Ten years on, a bridged divide

Slideshow: A history of the bridge in photos

By Sheila G. Miller / The Bulletin

Published Oct 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

It might surprise the thousands of Bend residents who have moved here in the past decade that until 2003, the Bill Healy Bridge did not exist, and the canyon where hundreds of people walk and run along the river each day was an old log deck left behind when the mills shut down.

While few quibble about the attractiveness of the bridge, the extension of Reed Market Road and construction of Farewell Bend Park, the development of that bridge and the surrounding area was not without controversy. And in many cases, those feelings of frustration remain 10 years later.

Today, the two sides — those who sided with developers who believed rapid growth was unavoidable and those who wanted to slow the growth — remain divided.

On the one hand: “Whether you like it or not, we were the sixth-fastest-growing community in the country,” said Oran Teater, who served on the Bend City Council from 1996 to 2004. “We had to have a river crossing. Could we have put it further out? Wherever we put it would have created controversy.”

On the other hand: “To me, what we got was a much larger city with a few new amenities but an overall decline in our quality of life, and a financial collapse that caused considerable harm to most people in Bend, as well as all across the country,” said John Schubert, a former city councilor, member of the city planning commission and founder of Commute Options for Central Oregon. “As many of us predicted, today in Bend we're left facing huge infrastructure and staffing costs ... that we would not face if we had managed to agree to grow more gradually, with more attention to quality than quantity.”

When the City Council authorized a study for a southern crossing in 1997, Bend had an estimated 35,635 residents. By 2003, when the $6.7 million bridge was completed, it was more than 59,000.

In 2000, according to previous reports in The Bulletin, approximately 14,000 vehicles traveled across the Newport Avenue bridge every day, while nearly 12,000 did the same on the Colorado Avenue Bridge.

Meanwhile, the west side of Bend was growing: the plan for NorthWest Crossing was unveiled in 2000, and other subdivisions were proposed at the same time. High Lakes Elementary opened in 2000, and Summit High School opened in 2001. But the traffic infrastructure to deal with that growth hadn't been built, and the city, according to developers, was threatening a moratorium on the area.

Consortium addresses traffic

Ron Garzini served as the assistant city manager and chief operating officer from 1997 to 2001 and also served during that time as an interim city manager. He said traffic analysis of the west side of Bend without a southern river crossing showed the bridges at Colorado and Newport avenues would be overwhelmed.

“The whole east-west system fails,” he said. “There would be intolerable time delays.”

In 1998, the city put the bridge on a 20-year land use plan, and in 1999, the City Council bought land that would pave the way to build the bridge. But opposition had already begun to build, with a Save the River Canyon Committee and a committee called Friends of Bend. And those groups made headway: in November 2000 three new city councilors were elected after being endorsed for supporting slow growth, and that council ultimately fired longtime City Manager Larry Patterson.

Beginning in 2000, slow-growth supporters had another issue to deal with in addition to the southern river crossing.

Facing a moratorium on building, Brooks Resources CEO Mike Hollern helped organize the West Bend Traffic Consortium, a group of 13 developers, businesses and other parties that forged a development agreement with the city. Members of the consortium included Brooks Resources, Tennant Development, Broken Top LLC, Bend-La Pine Schools and Central Oregon Community College. The Bulletin's parent company, Western Communications Inc., was also involved, and committed up to $90,000 to help build the bridge.

Under a development agreement with the city, the consortium pledged $7.7 million to build eight roundabouts throughout the west side and help fund the southern river crossing. The city pledged $4.4 million to extend Reed Market Road and buy up rights of way for the areas in question. In exchange, they were repaid a portion of system development charges, and with the traffic infrastructure in place, were able to move forward with developing the west side of Bend.

“It solved the traffic problem up front,” Hollern said, and he believes the southern river crossing was a necessary component.

“If we didn't do it, the congestion on the west side would have been tremendous.”

Bend-La Pine Schools provided about $210,000 to pay for the approaches to the bridge, according to John Rexford, now the superintendent of High Desert Education Service District who at the time was in charge of facilities for Bend-La Pine Schools. The district supported the planned bridge, Rexford said.

“We were going to site both High Lakes and Summit on the west side and we were just right in the thick of those issues with the threatened moratorium,” he said. “So we worked in conjunction with the west-side consortium.”

Before Summit High was built, Rexford said all west-side high schoolers attended Mountain View High on 27th Street.

