Tualatin weighs 'urban renewal' in commercial core
They're not what most people would likely consider "blighted areas."
Bridgeport Village, which is shared with Tigard and tiny neighboring Durham, opened in 2005. Nyberg Woods followed in 2007. Nyberg Rivers, home of Cabela's, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, New Seasons Market and more, was just developed and built out last decade.
But while officials have yet to make a final decision — and they aren't expected to for a while yet — Tualatin is eyeing a process in state law that is typically used to revitalize aging downtowns, sagging industrial districts and other struggling neighborhoods as a way to improve its core commercial areas.
What is blight?
Oregon law states that a local government can designate a blighted area as an "urban renewal area," allowing it to effectively bottle up tax revenues above a certain level and use those proceeds to pay for improvement projects. The idea is straightforward: Without raising taxes on property owners in a woebegone part of town that needs some TLC, their tax dollars can be spent over a period of years or decades toward fixing up the area and ultimately improving property values.
But "blight" is in the eye of the beholder.
"Layman's terms, you would think dilapidated, abandoned, unsafe," acknowledged Jonathan Taylor, Tualatin's economic development manager.
But he pointed out that the legal definition of what constitutes a blighted area is a lot more expansive than that. An area can be considered blighted because it doesn't have enough road capacity, for instance, or because there is a growing "lack of proper utilization" of land, however officials want to define that.
Even the provision of law that specifically mentions "dilapidation" also mentions "obsolescence" or "shifting of uses" as a reason that an area can be described as blighted. That's a consideration for Tualatin's city government in these parts of town, as retail shopping has given way to online ordering.
As an economic development official, Taylor is especially concerned about traffic. Tualatin has been plagued by bad traffic for years — a consequence of both hosting regional shopping destinations like Cabela's and being at the junction of major travel routes, including Interstates 5 and 205, Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road, Southwest Boones Ferry Road, and Southwest 65th Avenue (which forms part of the boundary between Washington and Clackamas counties).
"Our businesses survive on our transportation nodes," Taylor observed. He said city officials want to know, as properties are developed or redeveloped — with more apartment housing, for instance — how much additional strain that will place on roads and highways that are already congested for hours on a typical weekday.
A broader ecosystem
Taylor himself is a rarity in Tualatin: He both lives and works in the city of about 27,500. More than nine in 10 people in Tualatin's workforce commute from out of town.
"Our long-term vision is to maximize efficiency," Taylor said. "I personally want people to get to work and to home, to their family, as quickly as possible, because that goes to our council's goals of connected community as well as (being) environmentally conscious."
Personally, Taylor said, he'd like to see Tualatin's tangled web of streets get straightened out somehow.
Part of the perennial traffic problem just west of the Nyberg Rivers shopping center stems from the awkward, inefficient way that Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road, Nyberg Street and Martinazzi Avenue come together, forming a bent triangle. The string of signalized intersections on Boones Ferry Road just west of there is also prone to traffic backups.
But for Tualatin, fixing those design flaws isn't easy, as Taylor pointed out. Tualatin-Sherwood Road is a Washington County road. Boones Ferry Road is actually a state route, Highway 141, although the Oregon Department of Transportation hasn't put up signage. Privately owned railroad tracks — which are also used by TriMet for its underutilized WES commuter rail service — run right by the intersection of Tualatin-Sherwood and Boones Ferry roads.
Taylor said that as a city government, Tualatin has worked hard over the years to build and maintain good working relationships with other jurisdictions — Washington and Clackamas counties, each of which contains a portion of the city; neighbors like Tigard, Sherwood and Wilsonville, which have conducted joint planning projects with Tualatin over the years; and the state of Oregon, which largely oversees the freeways and state highway that run through downtown.
"We've always taken a very collaborative approach," Taylor said, adding that when Tualatin holds public meetings about topics that affect a county, another city, or the state or federal governments, "We always bring in our affected overlapping jurisdictions to these meetings, so the citizens can see, and the other entities can hear from not only us, but our citizens as well."
Complexities like who has say over what rights-of-way or property access are bound to drag out any major planning or "visioning" effort in Tualatin.
What to do?
Officials haven't settled on urban renewal as the best way to fix traffic problems and make other improvements in Tualatin's commercial areas, Taylor said.
Urban renewal is currently driving the revitalization of downtown Tigard and Beaverton, among other places. Tualatin itself used urban renewal decades ago to redevelop what used to be a pet food factory into the Tualatin Commons, which now hosts popular events like the West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta and Starry Nights & Holiday Lights.
It's a powerful and popular tool for economic development because it doesn't levy new taxes. Instead, for a set period of time, it caps the amount of tax revenue that the city and other taxing districts — Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and Portland Community College, for instance — collect from properties within a blighted area, and any tax collections above that "frozen base" are earmarked for a list of specific projects to improve the blighted area.
But urban renewal is not the only option. Taylor noted that Tualatin has also used "opportunity zones," which encourage investment with tax breaks and similar incentives, along the I-5 corridor and elsewhere. There are more conventional approaches, too, like the $20 million Tualatin Moving Forward bond measure that voters approved for transportation improvements in May 2018.
The Tualatin City Council isn't expected to vote on forming an urban renewal area in its core commercial areas for some time to come, if it does at all. Right now, it is focused on setting up an urban renewal area that will encompass some of its western industrial areas, as well as parts of the mostly rural Basalt Creek area that Tualatin anticipates annexing into city limits in the near future. A vote on that urban renewal plan is expected next month.
"We are finishing up with the urban renewal district in the Basalt Creek area, to do infrastructure there, because obviously, it needs it," Taylor said.
While the City Council held a work session late last month to discuss proceeding toward urban renewal in the commercial core, Taylor said there's still a lot of legwork that needs to be done before the council takes action. While he has mapped out a "study area" that would include Bridgeport Village, Nyberg Woods, Nyberg Rivers, the Fred Meyer shopping center, the Tualatin Commons and some adjoining properties, he said he knows, and councilors know, that boundary is likely to change as city officials get a better sense of Tualatin's needs and how they expect the city to change and grow in decades to come.
Taylor points to some of the community feedback the city received during its "Tualatin 2040" visioning effort as another reason to include relatively new developments in the study area.
"We want a town center. We want a downtown," Taylor said, summarizing the feedback.
Referring to the Tualatin Commons, he added, "Even though there is a downtown, there are no connecting streets through that area. … We understand that that's inadequate planning if we want that area to develop even further."
Over the next year-plus, Taylor expects the City Council will conduct more public outreach, talk to property owners, and try to figure out what can or should change in the core commercial areas.
"Urban renewal, I would say tentatively … is several years off," Taylor said.
He added, "We're not rushing this. That has been a directive. It's slow and methodical, 'get it right,' 'we'll take our time.' And part of that is to ensure that our residents … don't miss the opportunity to hear about it."
By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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