After cheer-leading the cause of downtown development for years, the Eugene City Council faces the delicate task of objectively and carefully evaluating a collection of special requests from Obie Companies, which has proposed what could be the biggest city-center private project to date.
Obie at this point is asking for three things: a waiver to let its proposed hotel (including a 25-foot-tall rooftop sign) rise about 30 feet higher than the city code allows; a waiver to let the company put the 25-foot lit sign atop the hotel building; and permission to buy city-owned alleyways on the site, some empty lots west of Obie's Fifth Street Public Market.
The alley sales are non-controversial. The city has sold plenty of alleyways to developers.
But the height and signage requests are problematic. Obie and the city staff have intertwined the two, which works in Obie's favor, but weighs against a clear evaluation of the separate issues.
In particular, it is hard to see how the council can approve the rooftop signage request without creating a thorny precedent, and looking as if it is playing favorites. Yet the height waiver is crafted to allow space for the rooftop sign, so approval of that, too, would be troublesome.
In the spot where Obie wants to build, city rules limit structures to about 80 feet in height. For its hotel to be seven stories tall, Obie says it needs to build to 85 feet above the ground.
The city and Obie have proposed raising the height limit on the Obie parcel — and a strip of land on either side of it — not to 85 feet, to allow Obie the extra story, but to 110 feet to allow the extra story and the proposed rooftop sign.
Separately, Obie is seeking an exemption from the city's sign code.
The Eugene code requires signs to go on the sides of buildings, and limits their size. The code allows signs perched atop roofs only up to 30 feet above the ground, essentially limiting them to two-story buildings. Obie's seven-story The Gordon Hotel would be about 85 feet high, with a 25-foot LED-lit Gordon Hotel sign atop that, held up by metal scaffolding.
The rooftop sign waiver that's before the council would be for the Obie property only. It would not amend the city code. Rather, city staff are presenting it as an unusual "uncodified ordinance" giving Obie alone the right to put a sign that high. The Eugene Planning Commission came out 3-1 against it in a recommendation forwarded to the council, which is set to take action on Obie's requests on Monday.
The city has no rooftop lit signs at that height — or anywhere near it. Some tall downtown buildings have signs: the Eugene Hotel, the Hilton. But they are on the sides of the buildings, not on top of them.
Some advocates for downtown development have urged the council approve the site-specific rooftop waiver, saying the sign would be artistic, iconic, a landmark. Brian Obie, president of Obie Companies, told the council: "It's about a sign for Eugene. It's about lighting this place up." The hotel would be named after his father, Gordon.
Obie spokeswoman Jenny Ulum says that if the council grants Obie the overall height waiver but doesn't give Obie the rooftop signage waiver, the company will simply build an additional solid, square structure on top of the seventh story, as would be allowed by the increased height rule, and put signs on the sides of that, as allowed by existing code.
Critics object that they don't want a proliferation of lit roof-top signs, and that Obie's sign would be ugly.
The council is put in an awkward position by the way Obie and city staff are presenting the matter. Rather than asking for a height increase to place a seventh story on the hotel, and a separate signage measure seeking additional height and special permission for the rooftop sign, they have jumbled the two issues.
Supporters of Obie's project may regard it as quibbling to parse language over exactly where a sign can be placed.
But Eugene planning commissioners, who in their volunteer positions labor over how development rules work in real life, were quick to zero in on the vulnerabilities of the proposed rooftop signage waiver.
Problems they cited included: The code is supposed to set uniform standards for all entities, and the waiver looks like special treatment for a single site for a single company headed by a former mayor of Eugene; the sign and the hotel project have no historic significance and therefore don't merit special treatment; Obie can readily put signage on the sides of the building, as the code allows; and creating a one-time exemption for Obie would open the door for others, including whoever develops the nearby former Eugene Water & Electric Board site, to seek and expect special signage rule waivers.
Planning Commissioner Steve Baker, who voted against the sign waiver, said he worried about setting a precedent that "some developer can come in and sort of write whatever rules they want and it might be expected to be approved."
That's a reasonable concern, and one that is hard to overcome.