No local small business in downtown Astoria goes without seeing the vacancies growing around them and the competition growing on the other side of Youngs Bay in Warrenton.
The Astoria Downtown Historic District Association members banded together to preserve the character of historic downtown Astoria while promoting its health and future. In that same grain, they cobbled together the funding to start Building Blocks for a Successful Downtown, the downtown revitalization program that kicked off Wednesday night with a community meeting at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
“When I look at the communities that are really going to thrive and survive, it’s going to be the communities that are walkable and interconnected,” said Michele Reeves, a downtown revitalization expert hired as part of the Building Blocks program.
She focused a lot of the night on creating a city around changing societal trends, most notably the lessening popularity of car-centric towns.
Reeves, who owns Portland-based Civilis Consultants, spoke about how she’ll research the entire city of Astoria – downtown, Uppertown, Uniontown and all around – over the coming months and come up with recommendations that might lead to a more successful commercial core.
In January, she’ll take local businesspeople and city officials on a field trip to an emerging district to interview business owners and see what they’ve done to improve their performance. In February, she’ll conduct a marketing workshop, building a framework identity for Astoria. The process ends with a final report from Reeves on recommendations for the revitalization of downtown.
With Reeves was Sheri Stuart, a coordinator for the Oregon Main Street Program, which runs through the State Historic Preservation Office in Salem. Stuart will be in the community, meeting with local business owners to develop comprehensive, incremental revitalization strategies based on a community’s unique assets and the recommendations of Reeves.
Stuart said one of her main functions is to help develop action plans and make sure the project doesn’t end up another report sitting on the shelf.
“We’re thrilled that we’re going to have them working on this program,” said Susan Trabucco, chairwoman of the ADHDA’s Business Development Committee. The program, she said, is funded through a partnership including the ADHDA, city of Astoria, Astoria Sunday Market and Pacific Power.
City officials and business groups became intrigued with the Building blocks program after Reeves dropped by the Banker’s Suite in May to talk about revitalization strategies.
Leveraging Astoria’s strengths
“For everyone who’s in downtown, they should feel a connection to the river all the time,” she said, emphasizing the importance of the Astoria Riverwalk in connecting the various communities of Astoria and strengthening the city’s identity around the Columbia River.
The city, she said, is in a transitional phase, not quite the emerging district just starting to revitalize itself and not yet the mature district with a vibrant commercial core and strong identity.
“You are competing for people’s time with some of the largest retailers in the world,” said Reeves about Astoria’s predicament.
Astoria has natural zones of residential, commercial and industrial that need to coexist for the city to work, said Reeves, and organizations such as the Port of Astoria, Columbia Memorial Hospital and Clatsop Community College play an important part in revitalization.
“These things can coexist,” said Reeves about tourism and industry, adding that, like in Seattle, the Port will be integral to the city’s identity.
“You guys have an incredible collection of infrastructure,” said Reeves, adding that Astoria, while maximizing the appeal of its historic structures, needs flexible city codes to promote revitalization. One example is city code 5.060, which prevents businesses from putting merchandise on the sidewalks except during special events. Reeves said codes like that need to be flexible so businesses can use the sidewalk to engage with customers.
When asked by a person attending the event about the impact of Warrenton, Reeves was clear that Astoria should not try to compete with that city’s model.
“You have to become the ‘anti-strip mall,’” said Reeves, adding that Astoria’s downtown resurgence would be based around small businesses and walkability, higher foot traffic equaling higher sales.
Cannon Beach is a city Reeves referenced as having created a strong identity and walkable core that attracts foot traffic.
Driving and parking
“You have those signs everywhere, and that shows it doesn’t make sense intuitively,” said Reeves about Astoria’s one-way grid, famous for baffling those new to the town.
She likened the confusing nature of Astoria to that of Tillamook, which she said has a quaint downtown that nobody wants to go to because of the frustrating street grid.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., said Reeves, city officials started their revitalization through the roads, reducing the number of lanes and making the streets better able to include pedestrians and bicyclists. “It changes what people are willing to invest, what people are willing to build,” she said.
The idea has been broached about discontinuing the one-way couplet of U.S. Highway 30 through downtown Astoria and instead reverting to two-way streets.
Bill Johnston, a senior planner for Oregon Department of Transportation who attended the meeting, said his agency?has warmed up to the possibility, although there’s the obvious trade-off of more traffic.
“Marine Drive seems pretty friendly to me,” said Johnston about the one-way couplet. “It’s comfortable to have a buffer of parked cars.”
He said changing the one-way couplet to two-way streets might involve taking out parking to accommodate a four-lane highway, a la Burnside Street in Portland.
Councilwoman Arline LaMear asked if pedestrian malls are a good idea. The city recently started construction on the Garden of Surging Waves, which will become a pedestrian mall between 11th and 12th streets next to city hall. Much criticism has been leveled against the city regarding the project taking away parking, but Reeves hinted that making things more crowded might not be such a bad thing.
“These kinds of public spaces are only as strong as their edges and borders,” said Reeves, adding that public plazas need lots of foot traffic and density around them to be successful.
“Every single downtown has troubles with parking,” she said. “What I say is create a parking problem.”
Using northwest 23rd Avenue in Portland as an example, she said an area mired in traffic and a lack of parking can be one of the most successful commercial centers around, frustrating yet attracting shoppers with its busy nature. Increased foot traffic, she said, equals higher sales. She used Lake Oswego as an example of a struggling downtown – even in an affluent suburb – that invested in a lot of parking that ultimately has detracted from people walking around.
After creating a vibrant downtown, said Reeves, Astoria can then negotiate for more parking – a parking structure or maybe an underground lot – from a position of strength.
Communication is key
“One of the things I want to see more of is information sharing,” said Reeves about property owners engaging with one another to create a shared vision of Astoria. Reeves emphasized that she’s looking at the entire city, because it all has an effect on downtown revitalization.
The city of Astoria, she said, has a bypass in U.S. Highway 101, which can take people out of the city before reaching downtown. In her study, she’ll focus on the entrances to Astoria, including neighborhoods such as Uppertown and Uniontown, and how to get people farther into town.
She encouraged people to contact her with any suggestions or concerns during the process.