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Looking down the road, after Almeda

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Construction crews work Tuesday on Highway 99 in Phoenix. State agencies will assist city and county leaders in re-envisioning what the route could look like as the region rebuilds from the Almeda fire.
Visioning project will examine possibilities for Highway 99 in the wake of the devastating 2020 fire

Mixed use commercial and residential buildings along Highway 99 between Ashland and Medford might be one of the outcomes of a transportation growth management visioning project that will look at the challenges and opportunities of the post-Almeda fire landscape.

Talent, Phoenix and Jackson County will participate in the Highway 99 and Bear Creek Greenway Corridor Re-visioning, which is funded by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

There is no cost for the local jurisdictions for the $199,000 project, which starts next month.

Besides envisioning urban structures and environments, the grant will look at traditional transportation features such as bike paths, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. One project goal is to decrease motor vehicle use in the corridor.

“It’s a really great opportunity for our community to re-envision what we would like the corridor to look and feel like post-fire,” said Talent City Manager Jordan Rooklyn. In Talent, the corridor saw destruction of businesses on both sides of the highway from Suncrest Road to the south city limits.

The project is different from usual transportation growth management plans in that it is occurring where a major disaster took place and involves multiple jurisdictions, said Laura Buhl, project manager with DLCD.

Otak Design of Portland is the lead consultant on the project. The firm has worked on other TGM projects in Oregon, Buhl said.

Six weeks after the fire, DLCD regional representative Josh LeBombard sat down with planners from Talent and Phoenix to figure out what kinds of long-term support the agency could offer to best assist the recovery efforts.

“When we started to think about the current development along Highway 99, a lot of the area was just kind of a hodgepodge that happened over the decades,” said LeBombard. “It wasn’t very effective there. There is a lot of unused space. It would be good to do a better plan for the area.

“We’ll look at what zoning currently allows. Based on our study and research, some of the zoning may be changed,” said LeBombard. Assistance for jurisdictions in rezoning would be a second project phase after the re-visioning.

After the fire, Phoenix revised zoning to allow residential structures in the commercial zone along Highway 99. The project will help determine how effective that has been and if there are ways to do things better, said Phoenix Community and Economic Development Director Joe Slaughter.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune An ODOT transportation growth management project will look at creating bike lanes and sidewalks on Highway 99 in Phoenix.

Creating greater connectivity between the communities and Highway 99 and the Greenway is another goal of the project.

“One of the big elements is making it safer and more friendly for people along Highway 99, instead of making it completely auto dependent,” said LeBombard.

That could include things like sidewalks and bike paths adjacent to the roadway and better crossings for pedestrians. Greater access to the Greenway could divert people from traveling along Highway 99.

Talent Avenue runs parallel to Highway 99 in Talent, but at some distance, LeBombard noted. Phoenix already has some connectivity with Highway 99 also being Main Street running through the heart of downtown.

Public outreach efforts will include a website, a citizens advisory committee, workshops, email notifications and use of multiple media. There will be bilingual links on electronic media.

Outreach to the Latino community will be stressed, said LeBombard and Buhl. A number of manufactured home parks that housed Spanish speakers and other residential areas along the corridor were destroyed in the fire.

Buhl is looking for funding to provide stipends for participants on public committees or workshops. Other state agencies have used stipends on a pilot basis.

“We ask a lot of people to participate. What happens is we are missing out on voices because there are people who can’t afford to pay a sitter or take time off work. We have a lot of evening meetings,” said Buhl. “We don’t end up getting those voices. We end up hearing from the same well-off people over and over again.”

“The part we are most excited about is the opportunity to reach large parts of the community. There will be a pretty robust outreach,” said Slaughter. “We are always struggling with just how to have people participate. The more voices the better.”

Project management team members are Buhl, LeBombard, Rooklyn, Slaughter, Serah Breakstone of Otak, Jackson County Planning Manager Shandell Clark, and ODOT agency contract administrator Deborah Benavidez. Otak will work with sub-consultants including 3J Design, Alta Planning and Design, Johnson Economics and Jet Planning.

An intergovernmental agreement for the project notes that ODOT upgrades along Highway 99 are under construction or planned. Talent and Phoenix city councils have approved the IGA, but it has yet to come before the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

Replacement of a culvert and rebuilding the bridge over Coleman Creek just north of Phoenix is underway. There will be sidewalks and bike lanes where there were only vehicle lanes on the highway before.

One-half of the bridge is nearly complete, and the narrowed roadway will be moved there in the near future so work can begin on the other half, said ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming. The project will be completed this fall.

A $15 million ODOT project to install sidewalks, bike lanes and a center turn lane from the bridge to Glenwood Street on Highway 99 will go to bid in late 2023 with work starting the next year.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwrtier@gmail.com.