez, had heard of the rezoning but was somewhat indifferent about the municipal machinations at work.
“I kind of figure they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” he said. “I mean, they can talk, make people feel like they have something to do with what they’re going do with it. But my experience is just that they’re making people feel like they have a say in what’s going happen — but they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.”
For his own part, Martinez was happy to concede that control to the district as long as life in the area maintained a level of quality.
“They can do whatever they want around here and it’s not going make it as bad as where I moved from,” he said. “I hope they don’t do anything that messes up property values in that area, but again, you can just hope, right?”
In a July 22 City Council meeting with Harrison’s rezoning on the agenda, resident Molly Patterson expressed her disappointment with the rezoning and the lack of effectiveness dissenting voices seemed to have on the topic.
Previously, Patterson and other concerned residents had attended a June 19 Planning Commission meeting to voice their discontent with the rezoning issue.
A request by The Sentinel to speak with some of the other residents who appeared at the Planning Commission meeting was not answered.
In both public hearings, residents were told that their concerns could not be effectively addressed at the respective venues, in large part due to the fact that each panel’s responsibilities were simply to ensure that applications were legally viable.
From a municipal perspective, hands were tied. And as future public hearings on the topic will follow, the process of civic engagement may become even harder.
“That can get really complicated for people,” Ferguson said, “because they are looking at multiple applications and they need to be aware of what the concerns are for each one and ad-dress their concerns directly to that criteria.”
While city and school district officials encourage civic engagement, the question of where and when to effectively render public opinion remains a curiosity for some.
School districts, for example, are not required to allow public comment, but meetings are required to be held in public.
“A school board meeting is a meeting for the board to do work in public. It’s not a public meeting in the same way as other meetings are,” said Sullivan.
The board has regular sessions once a month, which are announced on the district’s website, and in which public comment is usually allowed. Depending on the project, some work ses-sions are open for comment as well, such as the case with the closing of Latham School.
In the case of Harrison, the process has been on the table for quite some time.
“We’ve been talking about the bond and what we’re going to do with the bond funds since September, which we almost every month reviewed,” Sullivan said. “And this position of Harrison property was always on there. And no one came in to [comment].”
At this stage, it is not clear community involvement would have significant effect on future board decisions.
“This is board work,” said Sullivan. “This is not a community engagement event. … We did community engagement when we went through the whole process of how we passed the bond.”
And so the project to sell the old Harrison property moves ahead.
The school board’s next step will be to put out a request for proposal (RFP) which will request development plans from bidders, allowing the board to choose plans which meet its particular criteria.
What exactly these criteria will be remains a topic of future discussion and will appear on a future board meeting agenda.
“My goal is to get it to the board by our board meeting in September,” said Sullivan. “And it will have stipulations and a process of what it’s going to be.”
Top concern for the district will be finding developers who can address the issues with the current building.
“Any developer coming in is going to have to come and deal with that building demolition and abatement of asbestos,” said Sullivan.
The RFP will also ask for design plans which correspond with the property’s new R2 zoning.
Initially, the school district had considered rezoning the property to R3, which permits multi-family units such as apartments or condominiums. With advisement from the city and feedback from the board, the district was encouraged to change the property zone to R2 instead, which allows for single family residences and duplexes.
“They were very concerned with the density that an R3 would be and they felt more comfortable with R2 because of the predominance of duplexes, individual homes, cottages, things like that,” said Sullivan. “It fit into that local footprint.”
Ferguson, too, was pleased with the collaboration.
“It helped reassure them that the path of rezoning was a better option, that it wouldn’t hurt them financially and it would meet the stated needs that the community has,” she said. “I think it was a really great partnership.”
In the Cottage Grove’s housing needs analysis, it is suggested that the city build an average of 69 dwelling units annually to meet the projected need of 1,379 more units by the year 2038, a number likely unachievable if single-family detached homes continue as a development trend. The site at Harrison has potential to add several dozen units to this year’s tally.
“You look at the needs of the district and we have a lack of affordable housing for young families and children,” said Sullivan. “We’ve seen a decrease in our elementary school population over the last five years and that might have something to do with it. I don’t know.”
Putting in housing that addresses these concerns may turn out to be the easiest step; developers have already appeared at the doorstep.
“We had a developer who came in and said he was very excited that it was going to R2,” Ferguson said. “He’s very interested and has actually already started looking at how he would lay out development on this property.”
Considering city and school district leanings, housing in the area would likely fit an income bracket that can afford between $800 and $1,200 per month in rent, according to Ferguson.
“This would be looking at the group that really can’t afford a single-family home on a single-family lot, but can afford more than the low-income stuff,” she said, “so it’s going to be in that ‘missing middle’ section.”
Cottage Grove’s median household income hovers around $39,000, a demographic which housing of this kind would be able to serve.
“I expect this property is going to be developed as a mixture of things,” said Ferguson.
While plans for this site progress toward what inevitably looks like new housing, those troubled by the region’s identified “housing crisis” may be happy to learn that this development will slake some of the burden off the shoulders of middle-income families.
For those crestfallen by learning a new community recreation area is that much more distant, the time to protest may well be over; but it does not preclude the voices of a community to shape future movements in Cottage Grove’s future.