‘Fortress Bend’ to get a softer, more open look

Strolling through the Wetle Way breezeway towards Mirror Pond in downtown Bend should present visitors with the breathtaking view that the city now uses to define itself on everything from banners to business cards.

Instead, the view-seekers are met by what some call “Fort Bend” or “a gun turret,” which obscures the incomparable vista with a block wall and terraced plaza. Since this imposing structure wasn’t needed for Bend to defend itself against an invading army of Canada geese, the architectural blunder has been a costly eyesore since the mid-1990s.

“It took away the Kodak moment,” said Dave Olsen, a Bend native and a landscape architect.

Under then-City Manager Larry Patterson at the direction of a city council comprised of “Men Without Ties,” the city oversaw an ambitious, but ill-fated attempt to open downtown to Drake Park, Mirror Pond and the Cascade peaks in the distance. The Allen-Radamacher house was moved southward and became the Mirror Pond Gallery. Parking lots were ripped out and rebuilt. Brooks Street became a pedestrian thoroughfare with paving stones and fancy lighting.

In the reconstruction of the parking lots by Hap Taylor and Sons Inc., a few old-growth ponderosa trees were lost and, with them, some of Bend’s character.

Bob Woodward, a former mayor and city councilor, recalled when he and the other members of “Men Without Ties” inherited, from the previous council, the “grandiose” downtown plan when they came into office in 1993. “We voted down the original plan and then passed a much scaled-down version of the project,” he said. “It could’ve been much worse.”

Woodward admitted that “some mistakes were made on the southern lot. We lost some trees and that was a shame.”

Before next summer, though, Bend should be getting its “Kodak moment” back.

$1.3 million makeover

City staff has recommended the council approve a plan this week that authorizes the Bend Development Board (BDB) — which should be called the Downtown BDB because that is its focus — to proceed with a $1.3 million makeover of “Fort Bend,” the Wetle Way breezeway, and Minnesota Avenue.

On Hospital Hill, now home to a motel and office buildings, a 10-foot high waterfall will cascade toward Lava Road and a new mini-plaza will extend out into the street near where the stairway ends now. It will take $364,000 out of the $1.3 million total.

Another sidewalk “bump out” for restaurant seating will extend eastward along Minnesota next to the new towering St. Clair Plaza nearing completion. Sidewalks on Minnesota will become more handicap-friendly. Some crossings currently exceed the 2 percent slope as mandated by the American with Disabilities Act, said Ken Hobson, the downtown development manager who is paid by the BDB.

“A ribbon of concrete — stamped, colorized and evocative of a stream bed” — will link the east end of Minnesota to the river, said Hobson. This “streetscape” will take $250,000 of the total.

The breezeway should become brighter with the addition of a new skylight, historical lighting fixtures and more windows in adjacent businesses. This segment’s estimate is $220,000.

But, the one area surely to receive the most scrutiny will be the Mirror Pond Plaza that walls off the natural beauty of the area from downtown visitors. Hobson said the current wall and plaza will be removed and a new lowered plaza will take its place. A circular stairway at the end will lead pedestrians to the park below.

This portion of the overall facelift “is a little over $300,000,” said Olsen, who works for David Evans & Associates, which designed and engineered the project with help from Neal Huston Architect Inc. A new pergola, or latticework, will be added to match the one extending from the art gallery. And, more trees, this time honey locust, will be planted.

Will pedestrians be able to see the park and pond after emerging from the breezeway?

“Yes, they will,” said Olsen. “It’ll be transformed into a very usable space.”

That’s what Woodward, who served on the BDB until last December, hopes to see as well. “The plaza simply wasn’t getting enough public usage,” he said, pointing out that he pushed strongly for the makeover of the plaza to be included in the Minnesota Avenue work. “This new plaza, by getting rid of the `hardscape,’ should be much more user-friendly in general.”

It could also cut down on loitering by youths, he added.

“Initially, the concept was to try and expand the downtown center to really strengthen the pedestrian traffic, making the east-west access easier across the center of town,” said Hobson.

The goal is to generate pedestrian and business interest in a different area of downtown.

