A central concept for the planned "downtown revitalization" process in Bingen is to rejuvenate what is now an unattractive back alley known as Depot Street. The alley runs between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks and the backs of businesses along Steuben Street, from Willow to Maple Street.
The property is owned by BNSF, and negotiations between the city and the railroad are in their early stages. At stake may be the effectiveness of the city's revitalization hopes, as Depot Street has become a focal point for a series of proposed changes.
In an April 6 letter to Jim Eoff, the railroad's division engineer in Vancouver, Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel laid out the problem the city is trying to address: "The conflict between use and ownership has been a source of headaches for the city, business owners, and likely the railroad as well. It has been a problem for the city because we are unable to enforce many ordinances to the satisfaction of the community ... We cannot make improvements to the surface, lighting, or signage because it is private property," Prigel wrote. "Having an Amtrak stop in the middle of this mess is in no one's best interest."
Prigel said he was hopeful both sides would see advantages in a new arrangement.
"We would ideally like to have control of that alley and turn it into a real public street," Prigel said. "Now it's a no-man's land; it's private property. Issues arise with junk vehicles and vandalism. which we've been reluctant to deal with because it's private property."
Prigel added that the railroad requires business owners to lease access to the back entrances of their businesses.
"It's a headache for some businesses that load from the back of their buildings," Prigel noted.
Prigel pointed out that having the city manage the street would be a positive solution all the way around.
"The city could improve the considerations of this street and enforce city ordinances in this area," Prigel noted in his letter to BNSF's Eoff. "This action would help absolve BNSF of any liability associated with the current conditions or future use of this area. The businesses would benefit by being able to legally use this area as parking and for access to their business. Amtrak and its customers would benefit by having a nicer and safer area for its only stop in the Gorge."
McKeever/Morris, Inc., of Portland worked for two months developing a downtown action plan that calls for, among other enhancements, a major renovation of Depot Street. Planners envisioned building an interpretive pier that overlooks SDS Lumber Co., constructing pavilions and planting trees around the Amtrak station, landscaping and parking and transforming what is now the aesthetically displeasing backs of buildings into a new area for commercial activity.
"Right now, it's kind of a back street," said Paul Morris, head of the planning team, when he presented the draft downtown revitalization plan last June. "But it could be great, with art galleries and coffee shops and an interpretive pier and a ramp bringing people from Steuben down to Depot Street."
"There is an unexploited opportunity to create wonderful commercial space," added Dan Heff, a member of the McKeever/Morris planning team.
"We're trying to impress on the railroad the mutual benefits of assigning control or give it to us," Prigel explained.
Prigel added that the BNSF maintenance crews that operate out of an office behind the Amtrak waiting room would be guaranteed access and parking rights.
"We're hoping to negotiate with them rather than have to buy the land outright," Prigel said.
No dollar figure for a possible sale of the corridor to the city has yet been determined.