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It's clear that change is here

What once was considered important to a vital downtown — has clearly become something very different as the city of Ashland embarks — on many changes to its downtown.

"We don't feel it's the building that's the important — thing, it's the business," Linea Johnson said, husband Rick nodding emphatically — in agreement. "This is our issue, not a community issue."

Longtime customers of Harrison Parts Co. would agree, — but for the city as a whole, the Johnson's $1.2 million sale is about — the building specifically, and generally about the changes coming downtown.

Downtown building trends and the movements of vast sums — of money with several pending projects point at shifting priorities and — a city on the verge of monumental change. The transformation is rooted — in raw property values, not the integrity of individual businesses.

Going up

Bob Kendrick, Madeline Hill and David Scheiver are buying — the Harrison building for $1.2 million, and plan to preserve the structure — as mixed-use retail business space on the ground level with condominiums — above. The group will also put up the same kind of building in the Harrison — parking lot next to the building that housed the former Q's night club — off Lithia Way.

A block or two in either direction downtown are similar — proposals that, if nothing else, suggest a growing trend toward modernization. — The Bemis project near Ashland Springs Hotel, the Haines project at Water — Street and the Jasmine building rising from the foundation of the old — Genkai restaurant are all similar proposals - mixed-use with condos on — top.

"This is the next growth area for Ashland," Ashland Mayor — Alan DeBoer said. "Any building will be prone to half-million-dollar condos. — The only way we're going to go is up."

The city itself is looking at a number of downtown parking — lots to be transformed into ground-level parking with living units - likely — "affordable" units - above.

All part of the plan

This sort of building isn't a fad or an unexpected trend, — but a style of development preferred by the city, and specifically encouraged — in its 2001 Downtown Plan, which calls for the city to "? encourage infill — with denser development by reducing the need for developing large off-street — parking areas and allowing taller buildings. Infill buildings should be — at least two stories, and higher in some cases, with difference in grade — between East Main and Lithia Way used to advantage. Street level floors — of infill buildings should be commercial, with upper floors being either — commercial, office, or residential. Some new multi-story buildings could — incorporate parking within, behind, or even on top of the building."

This plan first came out in 1988, with the latest update — set in 2001.

Constricted by state law and community temperament to — development within the city's Urban Growth Boundary, even the city's most — outspoken critics of growth tend to agree that building higher rather — that outward is the preferable way to go.

"Basically, I'm in favor of high-density and no urban — sprawl," planning process watchdog Bryan Holley said. "But I don't like — to see the city solve one problem and create another."

A tradeoff

Holley points at Siskiyou Crossing on the corner of Siskiyou — Boulevard and Walker avenue, which has been largely vacant since it was — built, and asks if more retail space is really needed in the city. While — he likes the idea of building up rather than sprawling out, the end result — is larger buildings which serve little purpose if they sit vacant.

"All of a sudden, at some point, too many big buildings — will change some of the shape and charm of the downtown," Holley said. — "When there's enough of them it will change the character. It might happen — at different points for different people, but it will be changed."

More people living, working and playing downtown will — have other effects, DeBoer believes, pointing at possible parking problems — and friction between residents and late-night businesses, such as music — venues.

"But if anything, this'll be a positive," DeBoer said. — "I've known the owners for years, and congratulate them on their success."

Both Holley and DeBoer agree that affordable housing would — be preferable in such projects.

"I would hold their feet to the fire," Holley said. "If — they want to do this mixed-used, then by God it should be affordable housing. — And throw in some rentals."

Something lost?

The auto parts store is one of the last businesses in — the downtown which actually sells something needed to residents.

"There's a difference between what you want and what you — need," Rick Johnson said.

"There's nothing so frustrating as not being able to find — what you need, Linea Johnson said. "This store leaving this spot will — have a huge impact. It's the closing of an era."

The Johnsons miss the Ashland they grew up in, and are — ambivalent about the direction things seem to be going as the city changes.

"If you're dependent on the tourist industry, people are — going to starve," Rick said, adding that the creation and support of the — Oregon Shakespeare Festival was "one thing I can say this town has done — right."

For some time, the city has encouraged businesses such — as Harrison's to locate away from the downtown, according to DeBoer, who — pointed at Ashland Hardware on A Street as an example.

"Certainly an auto repair station is abnormal for downtown," — he said.

What's left is mainly tourism-driven shops and restaurants, — reflecting the shift in Ashland's economy.

"I mostly lament the loss off a local business," Holley — said.

Time will tell

City Planner John McLaughlin said that in many Oregon — cities, much of the new development is happening outside the center in — town.

"You're seeing more of the strip mall and Wal Mart areas — outside of downtown getting the new investments," he said. "It's definitely — a good thing for cities to invest in downtown and keep them vibrant. You're — seeing in other cities their downtowns becoming a shell of itself because — investment is happening outside of town."

Only time will tell if mixed-use projects like the Harrison — site will continue in downtown, McLaughlin said.

"We need to see if development meets a needed demand," — he said.

McLaughlin said mixed-use development could follow the — pattern he saw with an influx of new motels and hotel renovations, which — occurred a few years back. These included the Holiday Inn Express on Clover — Lane and the Plaza Inn & Suites at Ashland Creek, located on Central Avenue.

"They all came in at once and I think they pretty much — met that need," McLaughlin said. "I think we're not going to see a new — motel for a while because there's currently not a pent-up need for it."

But there is a need apparently for new, taller, more expensive — buildings. Those involved in these developments are banking millions that — the need and interest to make these successful is already there, just — waiting for their buildings to arrive.