March 01, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

There was good news from two directions Wednesday for the La Grande downtown redevelopment effort.

The city learned that the State Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation has given its OK.

The commission wholeheartedly approved our historic district nomination to the national registry at their meeting in Roseburg, said Community Development Director Mike Hyde.

The nomination now goes to the national level, where approval is considered a formality.

In its meeting Wednesday morning at the Union County Courthouse, the Northeast Oregon Alliance approved granting the city $50,000 toward funding final engineering and design plans for the downtown business zone.

The city had requested $80,000 and had indicated it would provide a $20,000 match. Hyde said the $100,000 total was only an estimate of the costs.

Before the Alliance board voted 13-0 to approve the amount, Hyde said, If we get $50,000, we can move forward on the project. We wont know until request for proposals come back whether it will cost more or less. If we have (a total of) $70,000, we can do the first phase of the project.

Hyde said that possibly the city, which begins the 2001-02 budgeting process May 7, could add more money for the project if it sees a gap in the funding needs. They can fill in the gap once we get the engineering estimates.

Lisa Lang, executive director of the alliance, said that if it appears the city cant meet its objective, it can come back and seek more money.

The citys $20,000 share is in this years general fund budget.

It is unlikely that any physical work would be done this construction season, Hyde said.

On the historic district designation, Hyde said the state required that a few changes be made in the application before it is sent to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

That will be done, he said, and there is a chance we will officially have a downtown historic district by May of this year.

The city hopes to secure other grants to set up a system of providing low-interest loans to property owners in the district for facade renovation and building rehabilitation. The loans would augment federal and state incentives available in the district.

Among the incentives is a 20 percent investment tax credit for substantial rehabilitation projects on income-producing property, such as commercial and residential rentals. One state incentive allows owners with a preservation plan for buildings in a historic district to freeze the assessed value of the property for a 15-year period.

In 1999, a citizens committee came up with a preliminary design for the downtown area. The next step is to complete the final engineering and prepare construction plans.

The streetscape project includes measures to make the business district more pedestrian friendly, with wider sidewalks, curb extensions or bubble outs, additional trees and landscaping, benches and outdoor dining space. There could be new street lights, informational panels, bike racks and directional signs.