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Hotel conversion is good news for downtown

Plans to convert the Inn at the Commons into an apartment complex are welcome news, and a sign that downtown Medford could be poised for some significant growth.

It’s been 15 years since the Medford Urban Renewal Agency and Lithia Motors inked an agreement to create The Commons, featuring a headquarters building for Lithia, park blocks and new retail and residential components. The original plans were ambitious: Lithia would consolidate all its corporate offices in one 10-story national headquarters to anchor the project.

The future looked bright — and then the Great Recession hit, triggered by a housing crash and bringing an economic downturn. The project was shelved, then revived in 2009, but it was considerably scaled down. Lithia no longer needed 10 stories, and the residential component was gone.

Another downtown development — the block that eventually became One West Main — also was supposed to include housing, but ended up as only office and retail space.

Downtown Medford has come a long way since MURA began putting money into improvements, adding parking structures, upgrading sidewalks and street lighting and restoring facades on historic downtown buildings. Lithia finished its building, and the park blocks were completed, offering gathering space and an outdoor performance venue.

But the housing never materialized. Only when a critical mass of people are living downtown will the central business district really take off.

Downtown residents will want services they can walk to, such as a place to buy groceries. Shops and boutiques will have an incentive to stay open in the evenings to capture the increased foot traffic.

The Inn at the Commons, a longtime fixture that was formerly a Red Lion Inn, has been well-maintained and improved under the ownership of the Neumann Hotel Group. That made it attractive to the pending buyer, Fortify Holdings, which operates other residential properties. Fortify plans to convert the hotel’s 123 rooms into studio and one-bedroom apartments.

It’s not clear what the rents will be. Fortify’s president wouldn’t say whether the apartments would be affordable housing, but the small size should put them toward the lower end of the apartment market locally, and studios can be hard to find.

Even if the rents don’t qualify as “affordable,” 123 new units will be a sizable addition to the apartment inventory, which should help relieve some of the upward pressure on rents.

The biggest impact of the conversion is the number of apartment units it will add to the downtown. It could be just what the area needs.