Work is set to begin on plans for improvements to an area near the old railroad depot building north of Marine Drive and the "catalyst" project for the city's development ambitions downtown.

The city development commission approved both projects - which are inside the Astor-East Urban Renewal District - at a meeting Tuesday night.

Astoria's development commission is essentially the Astoria City Council because members of both bodies are the same. The commission, however, makes decisions on property transactions in the city's two urban renewal districts.

Nothing definite has been planned yet for the area east of 20th Street and north of Marine Drive, home to the railway building and the old Darigold building. Original plans for the renewal district called for a conference center, hotel and restaurant complex.

City Manager Dan Bartlett said the conference center obviously won't be going in that area because it is set to be built near the Port of Astoria. But he said some of the elements of the old plan, including a public plaza and parking improvements, could be incorporated into a project.

Tax revenues collected on properties in the district are spent solely on improving it, and so far about $3,371,388 has been committed to projects and $2,181,973 remains.

The street improvements are the first step recommended by Portland-based urban consultant Crandall Arambula to set the stage for when the city redevelops the Safeway/American Legion Block.

That redevelopment is designed to spark a renewal of Astoria's downtown. Crandall Arambula engineers have said to help ensure that renewal, the city should first make some street improvements.

The approval gives city staff the direction they need to begin work on figuring out how best to proceed.

Bartlett said a local nonprofit group is using the Darigold building as a storage facility, and he said he isn't sure what good be done with the railroad building. "We'd have a community process to do that," he said.

Councilor Don Morden asked if the street improvements were essentially cosmetic. "Is that the main thing, improved appearance?," he said.

Bartlett said it was. Crandall Arambula has told the city that for every $1 in public investment in sprucing up a street about $8 to $12 of private investment would follow when business owners improved their store's facades.

He said early plans also call for trees to be moved out into the street. While that may be at the cost of some on-street parking, Bartlett said the trees should also slow drivers down.

"I'd be very careful with taking away parking spots," said Mayor Willis Van Dusen, and other councilors agreed.

Still, Councilor Joyce Compere said the project looked promising for the downtown.

"This is exciting," she said. "Is there a start date?"

Design plans still need to be drawn up, as well as other various planning work most of which will incorporate public comment, Bartlett said, so much work still needs to be done before any work can start.

Waste issuesAt the same meeting, the City Council agreed to give Western Oregon Waste the ability to go after other companies with possible litigation when WOW fears another company is stealing its waste.

Bartlett said situations have arisen where another firm has provided waste containers for collection and sometimes even removed some waste from WOW-owned containers. The material is often construction debris that has value after being recycled.

Councilors agreed to give WOW the ability to enforce its franchise agreement, but the agreement would allow for nonprofit organizations to collect recyclable materials such as newspapers for fund-raising.

Another change to the waste hauler's contract did not receive such immediate support from the council. WOW had asked the city to consider a "rolling contract" with it. The contract would exist for five years, but after one year it would be renewed for another five years.

Councilor Loran Mathews said he was uncomfortable with the idea because he did not want the city to be put in a situation where it was stuck with poor service and could not seek other competitive bids.

That opinion was shared by Councilor Blair Henningsgaard, who said people often forget they are in a rolling contract and find themselves stuck with a many year commitment they may not enjoy.

But Van Dusen and Compere said in their businesses they enjoy rolling contracts because it gives them the ability to plan how best to use their resources.

"We have five-year rolling contracts all over the place," Van Dusen said of his Pepsi distributorship. "I think it's the best way to go for our garbage hauler."

After more discussion, the council agreed to a rolling contract, but with a mandatory notice by WOW every year to alert the city to its chance to review and change the contract if so desired.

City staff will then modify the contract and bring it back to the council for their further review.

In other business, the council:

• Approved a liquor license for Safeway's new store at 3250 Lief Erickson Drive. Bartlett said this would "hopefully squash rumors of a Wal Mart" going into the building, which has yet to be completed.

• Agreed to pay a $26,455 bill from the state Department of Forestry for its assistance in fighting a wildfire near the Emerald Heights apartment complex this past summer. The bill is mainly for the use of a helicopter in fighting the fire, and will be paid for out of the city's water fund through an existing appropriation.

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