A proposed park that turned a blighted neighborhood into a political football for almost 20 years finally received approval Thursday by the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board

A proposed park that turned a blighted neighborhood into a political football for almost 20 years finally received approval Thursday by the Medford Urban Renewal Agency board

"A little park is better than no park at all," said Bob Shand, who has become the unofficial spokesman for a neighborhood in the area of Beatty and Manzanita streets, north of downtown. "My frustration is this neighborhood was used as poster child to get the MURA funds in the first place."

MURA approved plans for the quarter-acre park at the corner of North Bartlett and Maple streets that will have a playground, a grassy area, a shelter, a restroom and some other features.

Lithia Motors was required to spend up to $500,000 on the park, according to an agreement between MURA, the city of Medford and Lithia Motors.

The MURA board accepted Lithia's accounting of how much it provided for the project, which totaled $523,230.

Lithia officials say that almost half of their donations to the project are from $232,230 in obligations to find replacement real estate for the two parcels at the corner of Maple and Bartlett.

"It's what it took for us to get the land and give it to the city," said Eric Iversen, Lithia's project manager.

The parcels are owned by a limited partnership, which owns a number of properties that are leased to Lithia for dealerships.

MURA also approved giving Lithia credit for $81,000 based on the land value determined last year by the Assessor's Office. The Assessor's Office's current listing for the real market value of the property is $73,310.

Lithia calculates another $10,000 will be required for closing costs on the land to transfer it to the city. Lithia has received credit from MURA for $50,000 in costs related to planning and document drafting for the park over the years.

In addition, Lithia will provide $150,000 in cash to help pay for the park.

Even after the contributions, the city came up short by $109,795 to complete the park as designed.

As a result, the city will seek $83,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant dollars. Another $26,795 will be needed from Public Works to build sidewalks. The city plans to build the park by the end of the year.

Shand said the calculations provided by Lithia don't make sense to him.

"It sounds like some kind of add-on," he said. "It's a token from Lithia to dump one of their properties."

Mary Miller, another neighbor who has been pushing for the park, said Lithia's accounting of its expenses are puzzling.

"I think that the Liberty Park residents, having waited 20 years, have a right to an accounting of what was spent on it," she said.

Both Miller and Shand said they hadn't seen a copy of the latest design for the park, expressing frustration at the general lack of communication from city officials

"They've never shown us this one," Miller said. "We have not seen something in the last 12 months."

Miller said the neighbors would have preferred the park to be more centrally located in the neighborhood.

"We still don't think that's the ideal location, but it is what it is," she said. "We will work with it."

Despite the problems, Miller said she credited City Manager Eric Swanson for recently reaching out to the neighborhood and agreeing to meet with residents in February.

Miller said she's still hopeful that a portion of Bartlett Street next to the park could be closed to traffic. If that were possible, the park could be expanded.

Neighbors and the city are also hopeful that the Salvation Army will create a neighborhood park a few blocks to the north of Liberty Park.

Residents and the city have debated park proposals since 1988.

At the time, Medford needed a blighted residential neighborhood to help justify an urban renewal district that stretched north to south for two miles, from McAndrews Road to just south of Barnett Road.

Since then, the Medford Urban Renewal Agency has spent or designated much of its $72 million budget on other projects, spending a total of $175,000 on the low-income neighborhood that is home to Kids Unlimited, Hearts with a Mission and the Salvation Army.

Miller said she hopes that MURA will find a way to invest more dollars into the neighborhood before it has spent all the remaining urban renewal money.

"You have an ethical obligation to spend the money on the blighted area that qualified for the MURA dollars in the first place," she said.

Dick Gordon, chairman of the MURA board, said he was satisfied with Lithia's accounting. He said he thinks that Lithia fulfilled its obligations toward the park.

"A lot of people called and said we should get every nickel we can from Lithia," he said.

Gordon said he sympathized with making sure Lithia paid its fair share, but he thinks that what Lithia has done for downtown Medford already has been a sizeable investment that will pay off for the city for decades into the future.

Gordon said MURA and Lithia had a "gentlemen's agreement" that predates the agreement between Lithia, the city and MURA on development of The Commons, the downtown site of Lithia's new headquarters.

Gordon said Lithia had agreed to spend $150,000 cash toward the park, but an agreement over the exact parcel of land to build the park on kept changing, which meant the cost of the land was unknown. As a result, the wording "up to $500,000" was inserted in the joint agreement to prevent Lithia from spending too much on the park, he said.

Gordon acknowledged that the details of the agreement are murky, and said it has been difficult for the current MURA board to get to the bottom of what exactly was promised.

Still, he said, he stands behind the investment Lithia has made in both the downtown and the park project.

"Lithia is carrying out their obligations to the letter of our agreement," he said.

Lithia declined to be the general contractor on the park project, leaving it to the city to complete. Lithia is the general contractor for The Commons, a multiblock redevelopment project west of Riverside Avenue and north of Sixth Street. The city has contributed $14.1 million for the project, and Lithia has spent $18 million for its new four-story headquarters. Lithia is also contributing to the maintenance of the park blocks that are being built in The Commons.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.