Len Blackstone is trying to revitalize Cottage Grove — one project at a time.
As owner, general contractor and landlord of the Bank Building on the corner of Main and Sixth streets, Blackstone is securing a lasting difference downtown with the building’s renovation.
At this year’s Chamber of Commerce awards ceremony in January, Blackstone received the Community Impact Award for his work on the Bank Building and other projects, which have included the Stewart Building on Main Street and brokering land sales in the Cottage Grove Industrial Park.
On top of these, the developer is also planning a housing project on the old Harrison Elementary School property.
“[I’m trying to] bring more well-paying jobs to our community,” said Blackstone, summarizing his goal for the town.
Blackstone’s interest in development projects for Cottage Grove began during a parade on Main Street as he gazed at the dilapidated Bank Building.
“I asked a life-changing question: ‘What can I do to help my hometown?’” he said.
Using his decades of marketing experience, Blackstone in effect hired himself to take on Cottage Grove as client and, through his analysis, determined that jobs were the key to answering his question.
“Jobs are related to businesses, businesses are related to buildings, buildings are related to land — so in one sense it’s really connected to jobs, people and space,” he said. “For me, it’s not about real estate. It’s not about buildings. It’s about well-paying jobs, because well-paying jobs provide money for families to feed their kids, raise their kids and live a better life.”
He also recognized that people need businesses which provide this standard of living. In this, Blackstone began wondering how to revive downtown.
Blackstone recalled one day in downtown Oregon City striking up a conversation with a parking enforcement officer. He asked if the area had always looked as nice as it did. The officer replied that it hadn’t and when she was a little girl, the area was actually dangerous. Blackstone asked her what happened.
The officer pointed to a renovated building and said, “That was the biggest, ugliest building in downtown.”
The interaction stuck with Blackstone and he later saw a similar metamorphosis of a Salem neighborhood utilizing the same concept. Ideas for Cottage Grove’s Bank Building began churning.
‘Live, Work and Play’
Making the 115-year-old Bank Building downtown a focus of his attention has been perhaps the most conspicuous of Blackstone’s efforts.
Built in 1904, the two-story building was originally the site of the Cottage Grove Bank, hence the prominent typeface “Bank Building” displayed on its façade. When the institution failed and moved out in 1929, businesses began claiming space and a hodgepodge of changes contributed to the building falling out of recognition.
Decades of patchwork modifications had stripped the building of much of its original aesthetic, causing a lack of architectural continuity between its ground floor businesses while leaving the second floor’s face to weather and crack due to inattention.
Blackstone’s project will see a complete renovation of the interior, establishing businesses, offices and work spaces on the ground floor and six modernized apartments above while returning the original balance and symmetry to its outside appearance.
As the apartments are nearing completion, citizens were invited to an open house in February to observe the changes and even apply for future residency.
“I think they’re doing a great job.,” said local resident Cathy Donahue. “It makes it look better.”
Resident Cindy Ward also approved of the downtown changes.
“I’m sure there’s lots of people it will work for,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a niche for this.”
The new apartments are priced higher than the previous units, ranging from $1,050 to $1,550 per month and renovation for the building is expected to be finished within the next few months.
The transition to middle-income housing is part of Blackstone’s vision of creating a more dynamic downtown, though he noted the demand for low-income housing in the town as well.
“Is there a need for subsidized housing? Absolutely. I think we have a responsibility to those who have drawn the short straw,” he said.
Cottage Grove’s Housing Needs Analysis adopted in February 2019 identified a particular need for housing that is affordable to low- and middle-income households as well as a greater range of hous-ing types.
“We have no apartments in this city to rent,” said Blackstone, adding that apartments are snatched up quickly once they’re put on the market.
Blackstone attributes the situation partially to a lack of real estate investment in rural America.
“It’s been that way for years,” he said.
Blackstone has also set sights on the 6.84 acres of the old Harrison Elementary School property.
The South Lane School District board voted on Jan. 6 to begin negotiations with Blackstone on his development plans for the property.
Following the property’s rezoning from R1 to R2 in July last year, the district posted a request for proposal in September and subsequently selected Blackstone from three proposals.
The project may see up to 100 units on the property, a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes.
Blackstone was influenced by the idea of “pocket neighborhoods,” spaces in which houses and apartments face a common ground in order to create more “people-centric” neighborhoods with parking relegated to the area along the outside of the development.
Six of these pocket neighborhoods are planned for the space, a move Blackstone hopes will foster greater community identity and “create a place where you can live, work and play,” he said.
Aiming to keep the high end of home prices under $300,000, Blackstone said he’s planning to keep prices down by “building smarter.”
As opposed to a stick-built method, which is constructed almost entirely on-site, Blackstone’s plan involves a pre-planned off-site method.
“The average stick-built house generates three dumpster loads full of trash,” he said. “A house that’s built offsite … generates .3 dumpsters. It’s also 40 percent faster. It’s also 20 percent less cost.”
The homes are targeting potential homeowners or renters who fall between 80-120 percent of median household income.
United States Census Bureau data puts Cottage Grove’s median household income at $47,316 per year.
“One of my goals here is that this will actually the raise the property values of everybody that is around this development,” said Blackstone, who sees the project has a “beta test” for a new kind of housing strategy.
Current plans are to start construction by this summer with the project done in phases, taking anywhere from two to five years.
Depending the projects’ financial success, Blackstone is hopeful these efforts will allow him to fund future projects.
“For me, money is oxygen. Money is jet fuel. You’ve got to have money in order to do good. You’ve got to have money in order to blast off,” he said. “So, am I interested in making money on the pro-jects? Absolutely. Why? Because I can do other good things.”
In the end, Blackstone envisions his investments as making an indelible mark on the town.
“I know that I’m in Act II of a three-part play,” he said. “But I also know that behind a Hearse, there’s rarely a U-Haul trailer. You can’t take it with you.”