What's now unsightly land, cluttered with old utility equipment and drab buildings, is one step closer to becoming a vibrant communal space with enviable views of the Willamette River.

At least, that's the hope.

The dream has been a long time coming for the Eugene Water & Electric Board, which owns the 27.8-acre property that spans from the Peter DeFazio Bike Bridge at Alton Baker Park to the western edge of the University of Oregon's riverfront property near Hilyard Street.

The parcel also includes a vacant lot just northeast of the Fifth Street Public Market.

The utility has been working since 2007 to put the property up for sale. By the time it is done, it may have spent more than $2 million on consultant services, planning, community outreach and remediation for its shuttered steam plant.

With a master plan and land use code changes complete, the utility is ready this week to put most of the property -- about 17 acres -- on the market.

The utility touts the riverfront property as a once-in-a-century opportunity for developers, calling it the highest profile site in the southern Willamette Valley. A local real estate expert said a property such as this is almost never available.

But whether businesses step forward that are able to fulfil the utility's grand redevelopment concept remains to be seen.

The utility and the city of Eugene envision a space that brings people together and connects downtown to the river. Initial design concepts show the property as a mixed-use development, with shops, cafes, housing, bike paths and public open spaces.

"It's the most significant piece of undeveloped real estate in the city core," EWEB board President John Brown said. "This is our only shot, our only piece of undeveloped land on the river."

EWEB doesn't want to rush and sell the property to the wrong buyer, yet the utility is eager to dispose of the site, largely so it can use the proceeds to start paying off $64 million it owes for its state-of-the-art Roosevelt Operations Center in west Eugene, where about half of EWEB's staff works.

The utility board could select a developer by this fall. It would then likely take several months to work out a purchase or lease agreement.

A number of experienced developers that have worked on projects in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, have expressed interest in the property. However, none has announced publicly whether it will submit a development plan to EWEB, a consultant working with the utility said.

With the local economy picking up and more revitalization underway, the utility hopes a qualified developer will respond to its request for a development plan by the end of April.

Utility officials say they are open to myriad ideas developers may have, as long as they fit EWEB's vision of an active waterfront.

"We're anxious to take the next step," said Jeannine Parisi, EWEB's government affairs and community liaison coordinator, who also serves as project coordinator for the riverfront property.

The long delay

When the utility started building its Roosevelt facility six years ago, EWEB said it would finance that project by selling the riverfront property. Preparing to sell the riverfront property, however, took longer than anticipated.

The utility spent two years and close to $1 million on a master plan, which was put together by EWEB, the city, a community advisory group and several consulting groups and designers, incorporating public comment from about 1,000 residents.

Rowell Brokaw Architects of Eugene created conceptual designs of what the property could look like. That master plan -- which EWEB commissioners approved in 2010 -- will serve as a guide to developers.

Then, the utility needed the City Council to change the property's land use classification from industrial to mixed-use development. The council didn't approve that request until last summer.

"It's taken a little longer to get our ducks in a row," Parisi said. "These things take a while."

Parisi said EWEB wanted to make sure developers wouldn't have to deal with land use code changes, asbestos removal or improvements to the riverbank. Plus, the economy is in better shape now than several years ago, she said.

"It may be good timing to put this thing on the market now," Parisi said.

Board President Brown, in private life a commercial real estate broker, said he's been pushing the utility to get going on the project. He questioned why it took so long to prepare the property for a sale.

Brown said he wants the board to select a developer by the fall.

"Time kills deals," he said. "We need to get going sooner rather than later."

However, he said he doesn't want the utility to rush and pick an unqualified developer, just to move ahead.

"At the end of the day, we owe it to ratepayers to get as much money out of it as we can," Brown said.

Seizing the opportunity

The utility would use proceeds from the sale or lease to pay off debt from creating the Roosevelt complex, which cost more than $70 million.

Bonding for the project raised customers' overall water rates by 4.2 percent and electric rates by 2.7 percent over a six-year period, utility spokesman Joe Harwood said. EWEB still has about $64 million to pay off on the Roosevelt site, Harwood said.

