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Inside Lithia's glass walls

Less than half the size of the original tower proposed a decade ago, Lithia Motors' new headquarters still sparkles above The Commons in downtown Medford and delivers commanding views in every direction.

A handful of buildings loom higher in the Medford skyline, but none cuts a figure like this one. From the top floor, Wagner and Anderson buttes seem within grasp, and Roxy Ann Peak seems a mere stone's throw. Passenger airlines ease by at eye level.

The bistro-style break rooms on each floor provide the best brown-bag-lunch seating in town, and the headquarters' proximity to the viaduct provides a contrasting, urban view.

"Where else can you see cars floating through trees?" Chief Executive Officer Bryan DeBoer said. "From here, it looks kind of cool."

After years of being tucked away in claustrophobic cubicles, navigating Byzantine dark corridors in bland buildings held in a Maryland real estate investment trust portfolio, the 270 Lithia Motors corporate employees are staging a coming-out party in their $14 million digs.

"It brings eight departments together," DeBoer said. "It allows cohesive, logistical relationships to occur. Just the open space and environment creates an open dialogue. At times, people in our organization may have worked in silos to some extent, and today I think those walls are gone."

Led by the information technology folks — the Seabees of post-modern corporate America — clusters of Lithia employees are swarming from satellite dwellings about town that were absorbed into the organization.

At week's beginning, 40 percent of Lithia's home office staff had taken up residence. By Aug. 20, the move should be accomplished, with the surrounding urban-park Commons targeted for an October completion date.

Lithia partnered with the Medford Urban Renewal Agency to create The Commons, a revitalization project that includes the headquarters and another $14 million in infrastructure and three park blocks paid for with MURA dollars. Lithia originally had hoped to build a 10-story building but scaled down the project when the economy went sour.

"It's such a different work environment," marveled Chris Cooley of LAD Marketing, Lithia's marketing department. "It's like going to first grade again. There's a camaraderie and cross-pollination of thoughts because you're seeing people you haven't seen for months."

Layers of glass — from street level to the entryway to the rooftop 60-kilowatt solar array — are burnished with auto industry themes and scenes, serving multiple roles. Light showers the 70,000-square-foot structure from 360 degrees. Above, a sound system pumps ambient white noise to cancel out nearby conversations.

"There's a lot of light," Mark DeBoer said. "The Oregon energy code made it pretty challenging."

Extra insulation and mechanical system upgrades allowed the use of more glass.

"The more efficient the system, the more window square footage you are allowed," he said. "We had to model it three or four times in a 60-day process. Ultimately, it cost more money but it was a pretty important benefit for everyone who occupies the building."

The building has a silver LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, rating, but Mark DeBoer, who has shepherded both the headquarters and Commons efforts, hopes for a gold or platinum rating after the final submission exits a 60-day review.

Even with the upgrades and downsizing, at less than $200 per square foot, the project came in below original cost estimates, the DeBoer brothers were happy to report.

Bryan DeBoer is a third-generation auto dealer, ascending to the CEO role this spring. In 1946, his grandfather Walt DeBoer opened a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge store in Ashland. Bryan's father, Sid DeBoer, took the company public in 1996 and remains board chairman.

The lobby is airy and bright. By design, a stairway beckons many occupants who have yet to push an elevator button, including Bryan DeBoer, who is a runner. Surrounded by glass, the stairs are within the building but outside the concrete-core and steel-frame office structure.

There are large rooms used for monthly gatherings to discuss corporate culture and vision.

"The culture and vision were always important to my father, and that's been what I've been doing the last four or five years," Bryan DeBoer said.

The second and third floors have striking similarities, providing space for training, marketing, accounting, payroll, manufacturer relations and other departments. The exception might be the editing studios, where television and radio advertising spots for most of the company's 85 auto dealerships are produced.

"You have to be able to match what you would see in a typical small-market station," Bryan DeBoer said.

The fourth-floor executive offices are behind more glass and open onto a garden-like balcony.

Meeting rooms scattered throughout the building are tagged with automotive names, from Cadillac to Tucker. So with imposing views of the hills and the new Commons, the board room's moniker must be along the lines of Maserati, right?

"Actually, it's Chrysler," Mark DeBoer said.

"How could it not be Chrysler?" Bryan DeBoer said. "We have too much Chrysler DNA."

Layers of glass afford commanding views from top to bottom in the new, four-story Lithia Motors headquarters.