Construction could start as early as next year after the Ashland Planning Commission unanimously approved a building on the largest piece of undeveloped land in downtown Ashland.
The 18,577-square-foot building with business space and large condominiums will be built on an empty corner of Lithia Way and First Street. Three or four additional buildings, which would have to win their own planning approval, could be built in the future, developers said. (Correction: The name of the street where the project is planned has been corrected in this article.)
The land along Lithia Way has had a long and troubled history after Copeland Lumber and the Tempest Court office and condominium complex were torn down to make way for a controversial project called Northlight.
That mixed-use building of more than 70,000 square feet was criticized as too large and not in keeping with Ashland's historic downtown. The Planning Commission unanimously rejected the Northlight project in 2005.
The land was then divided with plans to construct several smaller buildings there, but when the national real estate market collapsed, developers lost the property to a bank.
Medford-based First Place Partners now owns the land and won approval for a building there from the Planning Commission on Tuesday night. The building was designed by Ashland-based Kistler, Small & White Architects.
Randy Jones of First Place Partners said the timing seems right.
"We'd like to think the real estate market has bottomed out," he said on Wednesday. "We're seeing signs of recovery in Southern Oregon. Do we anticipate a great real estate run-up like we saw before? No. Projects have to make sense for our group. At this stage, we're not gamblers. It's the right project at the right time."
Prior developers already put in much of the infrastructure for the project, including parking spaces and sidewalks.
Spaces the city has been leasing for the public will be used by the building's occupants, Jones said. The plan does not affect the city's public parking lot nearby on Lithia Way.
The building will have offices or retail shops on the bottom floor plus one affordable housing unit set aside for a medium-income tenant. Its second and third floors will house nine market-rate condominiums.
Jones said First Place Partners likely will design and construct additional mixed-use buildings along Lithia Way itself but could possibly sell its land fronting First Street for other developers to build there.
"We don't intend on this being a 20-year build-out," Jones said.
On the other side of Lithia Way, fences surround a smaller lot for construction of the Vine Building — a wine tasting room and boutique hotel approved by the Planning Commission this summer.
Across town, Southern Oregon University is building a massive dormitory complex, and a new fire station is under construction to replace cramped Ashland Fire Station No. 2, which was torn down in May to make way for a bigger station on Ashland Street.
Mark Knox, a land-use consultant who helped shepherd the First Place Partners project through the planning process, said he believes commercial development is on the rebound.
"I definitely sense we've bounced around on the bottom for a while. Things are starting to pick up," he said on Wednesday. "Once you're on the bottom, there's only one way to go."
Knox said the mixed-use building is a great project.
"It will be very compatible with what we know downtown Ashland to be," he said. "It's great to have residents living downtown. It adds vibrancy downtown, and the people living there will be built-in customers for downtown businesses."
During Tuesday night's Planning Commission meeting, commissioners said recessed balconies planned for the condominiums will make life better for the residents, who will also be able to keep an eye on the street below.
"Bringing more people downtown makes things more vital," Commissioner Michael Dawkins said.
However, Dawkins lamented that the nine condos planned for the building are not smaller units that could house more people and provide affordable living spaces for downtown workers.
He said the larger condominiums are likely to become second homes for people who don't live most of the time in Ashland.
"It's a missed opportunity," Dawkins said.
Two neighbors offered testimony that their property is already impacted by people parking on the land and in the city's adjacent public parking lot.
They said they have to deal with the sound of car alarms, trash, drunken people leaving bars and other nuisances.
One of the neighbors said she is not opposed to the building project but would like screening, while the other said in a letter that he doesn't think the project fits with Ashland's historic downtown.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.