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Bend councilors back Mirror Pond ‘vision’ – barely


Backers of an expansive, high-level “vision” for the future of Mirror Pond and Bend’s downtown riverfront have said the mostly positive reaction broke a long-time community split over whether residents want to remove or retain the century-old dam that created the iconic pond (and the silt that fills it).

But after hours of often-critical testimony and debate Wednesday night, councilors voted shortly before 11 p.m by the barest of margins – 4-3 – to advance that vision in continued talks with PacifiCorp, the dam’s owner.

In sharp contrast to the Bend Park and Rec Board’s unanimous adoption Tuesday night of the same resolution “authorizing continued study of potential future action,” councilors faced a packed house and heard from close to 30 residents, many younger and in favor of a free-flowing river.

They then engaged in their own debate over the issue that has been stewing for close to a decade, ever since officials realized another periodic silt dredging was needed.

In recent years, Pacific Power has stated it planned to either decommission the aging, leaky dam by Newport Avenue or hand it off to the community in some form or fashion.

The “hybrid” proposal put forth late last year by park district Executive Director Don Horton, then-city councilor Mark Capell and others was aimed at retaining the pond, as officials have directed in the past, but to modify the dam in a way that can enhance habitat and enable fish passage.

Other goals listed by a citizen ad hoc committee were to maintain or improve public spaces, cut the future need for sediment removal — and a vow to use funding “other than tax dollars.”

“This is a checkpoint in this process,” City Manager Eric King said at the start of the discussion. “We are not at the finish line, by any means,” noting the need for a feasibility study and economic analysis as the details are fleshed out.

The main heartburn in the minds of those like Mayor Jim Clinton was over endorsing the words “preferred alternative” when early sketches have shown, along with more open space and plazas, buildings three-plus stories high in a downtown core where city leaders have mostly resisted taller structures that can block views of the Deschutes River.

So Clinton joined new councilors Nathan Boddie and Barb Campbell in turning thumbs down, backing those critics who saw the proposal as wrong in tying the fate of the dam and river to the possible urban renewal district to redevelop the riverfront – not only removing (and replacing) the riverside Mirror Pond parking lots but also potentially displacing some small, historic buildings housing such popular spots as the Looney Bean coffee shop.

Councilors Victor Chudowsky, Doug Knight, Sally Russell and Casey Roats voted in favor, after Knight added the word “vision” after “preferred alternative” to try to win over the mayor and those as uncomfortable as he was.

The first public speaker of the night, Allegra Briggs, raised the specter of “gentrification” from the planned redevelopment, while others spoke of what would make a healthier river for future generations, without a need for more dredging.

“We could be leading the way, instead of patching up iconic symbology,” said Melinda Sweet, urging officials to separate the redevelopment discussion with the future of the dam and river. Katherine Funk got emotional as she echoed that view, saying, “Sometimes the middle ground doesn’t actually produce a win-win situation. … Let the river run, and do not sell public property to private business.” (Backers of the plan noted later that the idea is for PacifiCorp to agree to a deal that actually does the opposite, making some now-private riverside space public.)

Foster Fell, a citizen activist and Campbell’s partner, had urged critics to turn out, calling the proposal an “environmental and budgetary nightmare.” Fell submitted 1,000 petition signatures that he said “are far more credible than people who go to a Website.” The city’s online survey that drew over 70 percent support from about 2000 respondents for the vision was chided as “unscientific” many times during the night.

But Bend Paddle Trail Alliance board member Jason Bowerman offered strong support for the plan, saying that “returning to a natural river is no longer possible,” due to development not just in Bend but elsewhere.

“Until the Bureau of Reclamation, irrigation districts and others find a way to stabilize the flows to help the river, the idea of returning to river to health by simply removing the dam is unfeasible,” he said.

Craig Lacey, a 30-year resident, urged separating the dam and downtown redevelopment (though creators of the plan said the idea is that the redevelopment funds the improvements without asking taxpayers for money),

He and others said Pacific Power should be held responsible for decommissioning of the dam and reclamation of the area, using an established state process. Spencer Dahl urged an inexpensive study of the pond’s depth, saying he believed the slow water from over the winter scoured out the sediment. Dahl, like Clinton, sensed a “generational shift” in views of the river, and to get more young people involved in crafting its future.

Former city councilor Chris Telfer even made a brief appearance, speaking for a nonprofit called Save Mirror Pond, urging the council to move forward on the intriguing potential and asking that “you don’t get paralyzed in the details.”

But attorney Greg Hendrix, representing a longtime property owner in the area, attacked the vision as laid out to this point: “We’re not at a ‘checkpoint – we’re at a blank check,” he said. “Rather than studies, the city and park district have done PR. … Selling to a developer and creating ‘Mirror Pond Mall’ is not the right way to move forward.’

