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People are moving into WestTown on 8th, newest complex in city center
[August 26, 2008]

People are moving into WestTown on 8th, newest complex in city center

(Register-Guard, The (Eugene, OR) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 23--Perception: Downtown Eugene is hopeless, an economically depressed area where development is routinely stifled.

Reality: WestTown on 8th, a new $20 million apartment complex, is accepting tenants. It's the latest in a string of city-center housing ventures.

On West Eighth Avenue, between Charnelton and Lincoln streets, the publicly subsidized low-income housing development from Eugene-based Metropolitan Affordable Housing Corp. will bring about 150 residents downtown. That's a key strategy in the city's efforts to revitalize the city center.

Two blocks of West Broadway may be downtown's economic weak spot. But WestTown on 8th shows that redevelopments are occurring elsewhere in the city center, a downtown business owner said.

"We appreciate the new construction and the fact that this project will create more housing and a generally higher level of activity in that area of downtown," said Sarah Bennett, principal of Bennett Management Co. and a member of the Eugene Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

Metropolitan Housing is a nonprofit corporation that provides below-market-rate housing in Eugene-Springfield for low-income residents.

WestTown on 8th is next to the WOW Hall, one-half block north of another major downtown housing development, Broadway Place, the 170-unit apartment and retail complex built on West Broadway in 1999.

"WestTown on 8th has been a real exciting project to work on," said Richard Herman, executive director of Metropolitan. "First, the project helps meet the need for affordable housing downtown. Second, the residents will make a contribution to downtown economic development, particularly in the West Broadway area."

At $20 million, WestTown on 8th also has been Metropolitan's largest and most challenging project to date, made more expensive and complicated by the bankruptcy of the building's general contractor.

With monthly rents ranging from $478 for a studio to $738 for a two-bedroom unit, about 35 of 102 the apartments are filled, Herman said. The rest are going fast and should be filled by early fall, he said.

"There will be no problem renting the apartments," Herman said. "The need is so great for affordable housing in this community."

Only residents with limited incomes can rent an apartment at WestTown on 8th. A single person, for example, cannot earn more than $22,980 a year. A family of three cannot earn more than $29,280 annually.

Some of the building's residents receive public assistance that can be applied to the rent at WestTown on 8th.

Shirley Ditlefsen, 72, lived in a federally subsidized apartment in southwest Eugene before moving to WestTown on 8th. Her one-bedroom apartment rents for $513 a month. Her federal housing assistance pays for all but $141 of that.

"It's wonderful," Ditlefsen said, sitting outside her one-bedroom apartment that faces a landscaped terrace. "It's very safe and I don't have to worry about anything."

Besides the apartments, WestTown has nine live-work units at the front of the complex on West Eighth Avenue. With rents set at market rates, those are taking longer to fill.

WestTown on 8th is the third housing complex to be completed in and around downtown in the past four years.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County in 2004 built The Aurora Building at East 11th Avenue and Oak Street, a 54-unit affordable housing complex.

In 2006, former real estate company owner Jean Tate and investors built a six-story building with 46 upscale, market-rate condominiums and offices near West 13th Avenue and Olive street.

WestTown on 8th may be an affordable housing complex, but Metropolitan executives wanted the development to be attractive, said architect Don Vallaster of Vallaster/Corl in Portland.

"Metro was very receptive to design suggestions," he said. "They wanted this to be a well-received building by the community, even though it's affordable housing and there were budget limitations."

Constructed on the site of an old warehouse and parking lot, WestTown rises in stair-step fashion from two stories along West Eighth Avenue to six stories at the back of the property.

Placing the largest part of the complex next to the mid-block alley prevents WestTown from overwhelming its smaller, historic neighbor, the WOW concert hall, Herman said.

Vallaster said the two-story building on West Eighth Avenue was meant to give the entire development a "pedestrian friendly scale,"

"By doing the low-scale building on the front, it doesn't feel like a large mass of a building when you approach it," he said.

The complex has two rooftop landscaped terraces, outside the second and third floor apartments.

With flowering pear and other trees in raised metal boxes and yet-to-be finished planting beds, the terraces provide greenery and rooftop open spaces for residents.

