UO students look to the future of the St. Francis Hotel

By Josie Fey

University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication

When Shirley Huang, a senior architecture student at the University of Oregon, had a chance to work on a real-life design project for the city of Albany, she was at first looking for practical experience. The city was interested in understanding how the St. Francis Hotel building might be adapted to support housing or a hotel. And through a class at the university, Huang could give city officials some possibilities for how to implement their vision.

Huang became inspired by the style of the historic building after taking a tour. She wanted to see it come back to life as an updated version of its original purpose.

“The key features are still there, and especially the first floors are pretty well-maintained,” she said. “The other floors have cedar wood flooring and the wallpaper was beautiful; it was really colorful.”

Huang noted, however, that structural changes would have to be implemented. “It’s not immediately useful as a hotel just by adding furnishings to it,” she said.

To match the city’s vision for a mixed-use design, accommodating retail or business space and dwelling units, Huang decided it would be ideal to preserve the building’s already attractive structure. To update it, she created a unique design that includes both hotel and apartment spaces. “I think the building should have the ability to provide all those options,” she said.

That’s exactly the kind of perspective Albany officials wanted when they partnered with the Sustainable City Year Program at the University of Oregon to develop ideas and concepts that further the city’s vision for its historic downtown.

Said Ed Hodney, Director of Parks & Recreation and interim director of urban renewal, “We’re buying brainpower and ideas and a fresh approach that are uncorrupted by a paycheck.”

Huang was one of four students in a design studio class led by Eugene architect Joe Moore that focused on the St. Francis Hotel project during the fall term.

Moore wanted students to consider the city’s vision for this portion of the project and its relationship with the rest of the environment.

“You’re getting all of these connections, and it’s just so much more fruitful or interesting for the students to be involved and to see that all of these things are related, and to start navigating those worlds early,” Moore said.

During a meeting in December 2016, Moore’s students presented their design concepts to city officials. Bob Richardson, Albany’s planning manager, said they would take these ideas and determine what’s next.

“It’s a piece of a conceptual vision that’s been developed over the last several years, and we’re now giving some form to those ideas,” Richardson said.

The St. Francis Hotel renovation is only one of the many initiatives the SCYP will address; a shortage of capacity at the city level makes the partnership ideal, Hodney said.

“This partnership is all about generating ideas and possible strategies and projects that city staff simply don’t have the time and the resources to pursue,” Hodney said. “It will increase our capacity to think creatively towards the solution to a myriad of issues and problems that the city is going to have to tackle at some point or another.”

Mayor Sharon Konopa is pleased with what she’s seen from students. “I have been amazed over the projects the students have worked on so far. The architectural designs for our historic downtown were not only creative but a wonderful fit for our community,” she said. “The students looked towards the future when it came to their creations.”

In winter term, the hotel project into the hands of business students who explored the financial feasibility of renovation. What they discovered, and presented to the city in March, was that the project designs would not provide a viable return on investment.

The outcome was disappointing to Albany officials and students but provided clarity on the potential for renovating the historic hotel. “The student teams gave the city an incredible gift,” said Doug Wilson, the business students’ instructor.

City officials will continue to work with the building’s current owners, but there are no current plans to move forward with the renovation.