“So all that traffic was primarily dumped right onto Newport and Greenwood, with a little coming off the back side of the butte through Archie Briggs,” Rexford said. “Newport, as a corridor, was a failure. At times during peak hours it would gridlock down.”

Without the west-side consortium, Garzini said, “there was no way to fund the bridge and the park, because without the consortium we did not have forecastable revenues. It would have had to be a (general obligation) bond. If we had to try to sell a bond for the southern river crossing, the vote would have been really close.”

Opponents collect petition signatures

But for opponents of the bridge and fast-moving development in that part of Bend, the consortium was a dirty deal.

Paul Dewey heads Central Oregon LandWatch, which at the time was called Sisters Forest Planning Committee. Dewey and Friends of Bend opposed the consortium's agreement with the city, and collected thousands of signatures on a petition asking that the consortium agreement be subject to voter approval.

“That was a very bad deal for the city,” Dewey said of the agreement to repay the west-side consortium its development charges. “They would never do that again.”

The consortium went to the Deschutes County Circuit Court to fight the petition and the vote. Dewey said the opposition agreed to give up the vote, as well as all appeals to the west-side subdivisions hinging on the consortium deal, if the city and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development agreed to fund and implement a study called Use of Land for Transportation Alternatives.

The ULTRA report, issued in 2003, called for changing land use patterns and developing more livable neighborhoods with “multi-modal transportation plans” for some roads and street designs that would accommodate bikes, mass transit and other modes of transportation.

Dewey said hundreds of people participated in the process, but the bulk of the recommendations in the report were never implemented.

“The city essentially reneged on it,” he said. “I doubt they could even find the study on the shelf.”

Dewey believes any aspects of the study that may have been implemented on the west side, like some of the livability aspects in NorthWest Crossing, are incidental.

“We gave a lot away, and we essentially got nothing,” he said.

While it's easy to call him and other opponents anti-growth, Dewey said the people hired to work on the study were well-known, top-level transportation and urban planners.

“It wasn't opposition. It was 'Let's slow down, let's build what we need, let's get as many bikers and walkers and build community centers close to where people can walk,'” Dewey said. “It's so easy to marginalize us as 'anti-growth,' but if the development community could get off of that, (these ideas) could really benefit them.”

Schubert said the issue was much more than just a bridge. Opponents feared “loss of small-town character and overall declining quality of life due to increasing traffic, crime, overcrowding in schools, and loss of open space, among many other livability issues,” Schubert wrote in an email. And transportation planning was particularly important, “because more and wider arterial roads make cities more auto dependent, thus generating even more traffic.”

Schubert, who called the southern river crossing “the linchpin in continued rapid growth on the west side of Bend,” said opponents of the bridge believed the bridge would “severely compromise the chance to create a world-class urban open space,” and speed up growth in Bend that would lead to a housing crash that would harm the community. “All three came to pass,” he wrote.

'Slow-growth' councilors elected

Bruce Abernethy was one of three councilors — along with John Hummel and Kyla Merwin — elected in 2000 as part of the “slow-growth” platform.

“Growth was a really hot, controversial issue,” he said. “It was not healthy, and we felt the negatives outweighed the positives.”

But Abernethy said as he learned more about the urban-growth boundary and Oregon's land-use laws, he discovered there wasn't much he could do to limit growth inside the city limits.

“We felt if you build a big bridge you're not putting up a fight and just encouraging even more auto use,” he said.

As a result, the City Council sent the choice to voters, who in September 2001 supported the bridge, 61 percent to 38 percent. Councilors upheld the result in October, voting 6-1 to construct the bridge.

Opponents argued The Bulletin, as well as developers with deep pockets, skewed the information and influenced the vote. Abernethy said he was surprised when the majority of Bend voters supported the bridge. “I think I thought there was a lot more opposition to the southern crossing than ended up existing.”

Garzini said early in the process, the city did a community survey through Portland State University. The top issue? East-west transportation.

“It was real apparent to me that a properly constructed ballot measure would pass,” he said. And he was no fan of how opponents to the bridge looked at the issue.

“Some of the folks who want to slow growth think that if you don't provide critical infrastructure, growth won't occur,” he said. “The problem was growth was going to occur and then people would be upset about the east-west traffic.”

Schubert disagrees. He believes other cities, like Corvallis and Ashland, used political will to force growth to slow down, and Bend could have done the same thing.

But Patterson, who served as city manager from December 1986 to January 2001, said he believes growth had already arrived.

