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A chain link fence separates the Riverfront Field from the Willamette River. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

UO Vice President for Finance and Administration Jamie Moffitt moved forward a Campus Planning Committee recommendation to approve a campus plan amendment that will allow the university to proceed with future development projects on the land between the railroad tracks and the Willamette River. 

The amendment will now go to UO President Michael Schill’s office, where he will make the ultimate decision.

Related: University continues with riverfront development plans despite opposition

The announcement comes with Moffitt’s rejection of an appeal against the amendment’s approval. UO Geography Professor Peter Walker and UO senior Juliae Riva wrote the appeal after the committee voted to recommend the amendment’s approval on Nov. 20. 

Only two committee members out of the 15 present for the vote opposed the motion. The appeal asserts that campus planning failed to meet the community participation requirements outlined in the campus plan during the amendment’s development process. 

“The Campus Plan sets a high bar for engagement and, given the long history of campus concern regarding the riverfront, any change to the plan requires nothing less than the highest level of outreach and engagement,” the appeal stated.

While the amendment designates the majority of the 42-acre area for conservation, it also allows for limited building development, as well as an additional recreation field. According to campus planning, there are currently no specific development projects planned for the area.  

The appeal cites low student and faculty turnout at campus planning committee meetings during the fall term as evidence of outreach failure, which it claims is mostly a result of meeting times that interfere with class schedules. Other examples cited in the appeal include the committee’s failure to adequately discuss an ASUO resolution opposing the amendment on the day of the vote, as well as a general failure by the university to make information regarding the campus plan amendment easily accessible to the UO community, which the appeal states is especially important now given the unprecedented circumstances of the past year. 

At a CPC meeting on Feb. 16, campus planning staff acknowledged the concerns brought up in the appeal and released a poll allowing members to vote on their preferred meeting times.  

The appeal decision, written by Moffitt and UO Associate General Counsel Craig Ashford, asserts that campus planning provided sufficient opportunities for community engagement throughout the amendment’s development process, including multiple public hearings and informational sessions. 

“The CPC may have reached a recommendation that is contrary to the firmly held convictions of the appellants, ASUO, the UO Senate and others, but that does not mean that the CPC and Staff did not ensure that these parties had meaningful opportunities to participate in the development of the master site plan, CUP and proposed amendment,” the decision stated. 

The decision document highlights evidence of the department’s sufficiency in the changes made to the amendment at the request of community members. These changes include emphasizing the need to give special attention to native vegetation in natural areas and a preference for natural grass over synthetic turf for future recreation fields.

Regarding the committee’s meeting times, the decision reiterates the campus planning staff’s assertion that they chose the times to accommodate the greatest number of committee members possible, and that low student participation in the committee meetings is partly due to there being two student representative vacancies on the committee. According to the decision document, ASUO is responsible for electing student representatives to the committee.

On Nov. 11, ASUO passed a resolution calling for campus planning to designate all 42 acres as a development-free natural area. According to the decision document, the committee only briefly discussed the resolution on the day of the vote because campus planning staff “had already been taking the objections of community stakeholders very seriously over the course of multiple years.”

The appellants have questioned Moffitt’s neutrality in making the final decision. Associate Vice President for CPFM and University Architect Mike Harwood — who oversees CPFM — and Director of Campus Planning Christine Thompson work under Moffitt. They are both CPC members. 

Riva, who was not present at the CPC’s Nov. 20 vote due to a class conflict, is not surprised that Moffitt rejected the appeal. She said that given Moffitt’s role in UO administration, both her and Walker were fully aware of the appeal’s slim chances of passing when they wrote it. 

She said that the appeal was meant to be symbolic and that their intention was primarily to let UO administration know that students and faculty care deeply about how the university uses the riverfront. 

“Even if nothing comes out of it,” Riva said, “we want people to know that this is a very important issue that is going to change the landscape of the riverfront for years to come.” 

Riva, who’s been a committee member since 2019, reiterated the appeal’s statement that campus planning’s level of outreach during the amendment’s development process was insufficient. She said that while planners made numerous attempts to engage with the community, they did not identify a benchmark to determine when meaningful community involvement had actually been achieved. 

According to the Campus Plan, the university’s planning process is designed to ensure that “meaningful opportunities exist for participation in the planning and design process,” and that “planning decisions are coordinated and based upon overall institutional objectives.” 

She said that, from her perspective, campus planning was simply checking the boxes outlined in the campus plan’s community participation requirements. 

“I think a big part of it is just making more people aware of this,” Riva said. “Literally none of my peers had heard that this was even a thing that was being contested.” 

Walker, who’s done extensive research on land use politics in the United States and internationally, said that there is a correct way for organizations to engage with community stakeholders in making decisions regarding land use. 

“These processes can be meaningful and effective,” he said, “but they require a lot of investment of time, energy and resources. And sometimes inconvenience.” 

He said that if the university is serious about ensuring meaningful community participation, he encourages administrators to look into case studies of how other communities have effectively engaged with stakeholders in making land use decisions, which he said he’d be happy to provide.

“I think right now, the process is pretty shallow,” Walker said. “But there are lots of positive examples out there of real, deep, serious meaningful participatory processes that the university could learn from if it chooses to do so.” 

While the university will move forward with the amendment’s approval, Riva said that there will be more opportunities in the future for students and faculty to get involved. Campus planning will have to go through an additional approval process when the university proposes new development projects for the riverfront area, which Riva said she will continue to fight against for the remainder of her time at UO. 

Both Riva and Walker stressed that they truly believe campus planning staff want what’s best for the UO community, but that their intentions often get lost in the university’s bureaucratic processes.