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Liberty Park finally gets overdue attention

The Medford City Council, acting as the board of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, is finally giving the blighted Beatty-Manzanita neighborhood the attention it deserves — but the lure of new dollars from extending MURA's life almost threatened those efforts again. That must not happen.

The city created MURA 35 years ago to breathe new life into the neglected downtown core and boost development of the South Gateway area. One of the legal requirements for creating the district was addressing blight, and the city included Beatty-Manzanita, also known as Liberty Park, in the district's boundaries to satisfy that. But the neighborhood received only a small park out of the deal, while the rest of the district saw $67 million in new investment.

Projects in the downtown area included facade improvements to buildings, new sidewalks and street lighting, and The Commons, a community space including two park blocks with an outdoor amphitheater. Parking structures also were built to address a lack of spaces for vehicles.

In September, the council voted to extend MURA's life beyond its 2019 sunset date, which will generate about $20 million for improvement projects, and councilors said they intended to spend a majority of that money on Liberty Park.

Last week, the council debated how much to carve out for other parts of the district, but compromised on spending 10 percent on seismic retrofit projects in the downtown. That work is intended to allow housing units to be added above downtown businesses — an important addition that will contribute to revitalizing the area as more people choose to live downtown.

The rest of the money will be spent on projects in Liberty Park. Housing — specifically, apartment complexes — are among needed improvements that would go a long way toward revitalizing the neighborhood.

Mayor Gary Wheeler and Councilor Kim Wallan voted against the compromise because they wanted to leave options open to consider projects elsewhere in the district. The rest of the council voted to carve out the 10 percent but leave the rest for Liberty Park — the right thing to do for a neighborhood that was left out of urban renewal efforts for decades.

Housing — specifically, affordable, multifamily housing — is desperately needed to address a nearly nonexistent vacancy rate and soaring rents that price many low-income residents out of the market entirely. An economist for Avista Corp. recently told a Chamber Forum audience that multifamily housing makes up only 14 percent of new construction in the Rogue Valley. That's far too low.

The city should do everything it can to help increase that percentage, from buying property for apartment projects to providing incentives to developers such as relief from systems development charges and other costs. Liberty Park is a good place to start.