Meeting set Wednesday for citizens to hear plan and voice their opinions and ideasAstoria residents will have a chance next week to tell city planners exactly what they would like to see in their city's downtown.

The opportunity comes at a time when the future is already beginning to take shape.

Construction is well under way on the new Safeway store on Lief Erickson Drive, and the clock is ticking for when the city will take over the current Safeway site. When that happens, the keystone in Astoria's downtown revitalization will be in place - and the city wants a comprehensive plan to wrap around it.

To make sure as many voices as possible are heard in creating that plan, a meeting will be held in the Kern Room of the Columbia River Maritime Museum 6 p.m. Wednesday. It is an opportunity for citizens to hear about the current status of those plans and offer input.

At a similar meeting Aug. 30, the consensus seemed to be to turn the former Safeway block into a public square of some sort with strong pedestrian access throughout the city plus renovated commercial space.

That new public space is expected to continue to power a re-energizing downtown Astoria and keep it on its current track of becoming destination point. But some in the Safeway block area are concerned about being pushed out of their neighborhood by new development plans.

RevitalizationInterim Community Development Director Mike Morgan said the meeting will expand on earlier ideas to work toward a comprehensive "downtown revitalization strategy."

Morgan is the short-term replacement for development director Paul Benoit who left the city a month ago to take a job in the planning department of Alameda, Calif. He is no stranger to civic planning issues as he served as Astoria's associate planner for some time working with Benoit on grant proposals. He has worked for planning departments of many cities and counties on the North Coast.

His name is not on the list for Benoit's replacement, however, as Morgan said he did not apply.

Next week's meeting should "broaden out the discussion to include all of the downtown area." he said.

To that end, representatives of the Portland urban design firm Crandall Arambula will give a presentation on the plan so far, and then the audience will break up into small groups to discuss what they would like to see included, Morgan said.

"The meeting is really just to have a general discussion about where the town should go," he said.

For John Compere, associate director of the Astoria-Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, the city already seems to be in the right direction. He said a good deal of renovation and resurgence in the city's downtown, especially along Commercial Street, points not to a revitalization but a re-emphasis on Astoria's strong downtown.

"The character is not changing but our emphasis on being a destination point is changing," he said. "We want to keep the character in its historic perspective ... we are not a beach-front community, but we have a history that is unmatched and we want to keep that historic character."

Compere said the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the planned interpretive center on Coxcomb Hill for the Astoria Column are representative of additions to the town that highlight Astoria's past while making it a worthwhile stop for visitors.

A new public space in the downtown core, he said, would hopefully follow that example of being new, but profiting on the historic charm of Astoria.

"Absolutely if the community can feel like there's a place that's inviting and encouraging us to stay downtown," he said.

Many elementsElements of the revitalization plan include improved traffic circulation, planting trees to line city streets, installing street furniture and "how to improve the retail climate in the downtown area."

That could include looking at sites for potential underground parking structures, Morgan said.

He said people have been working on means to upgrade Astoria's downtown for several years including how to renovate older buildings, fill vacant storefronts and improve the infrastructure.

Like Compere, Morgan said some of the initial success from that work can already be seen in the Elliott Hotel, Liberty Theater and innovative downtown businesses such as the day spa.

"There's an amazing amount of real estate activity," he said.

Compere said chamber members are seeing a "revitalization in our downtown that a lot of visitors comment on as encouraging," but said parking is becoming an issue and any revitalization strategy should definitely address that need.

In terms of the actual Safeway site, Morgan said the final environmental assessments are being completed. These are some of the final steps for the city to assume ownership.

He also said negotiations are proceeding with the American Legion, which will have to relocate as its current building because it is in part of the block expected to be turned into some sort of public space. In the past, members of the Legion have questioned the cost of the relocation and sought assistance from the city in finding another site.

Morgan said the city is continuing to discuss the situation with the American Legion, though "nothing has been finalized."

Seniors watching warilyIn addition to the Legion, Helen McDaniel, president of the Astoria Senior Center board, said she is concerned the city's plans could include the building leased by the center. She said the building is theirs for a next-to-nothing lease and if the center would be asked to move she isn't sure how that would be possible.

"If we have to vacate, I don't see how we could afford rent in downtown," she said.

McDaniel said she will be at the meeting Wednesday to voice her concerns and see if there is any way the Senior Center could be incorporated into a new building if one will be built near the present site.

"We could be on the first floor of a building of affordable senior housing," she said.

While most of her clients are in support of a public square, many are concerned about losing easy access to the old Safeway, despite the grocery store's pledge it will work with the center to provide transportation to its new location.

"They like the idea so far from what they've seen, but everyone is kind of skeptical," she said. "It's difficult for seniors to accept drastic change."

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