Waterfront planning must address realistic questions

Another Voice

By DAVID HARLAN

Special to the News

Eight days ago the Port of Hood River Commission selected William Smith Properties of Bend to start talking about the transformation of the Hood River waterfront from an undeveloped industrial landscape to a mixed-use development that will add to both the community’s economy and quality of life.

To paraphrase Confucius, that decision is a first step in what is likely to prove a journey of a thousand miles.

If the discussions go well they will likely lead to a pre-development agreement spelling out the responsibilities of the respective parties. The Port brings to the table a conceptual plan displaying the general layout of what development on the waterfront could look like, and a proposed zone laying out certain parameters for such development. A conceptual plan is just that — a concept.

What the Port doesn’t have is a Master Plan based on specific market analysis, telling us this building is going to go there, it’s going to be this big, and it’s going to attract these kinds of businesses who are going to focus on a customer base with an average household income of X, and who’ve owned an average of 2.1 Volvos and 3.4 lava lamps during their adult lifetimes.

Mr. Smith — the man behind Bend’s impressive Old Mill District mixed-use development along the banks of the Deschutes River — brings to the table the experience and expertise needed to make something happen on the Hood River waterfront, including a developer’s understanding of the potential market such a development could attract. He will be the first to tell you that he is not pursuing development on the waterfront out of the kindness of his heart. Like other entrepreneurs engaged in all sorts of creative and economic activity, he is pursuing this project because he likes to do this sort of thing — and is good at it — and because he likes to make money.

That’s a good thing because — like numerous other businesses in our community — he will add to our tax base and help create jobs for our residents in the process, at the same time helping to foot the bill for the kind of public waterfront amenities that many people in this community have been wanting for more than a decade.

To do that, Smith will need to develop a site Master Plan based on detailed market analysis. Any pre-development agreement with the Port will lay out a framework for that master planning process, including public involvement and the need to focus on the certain matters such as the “wind shadow” issue that has been raised by those concerned with the potential impact of development on waterfront recreational activities.

While the Port is negotiating with Mr. Smith, the City will be moving ahead with putting in place the mixed-use zone needed to frame the master planning effort.

The decision to start discussions with Mr. Smith was the closing step of a lengthy selection process that began last fall with the interviews of six development teams interested in the waterfront. Those interviews were open to the public, and the decision to begin discussions with Mr. Smith was made in front of the public. Ultimately, the selection came down to a choice between three very strong development teams with great track records and high quality projects that can be looked at by anybody willing to make the drive.

Mr. Smith will — of course — have certain ideas and a certain perspective on what an agreement should constitute. That perspective — again, no surprise here — will be rooted in his self-interest and return on investment goals. The Port’s financial goals and perspective will likely differ somewhat from that of the developer. That’s why they call it a negotiation — the process by which both parties will seek to balance risk and return. The Port will be seeking to craft an agreement that works for all parties — including those Port district residents who live outside the boundaries of the City of Hood River.

In doing so, the Port will seek to fulfill the shared goals the Port and City have established for the waterfront project — an increased tax base to support local services over the long haul, development that will pay the cost of public amenities without imposing increased taxes on residents, and an adequate return for the Port so it can accomplish other critical economic development projects elsewhere.

Whatever happens on the waterfront needs to benefit all of the residents of the Port District, including the struggling majority who cope with higher than average housing costs and lower than average wages and income levels when compared with the state and the nation as a whole.

Those calling for large portions of the waterfront to be preserved for parks have been pursing a measure aimed at accomplishing that goal on the November ballot. Their rallying cry has been “let the people decide,” but only voters inside the boundaries of the City would have a say. As of last week, there were 2,957 registered voters within the City of Hood River, and another 6,828 registered voters in those portions of the Port District outside the city limits. Those numbers call proponents’ assertion — “let the people decide” — into question.

Two earlier Port projects were also controversial in their time — the Diamond Cannery Redevelopment Project and the dredging and filling that created what we now call the waterfront. Both those projects were accomplished without imposing higher taxes on residents. In the case of the Diamond Cannery project, an Urban Renewal District was established that rebuilt streets and sidewalks, and paid for the installation of landscaping, street lighting, public benches and other improvements that make downtown Hood River the attractive place we all enjoy today. In the process, the Port helped lay the groundwork for the approximately 540 jobs currently housed in the redeveloped Diamond Cannery buildings.

The Port is now proposing to do the same thing on the waterfront, complete with green space, a waterfront trail and other public amenities.

Those calling for a large portion of the waterfront to be set aside for future park development with no plan to pay for it need to ask themselves how that benefits struggling families who dream of having their child be the first to ever graduate from college.

Setting aside all of the Columbia River waterfront for a park we can’t pay for would be, from my perspective, like trying to build a pyramid with the pointy side down. Rather than boost the local tax base and provide resources for job-creation elsewhere, that approach would further stretch a limited local tax base while effectively precluding the kind of development that would benefit those whose economic sails have not been filled by the winds of the local tourism and service industries.

It’s those communities that have built their base and taken care of their needs first that are most able to take care of their wants — not all at once, but over time. Hood River is struggling to deal with its needs.

If we don’t continue to build our base to address those issues, we won’t be able to take care of our needs over time, let alone our wants.

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David Harlan is Executive Director of the Port of Hood River and invites those wanting to learn more about the waterfront development to a Waterfront Development Forum at the Bowe Theatre on Thursday. Contact the Chamber of Commerce 386-2000 for more information.

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