The continuing slump in the new home construction has recorded another casualty. The latest victim is an upscale housing project once planned for the site of the former Central School in Astoria.


Developers had planned to build eight high-end dwellings on the 40,000 sq. ft. hillside parcel that overlooks downtown Astoria and the Columbia River.

The hillside property where Central School once stood has views of downtown Astoria and the Columbia River. Photo: Greg Cohen




But Mitch Mitchum, one of the principals in Riverview Partners, LLC, that owns the longtime vacant property, said that because of the depressed housing market, the developers have decided to abandon their plans and, instead, are now marketing each site separately as a buildable lot.


"Our analysis says the project as originally proposed is not in the cards, at least in the foreseeable future," Mitchum told the Coast River Business Journal.


It is a disappointing turn for what some consider one of Astoria's few remaining large developable view parcels.


The hillside property is bounded by Irving and Jerome Avenues and 9th and 10th streets. The site has been vacant since about 1990, when the old elementary school was torn down. Central School was built on the site in about 1918.


Zoned R-2 to accommodate single-family dwellings or duplexes, the city in 1996 approved plans for a 28-unit multi-family housing cluster for the property. The developer died before the project could be started and the property later changed hands and sat idle until 2006, when Riverview Partners acquired the site, along with a separate 32,000 sq. ft. parcel located just east of the school that was once the school's playground area. The two parcels are separated by 9th Street.

Local developer Mitch Mitchum shows architectural designs for some of the homes that had been planned for construction on the former site of Central School in Astoria. Photo: Greg Cohen.




Mitchum and his partners, Dennis DeLaHunt and Peter Tadei, designed plans for eight single-family dwellings on the school block.


Four houses along the higher elevation closest to Jerome Avenue were to be four stories tall with 2,800 sq. ft. of living space and to include a basement and attic. These so-called "aging-in-place" houses were to be built to Americans With Disabilities Act standards and designed to add elevators in the future to accommodate homeowners as they aged.


"The plan was that these were homes the owners would stay in for the rest of their lives," Mitchum explained.


The remaining four dwellings to be built on the lower level of the property were to be three stories with about 2,300 sq. ft. of living space.


"These were to be upper scale homes with elements of Victorian and Craftsman designs" to fit with the surrounding neighborhood, Mitchum said.


The two architectural designs received approval from the City of Astoria's Historic Landmarks Commission.


The final piece for the developers before breaking ground was obtaining a setback variance for the three-story houses which were to be built right up to a retaining wall left from the former school.


By the time the city approved the variance, the housing market had crashed.


Mitchum said the wait for the variance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the developers.


"If we hadn't had to wait for the variance, we could have completed our engineering work and been in the midst of building one or two spec. houses when the crash came in 2007," he said.


The primary market for the houses were "equity refugees" - property owners in Southern California who had made substantial profits selling their former homes and were looking to relocate to the Oregon coast and needed to reinvest their money in another home.


Unfortunately, when the housing bubble burst, it hit hardest in Southern California and struck the higher end market the most severely - drying up potential buyers for homes like the ones proposed for the Central School property.


"When the economy turned sour, people couldn't sell their homes in California and that dried up" our potential market, Mitchum said.


Mitchum and his partners decided to shelve their plans at least temporarily to see what the housing market would do. In 2008, Tadei left the partnership.


As the months went on and all indicators pointed to a lengthy slump in the new housing market, Mitchum and DeLaHunt decided it was time to look at other options for the property.


"We didn't want to continue to carry the debt without any income," Mitchum said. "It's a unique property, but having a large mortgage is painful."


Mitchum and DeLaHunt recently decided to put the school lots up for sale individually, starting at $60,000, with the price based on the lot's view. "That's not in the high-end range in Astoria," Mitchum noted. The owners also are selling lots on the separate "playground" site.


"We're targeting builders who want to be ready as the market begins to come back," he said.


As for their dream of developing a unique neighborhood, Mitchum, who has had a successful career as a commercial developer, said he and DeLaHunt had to be "pragmatic".


"We're disappointed," he said. "We put a lot of intellectual energy in it, as well as time and money. We wanted a really nice project that fit into the neighborhood. But we didn't (anticipate) the change in circumstances that was beyond anybody's control."