The crime-ridden Liberty Park neighborhood got the promise of a multi-million-dollar lift Thursday when Medford councilors informally decided to spend most new urban renewal dollars on one of the poorest areas in the city.
Councilors, acting as Medford Urban Renewal Agency board members, also torpedoed a proposal to use a portion of an expected $22 million in urban renewal funds on a public swimming pool. They said the pool project wouldn't do enough to fight blight.
"I would like to use all the money in Liberty Park," said Councilor Kay Brooks.
The neighborhood, roughly bounded by McAndrews Road, Jackson Street, Central Avenue and Interstate 5, has underlying issues that have led to blight: 91 percent of the residents are low-income, unemployment hovers around 16 percent and a third of the people moved in within the past year.
Brooks, who lives in the neighborhood, said it has seen sex and drug trafficking as well as open sewage problems.
More prosperous areas surrounding the neighborhood, including the Northgate shopping area to the north and the downtown to the south, have received lots of development and MURA dollars over the years.
"What's in the middle — a diseased center," she said.
The council, acting as the MURA board, made an informal but unanimous decision at a study session Thursday to extend the life of MURA, which would otherwise sunset in 2019. The extension, which will be voted on in a more formal meeting in September, is expected to produce $22 million in revenue for urban renewal by continuing to pull funds that otherwise would go to other taxing districts.
A more precise list of projects will be developed over the coming months.
"Unanimously we did decide to go forward, and next month we will make that official," said Councilor Kevin Stine, MURA board chair.
Councilors and Mayor Gary Wheeler also unanimously agreed on spending most of the money in Liberty Park to help spur development of apartment complexes and other improvements, but wanted to set aside dollars to attract other housing projects in the downtown. They would offer incentives such as helping offset development fees or by leveraging dollars to attract seismic retrofit grants to encourage housing above older downtown buildings that have empty second floors.
The council also indicated it wanted to better define the boundaries of the Liberty Park neighborhood, particularly the area west of Central Avenue and Court Street.
MURA spent $67 million over the past 30 years, with most of the money going to other projects along the Interstate 5 corridor, stretching from the south Medford interchange to Liberty Park, also known as the Beatty-Manzanita neighborhood. Even though Liberty Park was cited to help justify the creation of MURA because of its severe blight, it received only a small neighborhood park.
Councilor Dick Gordon proposed using $5 million to buy properties in Liberty Park for future development of three- and four-story apartment complexes, though he warned, "This MURA board would have to be willing to use eminent domain."
Another $3 million would improve Manzanita and Edwards streets. An additional $3 million would be used for upgrading infrastructure and incentives for developers, specifically providing relief from development fees, under Gordon's proposal.
Gordon said he would like the city to work with developers to build workforce housing, or a mix of low-income and market-rate housing. Keeping up with demand for housing in Medford and meeting state density requirements, Gordon said, will require building apartment complexes rather than houses.
"We have no option but to go up," he said.
Councilor Tim Jackle agreed with Gordon but said he thought most, if not all, the money should be spent in Liberty Park as a way to directly tackle blight. He said it might cost more than the $11 million Gordon proposed to achieve the goals in Liberty Park, and he urged spending most of the $22 million on the neighborhood.
"It's a limited amount of money and needs to go to one area," Jackle said. Most councilors appeared to agree with Jackle.
Councilor Mike Zarosinski worried that the city could buy properties and then not have developers lined up to build on them.
"Are we sticking our neck out too far?" he said.
Wheeler, who was involved in MURA for years, said urban renewal is designed to go into debt and then wait years for developers to build projects.
"I look at urban renewal as an entrepreneurial form of government," he said.
For instance, MURA bought properties near the south Medford interchange that has, in part, spurred commercial development of that area over the years.
Councilors also expressed interest in working on a recent proposal by Kids Unlimited, a nonprofit youth center in the area, and Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based organization with backers such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, to revitalize the neighborhood and possibly other areas in west Medford.
Kids Unlimited, which is in the middle of Liberty Park, has purchased run-down properties and demolished the buildings, and then built outdoor fields, classrooms and other structures.
The city has held several informational meetings about the plans to extend the life of MURA. Matt Brinkley, planning director, said residents made an impassioned plea for a community swimming pool.
City officials have discussed ways to build an indoor pool in Hawthorne Park, which initially was one of the ideas for using MURA dollars.
Kelly Madding, deputy city manager, said that during the community meetings residents had lots of ideas for extending urban renewal.
"No one came forward and said don't extend MURA," she said.