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A creek runs through it

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA makeshift fish ladder built in Bear Creek underneath the Jackson St bridge in Medford.
Plans to make Bear Creek a centerpiece of the city have not materialized, but city leaders haven’t given up

For most of Medford’s history, it’s turned its back on Bear Creek.

In 2001, the city created the Bear Creek Master Plan, which proposed 66 projects that sought to convert the neglected and polluted waterway into a centerpiece of the downtown area.

One of the main goals was to encourage businesses to reorient themselves to face the creek rather than turning their backs on it, a goal that has failed to materialize.

Only 20% of the projects have actually been accomplished, and there has been little interest from businesses to undertake some of the more ambitious proposals.

“Thirteen out of the 66 projects doesn’t represent failure here,” said Rich Rosenthal, director of Medford Parks and Recreation.

Medford City Council agreed Thursday to continue trying to encourage support for the projects on the Bear Creek Master Plan as money becomes available.

“I liked this plan in 2001, and I still like it in 2021,” Councilor Eric Stark said.

He said a lot of the ideas would still work if there was money or interest in doing them. A restaurant overlooking the creek near the mall was one idea that would help improve Bear Creek on the northern end of town, he said.

A total of $27 million has been spent on the 13 completed projects, including around the new south and north Medford interchanges. The original master plan estimated it would cost $13 million to complete all the projects, or roughly $20 million in today’s dollars.

A Ninth Street pedestrian bridge was built. A lot of habitat restoration has taken place. Hawthorne Park underwent a major renovation more than five years ago, along with a mural project on the pillars supporting the viaduct for Interstate 5.

Solar lighting was installed along the Bear Creek Greenway.

But on page 1 of the master plan, it describes the main lament: “Today the downtown turns its back to Bear Creek resulting in a highly urbanized core area, and signs of pollution and neglect are apparent along the entire corridor.”

Rosenthal said the city hasn’t received much interest from businesses that want to reorient themselves to face Bear Creek.

One of the problems is that the viaduct towers over the creek, creating noise and visual issues. Other issues cited by businesses include problems related to homelessness.

Another proposed project that never got off the ground is cantilevered walkways to connect Main Street to the west side of the creek.

The master plan, which had various proposals for the 7.5 miles of Bear Creek that flows through the city, also envisioned creekside dining.

City Manager Brian Sjothun said there is still a lot of work to be done to meet these goals, and the city could look for ways to incentivize some of the projects.

“The obvious elephant in the room is the part of the plan where the private property owners are turning their business around and facing the creek,” he said.

Councilors generally viewed the plan as a vision or blueprint to work from, while also expressing concern about the cost to make it happen.

“There’s some cool stuff on there, but I certainly get the obstacles,” Councilor Michael Zarosinski said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.