Regulations recede and locals dispute the likeliness of project take off
BY Shawn Cook
EUGENE–A lot sits empty, vacant of all but overgrown grass and muddy gravel, on the corner of 27th and Friendly Street in Eugene. Empty, that is, aside from a small, yellow kiosk inside of which has been constructed a scale model which details the enormous proportions of the actual, planned building. The damp grass and sole remaining maple tree will, if things go as planned, be torn asunder while this new, detailed project gets under way.
In Eugene’s Friendly Street neighborhood big plans are in the boiler for a massive, $3 million dollar construction project, which to some residents may mean a negative influx of people and traffic into this otherwise sleepy, quiet neighborhood.
To its creators, however, three men from Eugene who call themselves the Lucia Group, it will be a project close to home. Each one of them claims ties to not only Eugene, but the neighborhood as well. The project plans include retail stores on the first level and townhouse style rental apartments on the several floors above. The giant task’s planners say that the entire facility will include environmentally and economically sustainable, unique living opportunities.
Mel Bankoff, who originally made his money in the restaurant business, builder Jason Elmendorf and Jan Fillinger, the architect of this monstrous endeavor, constantly refer to the upcoming complex as a “modern utopia.” The trio anxiously await approval to take their big plan to the next phase. “It’ll feel so good to finally break ground and get this cow in the air,” Bankoff exclaimed. But it isn’t just the bank that’s generating problematic issues for these men.
One hitch has held the project from breaking ground: Wells Fargo bank. The money to begin construction will only be available if the builders find a way to meet the strict lending requirements laid out for this endeavor. With bank lending tight, especially for real estate investments, that has become increasingly difficult, according to members of the Lucia Group. Exposing the details of the work in a scale architectural model, paired with posters of floor plans and images of the outlook, are so far all that’s come to fruition. But the builders believe it was a great public relations move.
Friendly Area Neighbors, or FAN, is a local neighborhood association designed as a forum for locals to address grievances and discuss domestic issues regarding the area. They host monthly meetings and produce a newsletter to clue people in on gatherings, community events and especially concerns about residential issues. Carlos Barrera, member of FAN since 1990 and now Co-Chairman, has fielded several concerns about the upcoming plans. “A lot of people have expressed concerns,” Barrera says, “that our peaceful neighborhood will be turned upside down, and I’m not sure I can blame them.”
From letters and emails to calls and shouting matches at FAN meetings, Barrera says that locals are more than concerned that an ongoing construction project of this scale will crowd already narrow streets with heavier traffic and overburden local businesses with too stiff competition. “Folks are saying we have what we need already. They’re wondering why we need this thing. They’re worried about the ‘California effect,’” Barrera says.
Andrew Fisher is the editor of the FAN newsletter. A University of Oregon graduate and member of the community since 1991, Fisher started volunteering his time with FAN as far back as 2007. He explained that his goal at the job has mainly been to bring people together with the history of this place. “That’s mostly what I work on, but the newsletter is also a way to facilitate peaceful communications between Friendly residents,” Fisher says. He expressed little concern about the impact of the project, but agreed that many locals are “up in arms.” The plans, he says, depict a much different image than that which many residents have expressed concerns about. “I mean, there’s always an impact when a big construction project is in the works, but these guys want to build gardens and have a real, legitimate interest in bettering this community,” Fisher says. He believes that with as much growth as Eugene has seen in recent years, the Lucia group is a much better alternative to less involved construction and development outfits.
Fillingertries to hit this point home when discussing the philosophy he, Bankoff and Elmendorf share. “We’re hoping to improve the neighborhood, not make it less hospitable,” he says. “We’re about building up the local economy and displaying a presence in the sustainable market.” He says that their goal here is to improve the neighborhood by creating a place where friendships and neighbors are bolstered in and by a place that will top the charts for economic and environmental sustainability.
The three man team has christened their prospect the Lucia Community Project, or LCP. They plan to construct a raised bed complex where members of the entire community can come and garden. A park and playground for local children are also in the plans, say the Lucia Group. Elmendorf, the main builder, says that they seek to go as far as shipping in butteflies and birds for an added feeling of “majesty.” All of this, however, hinges on whether or not the bank comes through.
Pacific Continental Bank, an institution that proclaims to be associated with lending a great deal toward sustainable aims, has shown interest in revitalizing Lucia’s project, but insists upon a different strategy. Instead of renting, they will be required to sell at least a dozen townhouses before construction. With this part of the deal met, Lucia Group may only then build the residential units. They have sold nine already.
Meanwhile, some area merchants and business owners are concerned that, should the team meet the approval of their lending establishment and construct retail spaces, competition will be unsustainable. Reed Margis, a young entrepreneur whose family recently purchased the Friendly Street Market for him expresses serious concerns about keeping the long established store afloat with a brand new, state of the art alternative right across the street. Margis’s parents’ efforts to set their son up with a strong, well-established business may have been in vain should the LCP be granted the money to begin construction. “I just got here,” Margis said. His demeanor reflected serious concern.
Fillinger scoffed at the mention of these concerns, asking “what’s business without fair competition? He quickly moved on. “The three of us have the same philosophy. What we’d like to do is create a beautiful hub for community, friendship creation, neighborhood building and doing it together.”
Competition, and any big plans by builders, have remained illusory due to a nationwide credit freeze. Concerns up to this point have been mainly hypothetical, outlooks on a project already stalled for over 4½ years. But a break in the form of another lending institution has presented the Lucia Group with an alternate opportunity to begin their dream project.
On a swift road toward meeting their obligations for the deal, Lucia leaves the highly praised raised beds and touted tracks of escape-like space hanging in a sort of limbo. At least, that is, until this new set of strict guidelines can be met. Bankoff, on behalf of the Lucia Group, says “it’s a start. We couldn’t be more pleased, really, just to get the ball rolling finally. And we will execute the original plan for this great neighborhood.
To some Friendly Street residents, says Barrera, this a whirlwind decision that stands in direct opposition to the original plan, no matter what deal is struck. Lucia plans to break ground by mid May, 2012.