“You will not be remembered as the people who saved the pond,” Hendrix warned. “You will be remembered as the people who sold the river.”

On and on it went – a few more in favor, others opposed, even if state Rep. Knute Buehler is successful in getting lawmakers to agree to chip in $5 million in state lottery-generated funds for whatever comes about.

Phillip Randall apologized for his anger but said money like that could be better spent doing something about the homeless, the “forgotten veterans” – “do something about the potholes.”

Bob Hammond did speak for or against: “From where I sit, this decision doesn’t need to be made now. Mr. (Warren) Buffet’s company says it wants to get out of the dam business. Let them do it – let them spend the money, decommission it. There’s no dishonor in kicking this can down the road until Pac Power gets out of the dam.”

Russell read a letter from the Environmental Center’s board president and executive director, urging them to proceed in “taking the next step forward,” mentioning one little-discussed potential improvement in “storm water collection that now drains into the river and pond.”

Campbell also was puzzled as to why the resolution appeared to be “writing a blank check,” but King said any funding of studies or the like would come back to councilors in a separate vote.

Chudowsky disputed the “gentrification” label, noting that there’s “not a lot of residential housing” in the area under discussion – “nobody’s being displaced.” And he said parking cars along the beautiful river “doesn’t make sense.” Knight raised another issue – that redevelopment of the area could mitigate the flooding threat from ice jams, as seen during the early, cold part of the winter just ending.

Boddie saw some good in the hybrid proposal but added, “Unfortunately, it’s sort of all things to all people, I think, and not a whole lot of anything meaningful behind it.”

Roats said the premise in land-use discussions is that Bend must grow more dense, to accommodate more people without sprawl: “It has to happen somewhere. Why not right there? I’m tired of people wanting to have it both ways.”

Campbell argued that if the ad hoc committee and city council voted unanimously in 2013 to preserve Mirror Pond, with dredging estimated at $2.5 million, “I would ask you, with that backing, why didn’t you just man up and do it. … I’m happy to say I’m for dredging the pond over this … convoluted plan.”

But as a downtown business owner, Campbell also pushed against removing the Mirror Pond lots, noting how during events and the busy summer, “you cannot find parking downtown.”

City Attorney Mary Winters said she made sure the resolution made not a hint that the city was interested in any ownership of the dam: “We don’t run parks. We don’t run open space,” she said.

Clinton called it a “very difficult” question, voicing respect for all the work done over the years.

“The consciousness of society has changed in what they value in a river,” he said. “Younger people have a different way of thinking. People don’t think of putting new dams in any more – they think of taking out old dams.”

On the other hand, he said, “It’s part of town, not a wilderness area.” But he said he felt the proposed redevelopment “is a bit too intensive” south of Newport Avenue, though he backed the vision to the north, where the Pacific Power substation and parking lot would be removed, improving public access to the river.

“It has kind of a cart before the horse feeling,” the mayor said. “For me at this particular time, the balance is not quite right.”

Chudowsky replied, “We’re never going to get perfect unanimity on anything. If we don’t move forward, this thing falls apart.”

But Clinton said he wasn’t trying to stop the process. “I think the reason this has been hung up for 10 years is, the city is not really in control of what happens there. Pacific Power is in the control position and we’re not, and we can have any vision we want.”

But Knight said, “If this gives us traction to negotiate, I’m for it” And Chudowsky added, “If we don’t know what we want, they won’t respond.” When the talk turned to knowing what you want in buying a new car, Boddie drew chuckles, saying it’s like selling “an old jalopy on rims, with a land swap to sweeten the deal.”

Horton, who spoke a few times, noted that what people have seen is “not a master plan,” just “a direction we want to study” further.

And now they can, though a 4-3 vote isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for whatever comes next.

Earlier Wednesday, Russell said she was “hopeful” of proceeding.

“This current concept, and it’s just a concept, is very strong and could be great for our community,” she said.

Some neighbors living along the edge of the river also expressed support.

“I like the new proposal because it keeps the pond at its traditional level,” Rudy Dory said.

Russell said she wanted to make it clear the proposal could and probably will continue evolving as officials work through details.

“We need to put a little more foundation in this, and that’s going to take another public process, a lot more visioning, a lot more interaction,” Russell said.

So far, there’s no firm estimates on the costs or breakdown on who would pay what or how.

“We created sort of this masterpiece vision, but we don’t know how we’re going to get from here to there, and we don’t even know how functional it is,” Russell said.

Russell and other council members have expressed interest in keeping any additional costs away from taxpayers.

An important stakeholder in the project has, so far, stayed publicly silent on the proposal. While PacifiCorp has stated interest in moving forward with the wishes of the community, there’s no word yet if it will sell or tear out the dam and move its substation.

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