The decade ahead: Silverton officials discuss projects for city’s future

July 2020 Posted in Community, News

By Melissa Wagoner

In February, Public Works Director Petra Schuetz, Community Development Director Jason Gottgetreu and Mayor Kyle Palmer were discussong the decade ahead for Silverton for an Our Town story.

What none knew then, of course, was that in a matter of weeks the majority of Silverton’s small downtown businesses would be shuttered, its community members sheltering in place and its economy rocked by a worldwide pandemic.

Fortunately, as Marion County enters Phase 2 of reopening, Mayor Palmer’s outlook is mostly positive.

“I think on a human level, the generosity and compassion of most of our citizens has been astonishing,” he began, “at a time when some people might be worried about their own finances, so many have given to the Small Business Relief Fund, to SACA, and to other causes helping people.”

But that does not mean he doesn’t also have concerns, both about the possibility that the community might reopen too quickly or about the toll the lengthy stay at home orders has taken on morale.

“I’m worried about how much activity is occurring in Marion County in general,” he acknowledged, “and Silverton isn’t as ‘dead’ as it seemed at the start of this, so time will tell. Above all, I’ve really pleaded my fellow citizens to resist the urge to fight with each other. Respectful discourse is possible and productive.”

For the most part, Palmer sees economic and community recovery as a very real possibility, citing some construction and a few new businesses as tangible evidence. He also noted that, while supporting Silverton’s businesses has become the City Council’s number one priority for now, the pandemic has by no means changed the trajectory of the projects the City of Silverton had slated for the next decade.

Which means, while a pandemic and an economic shutdown have intervened in the four months since the previous interview, the answers to questions about what’s ahead are virtually unchanged.

City Center

Starting off with what is currently working, Schuetz rated the pre-COVID 19 health and success of Silverton’s downtown area as a resounding success.

“I think the downtown has a fantastic personality, identity and place,” she said. “There’s a lot of healthy community activity.”

Palmer agreed, adding, “From a community standpoint, I think it’s been as vibrant as it has been in my lifetime.”

That does not mean there isn’t need for improvement. To that end, there are several propositions on the table.

“We talked about a Main Street revitalization in 2010,” Palmer said. “And I still believe in those things.”

Contained in that original plan was the broadening of the downtown sidewalks, the replacement of the current trees with trees at a greater distance from the businesses and an increased number of benches and bike racks.

“Mostly it was a visual reshaping of the downtown,” Palmer concluded, adding, “There also would have been pedestrian bulb-outs, which would increase pedestrian safety. And I would much prefer that.”

Although the plan has been given a ten-year hiatus, it is once again seeing the light of day by the Silverton City Council.

“What was brought up was, ‘Hey, where did this ever land?’” Palmer said. “I know it got approved because it was a three to three tie…”

As the councilor with the tie-breaking vote at the time, Palmer is delighted to see the topic back on the agenda.

“One of the great things about our Council is its diverse opinions,” Palmer said.

Schuetz agreed, describing the current councilors as passionate and aligned. “The council doesn’t always agree,” she said, “but they work toward solutions.”

Wastewater

A sector of the city’s Public Works Department due for an overhaul in the next decade, according to Schuetz, is the Wastewater Department. 

“We have a lot of our mains – water mains and sewer mains – that were constructed in the 1930s,” Schuetz explained. “So, in the next decade we’re going to need to deal with that.”

In other words, the aged infrastructure needs work, including costly pipe repair and a new water treatment plant. Schuetz is relatively confident about the city’s ability to handle what lies ahead – in fact, some work has already begun.

“Some real highlights are a screw press to handle biosolids and a slip lining project – where you put an internal lining inside a pipe,” she said of the equipment that has already been added to the city’s wastewater arsenal. “The water treatment plant is going to be huge, but we’ve already gone through a pilot project and we’ve acquired the property for that.”

With the new treatment plant slated for construction as early as 2022, Schuetz has already found ways cut costs for the plant down from an originally estimated $8 million to under $2 million.

“That will allow us to move forward on the second water quality part of the plan, which is why we need additional water storage,” she said.

