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Down a planning hole: Astoria struggles with an open pit downtown

New community development director will lead task force
By Katie Frankowicz

The Daily Astorian

Published on July 3, 2018 12:01AM

Last changed on July 3, 2018 9:48AM

The new community development director in Astoria will be tasked with dealing with the open pit near the Garden of Surging Waves.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

The new community development director in Astoria will be tasked with dealing with the open pit near the Garden of Surging Waves.

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Tunnels under the streets of Astoria are adjacent to the open pit which collapsed in December 2010.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Tunnels under the streets of Astoria are adjacent to the open pit which collapsed in December 2010.

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Astoria city leaders toured a section of tunnel in October next to the pit.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian

Astoria city leaders toured a section of tunnel in October next to the pit.

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A hole in the heart of downtown Astoria will turn eight this year.

Some Astoria leaders believe they are in a better position now to deal with the open pit and surrounding property than they were in the past, when plans to build a community college campus and then a new library with housing failed to launch.

Not everyone agrees.

The redevelopment of Heritage Square continues to be a City Council goal. City councilors asked staff to craft a request for proposals this year asking developers what projects they believe might suit the underutilized city block. The councilors have yet to specify the types of projects they’d be interested in seeing.

Still, said City Manager Brett Estes, “I think there is probably the most clarity in terms of where to move forward on that piece of property.”

In recent years, the city had hoped to get redevelopment rolling and potentially build a new library at the former Safeway property. But last year, the City Council opted to renovate the existing library instead.

“When the plans didn’t go through for the library, we kind of just dropped it for a while and put it on the back burner,” Mayor Arline LaMear said.

The mayor hears divided opinions in the community and on the council as to what should happen there: housing, retail, parking. Amid concerns about how much any kind of new housing could cost renters, some city councilors have said they’re interested in investigating more general public-private partnerships.

The task of coming up with new ideas for what could fill the hole or be built around it will fall to the city’s new community development director — a position that has been vacant since last October.

Estes hoped to find someone to fill the position months ago. Instead, he had to repost the job this spring after interviews with two potential candidates did not produce a clear prospect. He whittled down a list of new candidates and has started phone interviews. He hopes to have a final group of three or four candidates lined up for more formal interviews by late July or early August, he said Monday when City Councilor Bruce Jones asked for an update on the search.

City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill asked for an update on the twin issue: Heritage Square.

“I just wanted to bring it up because I don’t think we should forget it,” she said. “It’s been a priority of this city and the citizens of Astoria for a long time — for at least a decade and a half — to redevelop that area.”


Down a planning hole


The hole, in particular, has been a conundrum for the city since it first showed up eight years ago. It was once covered by a concrete slab, all that remained from a Safeway store demolished in 2005. The slab began to fail in August 2010, then cracked and caved after a period of heavy rains that December.

The Garden of Surging Waves went up to the west of the hole four years ago, on the corner of Duane and 11th. The tall, blue American Legion building stands to the south. The Astoria Sunday Market erects booths in the parking lot to the east from May to October.

In July 2015, city leaders and staff were optimistic that the hole would be dealt with soon. But plans to build a new library with housing at Heritage Square went nowhere. Major cleanup work to deal with contaminated soil in and around the hole is more or less complete. But — with an understaffed community development department, other big city projects on the horizon and no immediate plans for what exactly could be developed around the site — the hole remains.

In early June, the City Council asked staff to push forward on finishing the Riverfront Vision Plan, which guides development along the Columbia River, specifically the Urban Core section between Second Street and 16th Street.

City Councilor Tom Brownson asked how focusing on this project would take away from other goals. “Let’s say, Heritage Square,” he said.

Estes said staff will still be engaged with Heritage Square. But, without a fully staffed community development department, he added, there is “not a whole lot more bandwidth to add other projects.”

At the end of June, as they have done in summers past, volunteers wrapped the chain-link fence that surrounds the hole with banners, hiding it all from view during the busiest tourist season.


Problem isn’t unique


The hole is and is not unique.

Rosemary Johnson, a former city planner, can point to several other troubled areas or buildings around Astoria that sat for years. Mill Pond, for example: A once-polluted site on the east end of the city that is now an upscale housing development. It took the city 10 years to get from the decision to clean it up and begin preparing for development to the point where it was ready for development, Johnson said.

But with the hole, there are some differences.

“Any time you have contamination or you have a large site that the public is aware of then there’s issues with it,” Johnson said. “It’s more difficult because it’s in your eye every day.”

But, she added, “The problems aren’t unique. The problems are the same: Cleanup money, finding the right development for the site.”

Johnson was involved with the hole’s neighbor, the Garden of Surging Waves. She credits massive efforts from the Chinese community and people in Portland and Salem who contributed large amounts of money with bringing the cultural project to fruition.

The Garden of Surging Waves was a huge accomplishment, Johnson said. When city staffing, plans and money are in place, she believes the rest of Heritage Square will follow suit.

“When you have a full staff, everybody’s up to speed,” Johnson said. “Then you can take on bigger projects and you can move faster.”



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