Harwood said it's too early to tell whether rates would go down after the riverfront property sold.

To help EWEB reach out to big developers, the utility board last year approved a five-year, $250,000 contract with the Eugene-based economics consulting firm ECO Northwest.

Abe Farkas, ECO's project director for the riverfront site and a former city of Eugene planning manager, said he's contacted several "seasoned veterans" who may have interest in the property. One developer has worked on projects in Eugene, although Farkas declined to give the name.

"We weren't interested in investing our time in talking with folks who'd be cutting their teeth on this project," he said.

Farkas said he's "cautiously optimistic" that at least one developer will submit plans to EWEB.

Clayton Walker, broker and founder of Eugene real estate company C.W. Walker & Associates, said he hopes EWEB selects a developer who will make sure the site's design is cohesive, which is what the utility's master plan calls for.

Walker said it would be a mistake to develop the site piecemeal.

"Eugene hasn't done a good job of capitalizing on riverfront property," he said. "We have a beautiful riverfront and much of it is wasted."

A conventional use?

The current 17-acre surplus site up for sale does not include EWEB's parking lot and headquarters building -- an 80,000-square-foot, four-story office building connected by a skybridge to a 15,000-square-foot, two-story structure.

If developers requested that, the utility would be willing to declare that property surplus and move more staff to the Roosevelt site, Parisi said.

Travel Lane County President Kari Westlund said the property would be an ideal location for a convention center -- something the city lacks.

The largest meeting space Eugene has is the 30,000-square-foot meeting rooms downtown at the Hilton Eugene. The space has served Eugene well, she said, but it's too small to accommodate the additional hundreds of people who would come if larger conventions were hosted in Eugene.

Westlund said Eugene competes with Salem, Bend, Spokane and even Boise for conventions. Such meetings boost business for local restaurants, hotels, cafes and retailers, she said.

"It would set Eugene up for the future," Westlund said. "And when you see those daylight views of the river (from the property), it's pretty impressive."

Westlund hasn't had any serious conversations with any developers, she said.

The Lane Historical Society and Museum has part of the property on its radar, said Executive Director Bob Hart, who regularly attended meetings about the property several years ago.

The organization, now at Lane Events Center, is looking for a new home. Although the historical society couldn't afford to move and build a new facility anytime soon, he said the museum would consider the riverfront property in the future, if development plans would accommodate it.

Community members, meanwhile, have suggested turning the shuttered steam plant near the federal courthouse into some kind of museum or brew pub.

The utility hasn't had the property appraised. It said it's not worth spending money on an appraisal because different development proposals would yield different values, depending on proposed use, density, infrastructure requirements and funding sources, Parisi said.

Park land to be improved

Farkas said developers are concerned about any additional costs if they purchased the land, such as cleaning up site contamination.

EWEB's board approved spending up to $1.25 million to remove asbestos at the steam plant and stabilize its roof. That work is underway.

EWEB wants to give potential developers the opportunity to refurbish the 1930s plant. The utility is working with the state Department of Historic Preservation to protect the steam plant, Parisi said.

Developers also won't have to worry about sprucing up the 3-acre park area, situated between the bike path that runs along the river near EWEB's headquarters and the riverbank. The utility and the city of Eugene signed an agreement last week that the park property will remain in public ownership.

EWEB will donate the land to the city, which will then develop it with a budget of at least $3 million. The city hasn't yet determined which funds it would use and when it would start making improvements.

The city would upgrade a number of elements along the property, including pathways and lighting. EWEB would give the city $500,000 for park maintenance over a 10-year period, the agreement said.

"That mitigation is really, really important," Farkas said about attracting developers.

EWEB will work out a reasonable purchase or lease offer based on a developer's plans, Parisi said, after the board selects a team to work with. She said the developer probably won't offer to purchase or lease the entire site, due to its size.

"We're looking for someone to bring this vision to fruition, and someone who has the financial ability to do that," Parisi said.

"We want to just make something happen."

Follow Josephine on Twitter @j_woolington. Reach her by email at josephine.woolington@registerguard.com.

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