A year ago, a major leak sprung in the concrete base of the 103-year-old Newport Avenue dam, allowing river water to surge through the hole and essentially drain Mirror Pond. It was hoped that the leak—the third in six years—would finally force a conclusion to the debate over what to do about Mirror Pond. Yet, over the past year, the debate seemed to have stalled out, once again, into an eddy.
But last Friday, it was a packed room in the Bend Park and Recreation District office for the latest public meeting of the Mirror Pond Ad-Hoc Committee where it unveiled a Mirror Pond and Downtown Redevelopment Concept. The announcement was encouraging—both for its potential to resolve the vexing problem of whether to maintain the iconic lake, or to let the river run free and, moreover, becuase the proposal is serving as a springboard into an even broader conversation about downtown development.
Bend Park and Recreation Department Director Don Horton repeated some of the same information—that in surveys respondents have been evenly split between two options, keeping the dam (and saving Mirror Pond) and letting the Deschutes River run free. That lack of public consensus has been blamed as one of the sticking points. "How do you bring those two polarizing opinions together?" Horton prefaced last Friday's presentation. He went on to explain that the second choice of both factions was a hybrid approach that replaces the failing dam with a cascading rock structure that allows safe fish passage while maintaining Mirror Pond—appeasing both the aesthetics of maintaining the iconic feature as well as considering environmental needs.
Moreover, the proposal seems to move past—or at least towards—a solution for another sticking point: How to fund these ideas. "Given that this is our crown jewel in Bend, we need to make sure that we do it right," Horton said, and explained that funding for the project would come from private sector development made possible through the sale or leasing of City and Park-owned riverfront properties. Horton said that the goal is to avoid seeking any public funding via tax or bond measures.
After years of languishing and seemingly being bogged down by problems, the conversation about the future of Mirror Pond was infused with optimism following Friday's presentation.
What was perhaps the biggest surprise last Friday is that the Mirror Pond Ad-Hoc Committee went even further than considering the immediate issues resulting from the failing Newport Dam and presented a grander and broader plan for redeveloping the downtown area—both to better connect downtown with the Deschutes River, and also to invite the private sector development that the plan relies on for funding.
In its current form, the proposal would include removing the Brooks Alley parking in an effort to make downtown more of a riverfront experience.
"One of the most beautiful areas in the entire city and what do we do? We park cars there," said ad hoc committee member Victor Chudowsky. "If we use that area to expand the retail area of downtown, it would also improve access to the river."
Where that parking would go is still up in the air—or, under the ground, as one possibility suggests burying the parking lots under their current footprint.
In a comment posted to the Source's Facebook page, David Marchi, owner of Crow's Feet Commons, suggests that the project also could be an opportunity for developing more walkable commercial centers as cities like Boulder, Colo., and Burlington, Vt., have done. "If this project is to succeed," he wrote, "we need a broad range scope to get people to engage downtown on foot or bicycle."
Of those who spoke during the public comment period last Friday, none expressed objection to the overall concept. Rather, most were excited about both the hybrid nature of the project and the possibilities for urban renewal.
While the proposal is far from complete or perfect, it is exciting and encouraging to see the plans move past previous sticking points, and also to move toward bigger ideas. With a series of open house meetings through the end of the year, there will be plenty of opportunities for the public to make comments and suggest adjustments to the committee.