What would make downtown Medford cool? Like Ashland or Bend kind of cool?
Though the city has taken steps to encourage development in the downtown, and there are plenty of night spots and restaurants that liven things up on summer evenings, not to mention events taking place in Pear Blossom Park, the cool factor has proven elusive.
The Medford City Council believes more residents living nearby will be the magic that puts more feet on the street.
"When people live in the downtown, it will be cool," said Councilor Kim Wallan. "It's kind of cool now. It's way cooler than when I grew up."
Last week, Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina, was on a statewide tour and made a stop in Medford to talk about urban economies and the value of well-designed cities.
Wallan said the takeaway from Minicozzi's talk at the Medford library centered on attracting more housing in the downtown and making smart decisions about tax breaks for developers.
She said Minicozzi encouraged Medford officials to get the most bang for their buck by looking for projects that will have buildings with as many floors as possible, which will house more people and generate more taxes. The basic idea is to build up instead of out. The downtown already has several multistory, low-income housing complexes, including the 50-unit complex known as The Concord at Sixth and Grape streets.
The council previously debated a 26-unit residential project that would bring market-rate housing into the downtown. Sky Park, proposed on Central Avenue across from the Medford library, eventually was shot down over a dispute about setting aside parking spaces for the development in the public parking lot below the building.
Wallan said she would encourage the Sky Park developer to come back to the city and see whether something could be worked out. She said the city has had a large staff turnover since Sky Park was proposed, and the new council may be more open to those types of projects.
She said other parking lots, including a new one at the corner of Riverside Avenue and 10th Street, as well as another next to Inn at the Commons, may be available for the right residential development in the future.
"One of the enticements is free dirt," she said. Sky Park, for instance, wanted air rights, but the city would retain control over the ground level.
By the end of the year, the city hopes to have at least one developer lined up for a major construction project in the downtown, Wallan said.
The city also will work with another developer who wants to build a 108-unit apartment complex on Almond Street, east of Interstate 5, she said. Dan Thomas has asked the city to cut in half the $640,000 system development charges for his project.
Councilor Mike Zarosinski said everything he's heard about increasing economic activity in a downtown is to have a 24-hour-a-day presence, which means having more housing.
Where appropriate, the city should partner with the development community to bring these types of projects to the downtown, he said.
"The overarching goal should be to improve the economy of the city," he said.
He said tax incentives have worked in other cities and may work in Medford, as well.
"When the Pearl (District) started out in Portland, it was not the greatest of areas," Zarosinski said.
More than 20 years later, the abandoned warehouses and rail yards have been transformed into a thriving urban neighborhood.
As it looks at possible developments, Medford will have to weigh its need for parking in the downtown against developers' proposals for city properties, including parking lots, Zarosinski said.