“It represented change, which is always unsettling to folks,” Patterson said. “For a lot of folks, the growth issue was a big piece of it. It's the old adage, 'If you build it, they will come.' But they were coming anyhow. If that was really the key to growth, some towns in Eastern Oregon would just build a street.”

The southern river crossing is likely what ended Patterson's time in Bend. After three seats turned over to “slow-growthers” on the City Council in a 2000 election, Patterson was fired by the council in early 2001.

“They made it pretty well known that they needed to have a change in leadership at city hall,” he said. “It's any council's prerogative to make that decision, so when you're set in a position as long as I did, you fight a lot of battles. They saw me as an extension of the old council.”

That didn't stop the bridge from going up, though.

Paying for aesthetics

Bill Smith, who developed the Old Mill District, wanted the bridge to cross the river downstream, closer to the Old Mill.

“It would have been cheaper for the community,” he said. “(Bill Healy) was a very expensive bridge to build because of aesthetics. We paid for aesthetics.”

Smith describes himself as reluctantly part of the consortium, and his property company paid for the roundabout at Colorado and Simpson avenues. “All I wanted to do was get traffic across the river,” he said.

But he compares the southern river crossing, and the choices the city made in 2003, to an issue the city is currently dealing with: a new water treatment plant with two options that have very different price tags. If savings were realized, the city would have money left over to pay for other things, he said.

In the end, Smith describes himself as ambivalent. He suggested other locations, but “we needed a bridge.”

Some opponents were concerned the bridge would destroy a beautiful, pristine open space. The canyon at the time contained a log deck left over from the mills and was not easily accessed by the public.

“The proposed major road along the river and a new bridge in a lovely, quiet canyon embodied every aspect of the conflict about how Bend should grow: as a modestly growing small town valuing open space, or as a no-holds-barred, fast-growing city,” Schubert wrote.

Developers and the city weren't convinced.

“People said this canyon had never been touched,” Hollern said. “But they stored logs there. Nobody could go there.”

Smith argued the canyon wasn't as pristine as some would like to paint it. Old photos show the area full of floating logs, and Smith, a bird-watcher, said there were few songbirds along the banks.

“It was an armored bank with hard rocks,” he said. “They had been placed there to keep the logs from eroding banks.”

That, he said, isn't pristine.

Extensive design process

To try to make the design process palatable for all involved, the city held a series of charrettes, a design process in which large groups can try to come up with a solution and defuse confrontations.

“They led to the design of a curved bridge, the raised bike lanes, the roundabouts that deliberately slowed traffic and a park next to the road,” he said. “It really was a proverbial win-win.”

The council, Teater said, wanted to build something attractive. Garzini agreed.

“The plan all along was to do something really beautiful because it was so contentious, but it was a shock to me how great it came out,” Garzini said. “Yeah, it was expensive, but when you build all those roundabouts to slow traffic, the whole theory is high-aesthetic, slow-moving but progressively moving. And it was designed to be attractive.”

Dewey said the final design was nice, and he believes the quality result is due to elevated public scrutiny. “Because of the good design there's still a certain amount of character to the area.” But, he said, he still longs for the days when the sounds echoing in that canyon were rapids, not cars.

“You have to go a significant way upstream to find that again,” he said.

Ten years later, Schubert feels the same way about the bridge. He believes citizen and council opposition forced a design process that resulted in a better road and park. But he believes the area's public lands have been degraded by increased use and he isn't inspired by the area's urban design.

Abernethy, who was initially opposed to the bridge, thinks he was on the wrong side of history.

“Our worst fears didn't even come close to being realized,” Abernethy said. “It's a wonderful structure. ... It is a huge win for the community on a whole bunch of fronts. ... It's been a huge win, and you look back and what we were afraid of, that didn't come close to happening.”

And Patterson, who has been gone from Bend for years, said while he didn't see the process from start to finish, he's proud of the finished product.

“I don't think this would be as nice a town if we hadn't done those things,” Patterson said. “What was there before that was an old log deck. The public couldn't get down there at all, it was an environmental issue. Now it's a beautiful park, people definitely have the access and more people enjoy that river than ever before.”

What this area was before the bridge

This Bulletin photo from 1998, taken from the east facing Mount Bachelor, shows the river canyon, where a log deck was left behind after the mills closed. This area wasn't easily accessed by the public, and some people wanted to keep it that way.

What the area would become

This satellite photo from 2000 shows southwest Bend years before the bridge spanned the river. Several prominent sites, which are accessed by the bridge, would be built in the following decade. Today, the river canyon is some of the most heavily used parkland in Bend.