With help from a Metro grant, city officials plan to ask the community what they want to see in their downtown.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Ryan Wells stands in front of Cornelius Place, a three-story building under construction at the corner of North Adair Street and 14th Avenue in Cornelius. Once complete, the building will house an expanded Cornelius Public Library and more.Downtown Cornelius got a small facelift a few years ago when Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center opened on North Adair Street. A couple blocks away, Cornelius Place — a mixed-use building currently under construction that will house the city library — will provide another one early next spring.

Those new buildings could be vanguards of a new-look central corridor in a city more noted for its location along Highway 8 and the railroad than its wealth of popular attractions.

Cornelius is about to embark on a series of interviews, listening sessions, design charettes and other public outreach efforts as it works on what Ryan Wells, the city's community development director, is calling a "town center plan."

"Importantly, critically, the plan is going to be informed by the people ... by our community," Wells said. "It isn't something that city staff and its consultants are just going to sit in a room and develop. We're going to engage with the public over the next 18 months."

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Ryan Wells, Cornelius community development director, is excited about the potential for redevelopment along the Highway 8 spine that runs through Cornelius.

New design standards, rezoning, urban renewal on agenda

Most of the city's design standards date back to 1997. Since then, the city's population has increased by about one-half, with much more development on its way.

"It's way outdated, and frankly, Cornelius was a different place back then," said Wells of the design standards.

Cornelius has also historically lacked a unified approach to urban planning and development along the east-west highway corridor that bisects the city, the population of which now sits at about 12,500, according to the latest census estimates.

"We're going to basically rezone the entire downtown," Wells said. "There will be a lot of similarities — it's not like we're going to disrupt everybody's approved uses — but one of the things we found in some earlier analyses is that we have 10 different zoning districts that touch the town center boundary."

Cornelius received a $315,000 grant from Metro last year for the town center planning project. The regional government has been an ally of the city in reshaping the Highway 8 corridor, helping to pay for significant streetscape improvements on Adair and Baseline streets earlier this decade.

Wells said that grant will actually be paying for a few different projects that come under the aegis of that "town center plan" — a master plan for the district that will lay out updated design standards, define the boundaries of what is considered "downtown," project future land use in the area and more — as well as an urban renewal plan.

Urban renewal is a commonly used tool for improving areas like the Highway 8 corridor in Cornelius that are considered "blighted," although it is often misunderstood. Instead of raising taxes to pay for capital improvements, like a bond or levy, municipal urban renewal freezes the taxes collected by the city and other taxing districts within a defined area, and any amount of tax above that frozen base is collected by the urban renewal agency and put toward a predetermined list of projects. An urban renewal plan is typically set to expire after a certain number of years or upon the collection of a certain total amount of tax dollars.

Beaverton has had an urban renewal plan in place for decades that has helped the city redevelop its own downtown. Tigard is also using urban renewal to overhaul its long-neglected Main Street area.

Wells said that if Cornelius city officials see public support for urban renewal and the Cornelius City Council approves, an urban renewal plan could be adopted as soon as early next year.

Because urban renewal does not actually raise taxes, any city that adopts an urban renewal plan is counting on property values to go up — as vacant land is developed, for instance, or when new amenities come to the area, or old eyesores and public nuisances are torn down.

"Successful urban renewal depends on growth," Wells said, "not just the natural 3 percent progression of property taxes, but when you actually have new development, that's when you really capture the value of urban renewal, in your projections and in the actual revenue."

'Strategic' properties, intersections could be focus

Asked about the possibility of the city getting directly involved in demolishing buildings that have become blighted or are considered "legal non-conforming uses" — old houses that remain standing in areas now zoned for commercial development, for example — Wells said he doesn't expect Cornelius to do much of that.

"I would say unequivocally that we don't need to demo a lot of it," Wells said. "It's something that happens transitionally over time. We're not going to make wholesale changes just overnight."

At the same time, Wells acknowledged, the city knows there are a few properties in particular that have become emblematic of downtown Cornelius' malaise — the abandoned service station at the corner of Baseline Street and South 10th Avenue, for example, and the former Hank's-turned-Grande Foods grocery store that has been unoccupied for years. City officials will be thinking "strategically" about sites like that where they can prioritize redevelopment in the hopes that it spurs a wave of change, he said.

