After a three-year hiatus caused mainly by the economic recession, remodeling Astoria City Hall has emerged as a priority again for the Astoria City Council.

Built in 1925 as Astoria Savings Bank, the old building was not designed to house city offices and services. At Monday's meeting, members of the Council were pleased with a presentation by an architectural firm showing how the building, at 11th and Exchange streets, could be reconfigured to make it safer and more efficient for city staff and more accessible and user-friendly for Astoria's citizens.

"This building is a little jewel," said Hal Ayotte, a principal of the Portland firm of Fletcher Farr Ayotte Inc. "It's criminal that people have to come in through the back door. They don't get to enjoy the building," he told the council. Ayotte's plan would change all that by restoring the doors on Exchange as the main entrance, instead of the side door on 11th Street that's now the way to reach the Council Chambers on the second floor and city offices on the third floor.

"It's the best plan I've seen," Councilor Russ Warr said.

City Manager Paul Benoit said a couple of factors have made the remodel more viable than before. The Parks and Recreation Department has moved out of its cramped quarters on the second floor of City Hall to new digs at the Aquatic Center, freeing enough space to allow the building's three large bank vaults on the first floor to remain in place. Cost of removing them would have been about $400,000. And Benoit said bids from contractors are coming in lower than ever for the project, now estimated to cost in the $1 million range.

Benoit said he'll be bringing the question to the Council soon for a decision on whether the City Hall remodel should move forward. If the answer is yes, he'll ask the architectural firm to develop blueprints.

Another member of the firm, Troy Ainsworth, gave a presentation Monday on possibilities for the Astoria Public Library, which Ayotte described as having "great bones" and a great location in the heart of town. "It's a good building. It just needs a little facelift," Ayotte said.

Ainsworth's take on the library building was optimistic but a little less flattering. "It's modern, it's ugly, but it's really flexible," Ainsworth said.

Mayor Willis Van Dusen said that flexibility is exciting. "It could be many things besides a library," Van Dusen said, and Councilor Arline LaMear, who is a librarian, said the plan presented by Ainsworth has "real possibilities."

In other business, the Council held a public hearing on a draft version of a derelict building ordinance, hoping to gain input from citizens on how to address the issue of buildings that are boarded up, in significant disrepair or vacant. During public testimony, Tiffany Estes, speaking on behalf of the Astoria Downtown Historical District Association, said the group is happy with progress on the ordinance. The only other person who spoke was Kathy Sanders, who urged the Council to recognize that there's a difference between gross neglect by a property owner, compared with someone who may be elderly or poor and unable to keep up their home.

Council members LaMear and Warr told Community Development Director Brett Estes they were pleased with the proposed ordinance, which is still being developed.

Another public hearing addressed an amendment to the Astoria Development Code that would clarify the language having to do with the time frames in which permits are valid, and with extensions of existing permits for conditional use, design review, variances and others.

"For 20 years the city allowed serial one-year extensions," Benoit explained, but now the state Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) has issued a ruling disagreeing with that interpretation, he said. Estes noted that the present clarification was undertaken before the LUBA decision.

No members of the public testified at the hearing.

The present version allows only one one-year extensions. Because some developers' permits are about to expire, the amendment clarifying how additional extensions may be granted was declared an emergency, so that it can be adopted at the City Council's next meeting.

The Council also approved its 12 goals for fiscal year 2010-2011, which include mitigating derelict building problems and completing city hall renovations.


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