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Next steps for the marina/lakefront

The City Council agenda for the November 17th meeting included a resolution to direct the Oak Ridge Planning Commission to undertake a planning process for the lakefront, with a defined geographic scope (from Elza Gate to the tower at the finish line of the rowing course) and a schedule (finish up in spring 2009). Council did not act on the resolution, but instead discussed the need for the Planning Commission to define an appropriate scope and schedule. My main concern is that I felt that the schedule should not conclude with “award of contract” in spring 2009 shortly after the conclusion of the planning study, because I don’t believe that we will be in a position to award a contract at that point. Other Council members commented about aspects such as the geographic scope (for example, why should the finish-line tower be a boundary for the plan — why not extend it farther along the lakefront?). I’ve documented some of my thoughts on the process in an op-ed column that the Oak Ridge Observer published on November 13. Rather than writing a new piece for this blog, here (for the benefit of folks who haven’t figured out that they need to read the Observer every week) is what I submitted to the paper:

I imagine that everyone has had the experience of going shopping for something specific, but coming home with something that is completely different, but altogether better, than what we thought we were going to buy.

The City of Oak Ridge seems to be embarking on a similar “shopping” experience regarding the Melton Hill lakefront and marina. It’s likely that Oak Ridge will end up with something far better than what we thought we were looking for, but I see a danger of failing to protect the public’s best interest in this process.

In late May of this year, the city went shopping for a “qualified marina developer/operator” to “construct, manage and operate the Oak Ridge Marina.” The city’s Request for Qualifications (RFQ) envisioned that construction would include the removal of the existing marina and “replacement with covered walkways/slips, new security gates and water/electric service to each slip” and it asked for a “concept plan” for the marina and the “adjoining property” (identified in the RFQ as including the site of the New China Palace restaurant).

The RFQ was sent to experienced marina operators and developers. Several of them attended a pre-submission meeting, but on the September deadline just two proposals were received. One bidder proposed to redevelop the marina and operate it under contract with the City. The other proposal (from R&R Properties) presented a far-reaching plan to redevelop a large swath of the lakefront, including not only a revamped marina but also roadway changes, a new boathouse for rowing, relocation of existing recreational facilities in Melton Lake Park, and new commercial and residential construction on private land and on other city-owned property in the area. In its proposal, R&R pointed out the benefit of a master plan over a piecemeal approach. R&R said the company had worked closely with the Oak Ridge Rowing Association and had toured many waterfronts and rowing boathouses in the eastern United States in the process of developing a comprehensive plan.

R&R was right. Although Oak Ridge went shopping for a marina operator, what the city really needed was a clear vision and a coordinated plan for the lakefront, including the rowing course, park amenities, roads, parking lots, and everything else that connects.

Appropriately, R&R’s proposal has led the city to step back and start a structured public planning process to develop a comprehensive vision and master plan for the lakefront. One thing that became clear at the very first public-input meeting on October 29 is that most of the interested public (not just rowers and other nonmotorized recreational enthusiasts, but also some powerboat owners) thinks that a new powerboat marina would be incompatible with the rowing venue and other things at the lakefront that people value. We could easily end up with a lakefront plan that does not include the one thing that the city thought it was looking for when we first went shopping with that RFQ.

I have high hopes for the outcome of the planning process that the city is about to undertake. However, at the same time I’m concerned that we are setting out on a path we that may not lead to the best decision for the city and its residents — unless we do some additional “comparison shopping.” Regardless of how the planning process is structured, the R&R proposal will be the starting point for most public discussion of the lakefront because it’s the only plan we have seen. The city only asked for proposals for a marina — what other concepts would have been proposed if the city had contacted lakefront developers instead of marina operators? What other possible visions for the lakefront will we overlook because we are focusing on a single proposal?

Also, while the focus of public discussion is on physical aspects of the lakefront, finances are another important part of the picture. City staff was hoping for a private partner to assume the financial risk of any new development, and R&R responded by saying they would build new rowing facilities and other new public amenities, but they would need a 99-year rent-free lease in return for their investment. Before the city signs on to that deal or any other, we should know what our options are. What new public facilities are needed and what are their costs? What are realistic estimates for the revenues from commercial ventures proposed at the lakefront? What are the pros and cons of the city financing some or all of the work?

Oak Ridge is indebted to R&R for showing us that what we went shopping for isn’t what we really wanted. We need to seriously consider the R&R proposal. However, I believe – and I hope my fellow city officials will agree — that the public interest demands some careful comparison shopping before we buy into any new plan for the lakefront.


One Comment

  1. r a y k i r c h e r says:

    Hidden deep down in there is the word “commerce.” That is the problem of our city, we are lost in stagnation, even during a bad national economy, we forget to protect our civic enjoyment here. I believe losing Melton Lake Park’s waterfront pleasure will further push away any attractiveness our city may have. The citizens are giving away too much hard work keeping a park. I cannot imagine our East Border becoming a Strip Mall view from Melton Lake Drive. Will the name change since we will not see much of the lake anymore? What plans are there to replace the park, maybe Solway Park to be improved?

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