"We haven't gone out and demoed any properties," Wells said. "And again, you know, we're not going to make a habit out of it. I think there will be some places where to make something happen, the city's going to have to intervene and just work with the property-owner to get to a better condition for a positive trajectory."

Likewise, the city views some downtown intersections as key points of focus, he added. Among them are the intersection of Baseline Street and South 14th Avenue, which is signalized, and Adair Street and North 12th Avenue, where the Oregon Department of Transportation may install flashing beacons for safety within the next two or three years.

The highway itself, which is split into westbound Adair Street and eastbound Baseline Street through most of Cornelius, is an unavoidably large element in any town center planning for the city — both an opportunity and an obstacle.

"We're always planning a good distance in the future," said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.

Wells noted the volume of highway traffic isn't likely to decrease anytime soon; in fact, the city's transportation system plan projects that it will increase in the coming years and decades. For many commuters, Cornelius will always be a pass-through between Hillsboro and Forest Grove. At the same time, Wells said he expects improving pedestrian safety and walkability to be a major piece of the town center plan.

One example that Cornelius officials have been studying is Sisters, a city of about 2,600 in Central Oregon. Like Beaverton and Tigard, Sisters adopted an urban renewal plan to help overhaul its downtown. Like Cornelius, it is a relatively small town along a major freight corridor (a federal route, Highway 20, in its case). In 2014, Sisters and ODOT partnered to rebuild a six-block segment of Highway 20 through the town center, effectively transforming its main drag in pursuit of some of the same goals Cornelius officials have identified so far: safety, walkability and beautification of downtown.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - North Adair Street, pictured, and Baseline Street carry thousands of vehicles' worth of highway traffic through Cornelius on a daily basis. That traffic isn't about to go away, but city officials would like to see their downtown area as something more than a pass-through.

Cornelius Place a 'flagship' for downtown area

Wells also expressed excitement about the Cornelius Place project, which is nearly halfway through construction. Once it is complete, the building will stand three stories tall — the highest in Cornelius — and will provide an expanded library space for residents, as well as a YMCA center almost 3,000 square feet in size, according to Karen Hill, the city's library director.

"It's going to really kind of be a flagship type of structure in downtown. I think it's going to help set the stage for what I think a lot of people do want to see in our downtown," Wells said, adding, "I think it's going to have a huge impact in our downtown. ... It's going to really be a draw. And it's going to be a beautiful building unto itself, but I think it's definitely going to inspire additional work downtown."

Despite Cornelius' geographic position in between Hillsboro and Forest Grove, Wells recognizes the city has its own identity and differs from those two communities in many ways.

For one, Wells said, it's not a "destination" the way that its larger neighbors are — something he hopes will change along with the city's look and feel.

For another, while Hillsboro and Forest Grove have significant non-English-speaking and non-white minorities, Cornelius is actually a minority-majority community, with most of the city's residents being Latino. As such, officials and consultants working on the town center plan will need to bear "cultural considerations" in mind, while also working with local groups like Centro Cultural de Washington County and Virginia Garcia on outreach to Spanish-speaking residents, Wells said.

"We're going to have to weigh all the input," Wells said. "I don't think anybody wants this to become a mini-Hillsboro, necessarily. We're going to have our own character, and we have our own story to tell, and it's going to come out in a unique way."

Ultimately, the design standards — and many other aspects of the town center plan, along with many of the projects that will be included in the urban renewal plan — will be determined through community engagement, Wells said.

The entire project, in essence, relies on public buy-in. As a relatively small city with a relatively small tax base, Cornelius is not in a ready position to buy up land and spin it off for development the way that larger cities with bigger budgets — like Hillsboro, Beaverton and Portland — are able to do, Wells pointed out.

Public involvement will shape the planning project. In most cases, market forces will dictate how property is redeveloped, and how quickly. ODOT and the railroad will continue to play a significant role along the corridor as well. Cornelius officials can get the ball rolling in their town center, but they aren't able to change things overnight — much less by themselves.

"The city isn't going to make this happen," Wells said. "It's going to be the people that make this happen."

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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