“And that’s happening,” said Hobson, who said there have been new inquiries about the crafter’s building on the southeast corner of Minnesota and Bond. “I’m very excited.”

Since the Bend Fire Department moved from the fire hall at Lava and Minnesota, the vacant, historic building will also be redeveloped into a restaurant, retail shops, office space and some condominiums.

The BDB purchased the building from the city for $740,000 and then turned around and sold it for $635,000 to a partnership, said Hobson. By not selling at a profit, the board has some control over the use of the property and to encourage redevelopment. The BDB made up the difference through its tax-increment financing, which redirects some property taxes from other government entities. That arrangement netted about $900,000 last year. City property owners were assessed 16 cents per thousand – or roughly $24 for a $150,000 home, that went to the BDB adding up to total tax revenue of $1.7 million.

What’s the future of the Bend Development Board?

The BDB oversees redevelopment efforts in an urban renewal district that includes the Old Town area south of downtown, which was considered urban blight and one of the main reasons the district exists. But, since being formed in the mid-1980s, the board — except for the Bond-Wall couplet and now the Colorado-Arizona couplet under construction — has used the dedicated tax revenue almost exclusively for the downtown area to the benefit of businesses there.

Chris Telfer, vice-chair of the BDB and city council candidate, said, “The downtown area is important to the people of Bend. They consider it the heart of Bend.”

Telfer must relinquish her seat on the BDB if she gets elected to the city council in November. She also addressed the issue of conflict of interest since the BDB rents office space in a building she owns.

“I didn’t participate in any discussion or decision about that,” she said. “It was supposed to be a short-term fix until the city renovated its space, but that has not happened yet.”

The downtown core was a nearly vacant, boarded up area after two malls opened on the north end of town in the late 1970s and the recession of the early 1980s hammered the region. (Highway 97 used to course its way through downtown before it was rerouted to Third Street in the 1960s.)

These events helped spur the formation of the BDB, which evolved in the 1990s into a board made up of city councilors. In 2000, the current version — consisting of seven volunteer citizens appointed by the city council — was created. It has helped fund downtown businesses to improve their facades. It gave $200,000 to the Tower Theater renovation project. It is also a key player in addressing downtown’s parking issues. (See related story.)

“Redevelopment in downtown Bend meant Wall Street,” said Doug Knight, a BDB board member and developer of St. Clair Plaza at the site of the old Masterson-St. Clair hardware store. “Then it meant Bond Street. Now, it includes Minnesota Avenue.”

Will Oregon Avenue be next? No, said Hobson. The next probable candidate for a BDB-funded facelift would be Greenwood Avenue, since the district extends all the way to Second Street east of the parkway.

“That is a more likely direction. It’s pretty rough in spots,” he said.

After that, what is the future of the BDB? Will it expand to include more areas of the urban renewal district?

Woodward doesn’t see that happening, and that’s what prompted him to leave the BDB, he said. Former Mayor Allan Bruckner is also a vocal critic of the BDB and its narrow focus to an area that he says no longer needs it.

When the original BDB plan was amended last year, $1.5 million was set aside as an “opportunity fund” to address some of the housing and neighborhood issues in areas not served today, said Telfer. “There is no specific plan in place,” she admitted. “We want to see what ideas come to us.”

In spite of the competition from the Old Mill District, The Forum shopping center on the east side, the outlet mall on the south end of town, Target and Home Depot on the north end, plus a number of new restaurants throughout the city, downtown Bend is more vibrant than ever.

“Why are we throwing money at something that is so successful?” asked Woodward, who added that he supports the Minnesota Avenue streetscape project. “The BDB has strayed from its original purpose in working for the whole district.”

“I feel so strongly about that,” said Bruckner who opposes the Minnesota streetscape project except for the reconstruction of the Mirror Pond Plaza, which he said he’s been urging for years. As for the rest of the project, he said, “I don’t think that’s the place to spend a million dollars. What’s the overall community benefit?”

Telfer counters their criticism, saying, “Bob was chairman of the BDB and he didn’t say anything about it then. As for Allan, where was he during all the discussions? The (housing and neighborhood) issues were never even in the original plan.”

Source: The Bend Bugle ©2002