The entire structure was built out of concrete and steel, but along West Eighth Avenue it has a brick and wood facade. Cement siding painted to resemble wood covers the six-story building. Galvanized steel balconies enhance the exterior walls.

Inside, the complex is not fancy but it does have extra touches.

Decorative light fixtures illuminate hallways, which are painted in different colors to break the look of the long corridors.

The apartments have sturdy kitchen and bath cabinets made by Eugene-based Lanz Cabinets. The two-bedroom units have storage space.

WestTown on Eighth has other amenities, including a community room with kitchen where residents can attend nutrition or job training classes, Herman said.

The City Council three years ago selected Metropolitan over two other proposals to redevelop the property.

Councilors preferred Metro's plan partly because the developers pledged $50,000 to help the adjoining WOW Hall muffle the noise from its concerts.

The sound of music in the past has spread beyond the WOW Hall because the performance venue kept its doors open during warm weather, Herman said.

But Metropolitan's grant, plus $25,000 from the city, paid for sound mitigation, including an air conditioning system for the WOW Hall, Herman said.

With air conditioning, the WOW's doors remain closed during the summer, he said, preventing much of the noise from bothering WestTown tenants.

"We concluded that it was better to keep the sound in rather than for us to deal with," Herman said.

Metropolitan's six previous projects were mainly conventional apartments built outside of downtown Eugene and Springfield.

Similar to its other projects, WestTown on 8th was awarded federal tax credits by the federal government. The agency raised funds for construction by selling the tax credits to banks and other large institutions that use the tax credits to reduce their income tax liabilities.

The state of Oregon also played a key role by issuing tax free construction bonds.

The city of Eugene gave Metropolitan the land, valued at $570,000, plus $1 million in federal housing funds. The city also agreed to waive 20 years property taxes on the building, plus $332,500 of development impact fees. Also, the Eugene Water & Electric Board waived $95,000 in development impact fees.

WestTown on 8th presented challenges to Herman and his development consultants, Kent Jennings and Greg Pitts. Originally projected to cost $13.4 million, then $18.4 million, the project's final cost hit $20 million.

Rising construction costs added to the price, but so did upgrades, such as improving access for people with disabilities and installing high quality electronic shades for the live-work units, Herman said.

Then, general contractor Roberts Professional Construction Services of Eugene, formerly Gale M. Roberts Construction, filed for bankruptcy in March.

The building was supposed to be done in January, but the bankruptcy delayed the project four months, until May. It also added to the project's cost because Metropolitan had recently paid Roberts $600,000, yet the general contractor had not paid that amount to subcontractors and suppliers, Herman said.

Much to his relief, the subcontractors stayed on the job until Metropolitan raised another $600,000 via tax credit sales.

"The subcontractors were very cooperative," Herman said. "It was a demonstration of their commitment to what we're trying to do with affordable housing downtown."

WestTown has filed a claim in U.S. Bankruptcy Court against the Roberts assets in hopes of recovering the $600,000 and other costs caused by the delay, Herman said.

None of the nine live-work units in the front of the building is leased, which reflects the weak economy, Herman said.

"Like everywhere, the economy seems to be having an impact," he said.

Most of the kitchen-and-bathroom-equipped live-work units have large front windows, are two stories, and range from 850 square feet to 1,200 square feet.

Tenants are not required to live in the units, which rent for $1.35 a square foot a month. That would price an 850-square-foot unit at $1,147 a month.

The spaces could fit the needs of a variety of small-business ventures, Herman said.

He's in discussions with a couple who are interested in renting one unit for a glass-blowing studio. A dog groomer is interested in another unit, Herman said.

Dan Wathen, a WestTown resident, said he likes the proximity of the apartments to downtown businesses and the Lane Transit District station.

Wathen, who has a back disability caused by a car accident, formerly lived in the Whiteaker neighborhood.

The 50-year-old former rock 'n' roll band manager prefers living downtown. "I can get out and around downtown," he said. "I'm not so isolated."

Wathen appreciates the diversity of residents, including Ditlefsen, his 72-year old neighbor, and younger people who are moving in.

"Usually, when you move to an apartment, you don't get to know your neighbors that well," Wathen said. "But here, because it's new, whenever somebody moves in, we all get to know each other. Here, there is a bit of a community feeling."

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