State of the City 2015

State of the City 2015
January 27, 2015

You could say Ashland is in the Quality of Life business.  Here it’s not an amenity at the country club or condo development.  It’s our lifeblood - literally.  It drives our economy and many of us have given up economic, financial and career opportunities elsewhere in order to live here and partake directly of our QOL.
 
QOL is also the primary focus of City government, which provides its foundation and environment in a myriad of ways.  Since I’ve been Mayor we’ve worked on a number of important QOL issues:  fire prevention, the provision of drinking water, wildlife, economic development, helping people in need, etc.  But there are lingering, fundamental QOL issues that need more focussed attention and, in the coming months, I plan to bring several proposals to the City Council and City Administrator for how we can take on these issues.  I believe we have a Council well suited to the task and experienced, creative Planning staff with whom to work.
 
In today’s State of the City speech I’m going to launch this effort by giving you, the community, a quick overview.
 
It starts with land use and draws in circulation, parking and public transportation.
 
Five key questions are:
 
1)  Where are we going to put additional density as we grow?
 
2)  Where will new businesses go - so we can work where we live?
 
3)  Where do we provide family-friendly housing?
 
4)  Where do we put all the cars and traffic and how do we create a pedestrian friendly environment for shopping, socializing and entertainment?
 
5)  How do we make our mixed use housing achieve some of the key community benefits for which it was intended? 
 
First a word about regulation and the ‘free market’.  In my view adding more regulation is something to be avoided if at all possible.  And markets are a critical components of a healthy economy.
 
But laissez-faire development doesn’t result in good QOL.  Markets need restrained regulation and a high QOL community like Ashland needs creative development.  It’s the marriage of the two: free markets and artfully drawn regulation that is the task of City government: the Council, the Mayor and City staff - especially in Ashland.  
 
Some background:
 
In 1982 the City mothers and fathers declared that Ashland would maintain a compact urban form and this would be achieved by infill, i.e. adding new residences and businesses within the current Urban Growth Boundary.  Ashland eschewed sprawl as a matter of City policy.
 
Since then infill has been implemented primarily in four ways:
 
- By allowing accessory dwelling units on existing residential lots, often with houses already on them.
 
- By requiring owners of property zoned for multi-family use to actually develop them for that use and not turn them into single-family parcels.
 
- By creating a mixed use residential overlay that allowed housing to be built above ground floor units in commercial and office districts throughout the town.
 
•  The City employs flexible building siting standards to allow the consolidation of buildings onto small lots in order to keep development activity out of environmentally sensitive natural areas including steep slopes, floodplains, and wetlands. These "performance standards subdivisions" have successfully accommodated growth within our City Limits without sacrificing the natural beauty and environmental quality that helps define our community.
 
In broad-brush terms these measures have been a success and the city has succeeded in accommodating modest population growth up until now.  However there have been some unintended consequences:
 
•  Mixed use housing hasn’t fulfilled some of its original purposes, for example providing housing for employees and owners of the businesses over which it has been built.  Instead it has provided mainly condos for ‘second homes’, retirees, investors and would-be hotelliers.
 
•  Very little ‘family friendly’ housing has been constructed despite the fact that balancing our demographics and being a family friendly community are long-standing City goals and the School District has been steadily losing enrollment.
 
•  Over the years some developments have been built whose street systems departed from the City’s connectivity goals.  These goals of connection are important contributors to QOL and a sense of community, especially in family-friendly areas.
 
•  The community’s - OSF, the City, ASD and SOU, the visitor economy - success at increasing its QOL has attracted more traffic and cars, which conflict in multiple ways with the slow-paced and relaxing environment that they and we enjoy.
 
So here are five key proposals intended to refocus and boost our QOL efforts:
 
Proposal #1:  Concentrate future high-density residential development in ‘nodes’ along a public transit corridor or loop.  (This would include allowing development to go up rather than out but only in carefully selected locations).
 