Also, on the docket of improvements is a reduction in the amount of wastewater shunted into the city’s system in the first place, a subject Schuetz is especially passionate about.

“The big thing I’m excited about is shifting from a curb-gutter wastewater system to using bioswales,” she acknowledged.

Bioswales, which utilize natural vegetation to remove pollutants, silt and debris, is a way to lessen the impact of runoff on a municipal wastewater system and even, in some cases, help to recharge groundwater.

“It’s better for the environment,” Schuetz confirmed. “Aesthetically it can be better too. It’s using what the earth knows best through planting strips, vegetation and trees. It’s engineered to help with the demand.”

So far Schuetz’ department is breaking ground on two such projects; one which will remove the entire Silverton Pool parking lot from the drainage system and another implementing bioswales on McClaine Street.

“We have a full plate right now,” Schuetz said. “But we’re happy to have the opportunity to do some of these pilot projects.”

Growth

One cannot speak about infrastructure issues, such as wastewater, without touching on the foundation of that topic; namely population growth.

“Silverton’s population has been growing since it was founded,” Gottgetreu, whose job it is to oversee land use and planning as well as residential and commercial building and code enforcement, said. “So, finding room for all those folks and the folks who grew up here – that’s a pretty big challenge.”

Add to that, the more recent challenge
of affordable housing now that the average purchase price of homes in Silverton stands at over $350,000 according to
the online real-estate platform Zillow. The issue is greatly exacerbated.  

But that is where Gottgetreu’s expertise in thinking outside the box comes in. Working with the Affordable Housing Taskforce, a committee made up of community volunteers,  and a group of students from the University of Oregon, he is considering the ways a more flexible housing code could benefit the situation.

“Something that creates more of a range of housing types,” Gottgetreu explained. “As it currently stands, the entirety of the residential land is all R1 residential, which is one house on a lot. You have to look at doing something different if you’re going to address something different. If you’re going to address affordable housing then it’s – what is that different thing and how does that fit in?”

That might mean looking at different lot sizes, different house sizes or different housing types, according to Gottgetreu. It could also mean rehabilitating older buildings instead of building something new.

“I don’t share people’s opinion that affordable housing is just a supply and demand thing,” Palmer added. “I’m a fan of rehabbing and compounding the space we have until we don’t have that. I don’t personally think it’s important to build new homes.”

Traffic & Transportation

Along with issues surrounding affordable housing, Silverton’s population increase has also affected traffic, a subject often discussed with the city government officials, who are understanding of the complaints and their origins.

“I’m as concerned as the average citizen about traffic,” Palmer confessed. “But I mean, we can’t change traffic patterns. And what town doesn’t have traffic problems?”

That statement is one that rings especiallyy true in the city of Silverton for several reasons, according to Schuetz, whose job it is to oversee the maintenance and improvement of the city’s infrastructure systems.

“There are 50 dead ends in town,” Schuetz said. “And it’s those former land use patterns and all those natural barriers that are expensive to fix. But one of the solutions is going to be future alignments to connect streets in order to have a way to dissipate the impact on the downtown.”

There have also been recent studies looking at the need for additional signalization on a few of the city’s
main streets.

“There’s only one or two possibilities,” Schuetz said of these findings. “But nothing imminent.”

What has already been done is the adoption of five bike and pedestrian projects by the City Council that are slated for the next fiscal year. A development that has a large segment of Silverton’s population cheering, according to Palmer. “I think there are people in town that would love to see us transition more into bicycles.”

More to come …

With several major projects, joining the aforementioned smaller ones on the city’s list of improvements – including the construction of a police station and possibly a civic center on the previous Eugene Field School site and possible construction at Pettit Lake and on Westfield Street, each area of city government is sure to be busy with planning in the years ahead. Palmer is confident the decade ahead will be a positive one.

“The staff is a huge strength,” he noted. “I’ve never seen work done more efficiently. I think municipally there are so many strengths. And I have not served with a council that cares more about what people think. There’s a vibrancy in the process now that’s just addictive. I only hope the community realizes what a unique situation they have now.”

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