Astoria Co-op Grocery
Amid concerns about traffic, a majority of the Astoria City Council on Monday upheld a Planning Commission decision to rezone the site in Mill Pond where the Astoria Co-op Grocery plans to expand.
The decision moves the grocery store along to the next steps before it can break ground. The project still must undergo design review.
Mayor Arline LaMear was the only “no” in the 3-1 vote Monday. City Councilors Tom Brownson, Bruce Jones and Cindy Price voted to amend the zoning at the 1 acre site from mixed use, where retail is permitted as a conditional use, to local service, where retail is permitted outright. Councilor Zetty Nemlowill, the grocery store’s marketing director, cited a conflict of interest and sat in the audience during the hearing and vote.
Jennifer Bunch of Wickiup Consulting, representing the landowner, argued the zoning is a natural progression from commercial to residential. The site, located off Marine Drive near 23rd Street, is bordered by a more industrial zone to the west and the Mill Pond residential area to the east.
But some Mill Pond residents and property owners are unhappy about the Astoria Co-op’s plan to use Steam Whistle Way, a narrow street that runs behind the site connecting 23rd Street to 29th Street, as an access road to the store’s parking lot. Despite the co-op’s commitment to widen the street, residents said it still may not be wide enough.
Under the co-op’s plans now, people would turn off Marine Drive, onto 23rd Street and then on to Steam Whistle Way. The intersection where 23rd Street meets Marine Drive can be busy. Columbia Memorial Hospital is just across the street and there is no left hand turn lane onto 23rd Street for someone traveling east on Marine Drive. During the height of the summer tourist season, traffic can come to a standstill on the main road.
Mill Pond residents warn there could be an increase in traffic through the neighborhood if shoppers use Steam Whistle to reach a traffic light farther east in order to avoid complications at 23rd Street and make an easier turn back onto Marine Drive.
“I think common sense just tells you people are going to come out of that parking lot and go to the light,” she said. “I certainly will. I’m not going to try to get out on Marine Drive without a light. And coming in, I’ll come the same way. Right through Mill Pond.”
“I am not voting against the co-op,” she said later, before the council voted. “I am voting against this proposal because I think there’s some transportation issues that need to be covered.”
There are changes that could be made east of the site to improve traffic flow in the future, said City Engineer Nathan Crater. He also noted that a credit union had considered building on this same site, a use that would have been permitted outright and never come up for a public hearing. The traffic generated by that use would have been similar, if not somewhat higher, than what is predicted for the co-op.
Price said the council needed to be “honest” that “we are considering rezoning because this is a beloved community institution.”
She repeated a question Planning Commissioner Jennifer Cameron-Lattek had posed at a hearing on the co-op’s zoning request in January, “What’s the interest?”
“I think the interest is in creating a good space for a local community-owned business that has living wages … we have good economic reasons for doing this and I think that’s good enough for spot zoning,” Price said, but added that she still considered it a “critical issue” that there is no left turn lane from Marine Drive onto 23rd Street.
Brownson said he wasn’t going to hold traffic issues against the co-op.
“There’s new businesses coming in,” he said. “There’s more traffic, more tourists. We’re expanding. There’s more pressure on our existing road systems. There’s no getting around there and as that area changes — no matter what happens, whether the co-op’s there or not — it’s just a crappy bit of highway intersection that needs to be addressed at some point.”
In other business:
• The City Council approved logging plans on approximately 50 acres of the Bear Creek watershed. City forester Ben Hayes said the operations are intended to improve water quality and forest health over the long term by increasing the forest’s diversity, structural complexity and resilience. The work will take place on a ridge between Cedar Creek and Fat Buck Creek. The city expects proceeds of around $200,000 after harvest and reforestation costs.
Hayes and Public Works Director Jeff Harrington proposed commercial thinning on a tightly spaced spruce-dominated stand. The thinning will allow extra light to penetrate the forest and give remaining trees more space. Right now, the trees have gotten to a point where they have stopped growing, Hayes told councilors. Logging crews will also thin out an area where Douglas fir has been impacted by Swiss needle cast. This fungus attacks the crowns of trees and stunts their growth. The city will replant in this area.
• The City Council approved an agreement with the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association for a parking study. The association, working with city staff, will begin to gather input about how parking downtown is used and what the needs are, as well as complete an inventory of private parking. Eventually, the association hopes to create lease options with owners of private parking lots and connect them with businesses and employees who want reliable parking in the downtown area, freeing up more on-street parking.
• The city has begun looking for a new fire chief. A job posting is up on the city’s website. Chief Ted Ames announced his retirement last year but said he would stay on an interim basis through the spring to help ease the burden on the city during a search for his replacement. City Manager Brett Estes said he expects it could be a difficult position to fill, but has contracted with a recruitment company to advertise the job. Astoria’s fire chief is responsible for nine career staff and 14 volunteers. The job has been advertised with a salary range of $86,105 to $104,662. Applications are being accepted through March 22.