Proposal #2:  Provide specifically for ‘family friendly’ new development, particularly in the Normal Avenue Neighborhood district that is currently being master-planned.  (This means houses with a minimum of 3 bedrooms with adjacent garden and playyard space, using cluster development for efficiency...with a co-housing option.)
 
Proposal #3:  Modify the mixed-use housing overlay to require a portion of the units to serve local employees and business owners/managers.  (This means wait staff, clerks, cooks, shopkeepers, etc.)
 
Proposal #4:  ‘Unlock’ the Croman Property, that was master-planned five years ago but hasn’t yet developed, by facilitating the installation of basic infrastructure - and possibly do the same for Normal Ave.
 
Proposal #5:  Reduce the presence and pressure of cars downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods while improving the pedestrian environment and linking the entire town with frequent public transport.
 
Implementation:
 
I will ask the Council to direct Planning staff to report back on options for implementing each of these five proposals (currently ad hoc committees are working on parts of #2 and #5).
 
Working with the Com Dev Director, he and I will contact key RPS and DLCD managers to inform them of the proposals and solicit their input, since implementation may require their cooperation.  I anticipate that they will be supportive and will welcome this forward thinking from Ashland in the area of sustainable land use planning.
 
We may decide to implement a system of “development rights transfer” that allows owners of certain properties to sell or buy rights to develop their properties to facilitate some of the above proposals.  This would draw upon work done six or seven years ago for another purpose but not yet put to use.
 
And we will consider ‘forward funding’ of infrastructure for both Croman and Normal Master Plan areas, to encourage development while not requiring permanent community investment, where development can be economically self-supporting if the infrastructure is put in place at its early stages.
 
Current strategies already under consideration for the Normal Avenue Neighborhood Plan include incorporating watercourses as City parks, thereby removing them from density calculations; clustering housing for more efficient use of land and to preserve viewsheds; and implementing connectivity principles of the Land Use Ordinance to link new development to existing neighborhoods, schools and City facilities.
 
The Pedestrian Places land use provisions for three locations, in association with public transportation elements of the Transportation System Plan, was designed to serve as a model for nodal development throughout the town.  This would allow adding higher density and mini-high-rise structures in the nodal neighborhoods*, to balance lower densities elsewhere in town (Normal Ave, for example) and also to increase a sense of identity for individual neighborhoods.
 
 *Possible nodes include:
          - Hersey & N. Main
          - Downtown/Plaza
          - Uptown (Gresham & E. Main)
          - SOU 1 (Siskiyou & Bridge)
          - SOU 2 (Walker & Ashland St.)
          - East Main & Mountain
          - Gateway South (Tolman Creek & Ashland)
 
We will also pursue RVTD collaboration regarding providing the public transit system these proposals will encourage and will seek the help of State and Federal legislators in accomplishing this initiative.
 
As we have learned, in recent years especially, having specific plans in place and then using Ashland’s reputation to market what we want to do can attract collaboration, grants and investment from many quarters.  I’m thinking of our water plan, community fire prevention, AFR, “You Have Options” - as well as the American Revolutions project at OSF, Scienceworks’ capital funding and the Ashland Food Project as examples.
 
*                                               *                                               *
 
So what vision of Ashland is embodied in these proposals?
 
I see a city grown up, with its seven neighborhoods each with its distinctive character, strung like beads on a necklace.  And each with its own ‘tower’, draped with lights by the Chamber of Commerce each holiday season.
 
I see more families with children in a whole district full of family homes, with beautiful views and watercourse parks, ideally located near schools and public facilities. 
 
I see parents, employees and business owners, walking or bicycling to work in the Croman district.
 
And I see a Downtown no longer dominated by cars, with visitors and locals mingling, strolling, congregating, shopping, dining and enjoying entertainment both indoors and al fresco.  And the district’s hardworking employees and business owners going home to nearby condos and apartments.
 
I see a vitalized University, attracting students and their families regionally and nationally to this extraordinary and celebrated community - and everyone moving around town with ease on the City trolley.
 
I see Quality of Life continually being created and enjoyed.

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