The Astoria City Council tentatively approved plans for the Astoria Co-op Grocery’s new store in Mill Pond after a three-hour public hearing Monday night about the building’s configuration and traffic impacts.
City Councilors Tom Brownson, Cindy Price and Bruce Jones voted to deny an appeal by Mill Pond residents, who have taken issue with vehicle access to the store from Steam Whistle Way next to their properties. Mayor Arline LaMear supported the appeal. Councilor Zetty Nemlowill, the co-op’s marketing director, recused herself.
The appeal packet, including voluminous testimony for and against the co-op project, was more than 300 pages. City Manager Brett Estes said there would be a revised set of city findings based on the additional testimony.
“This would, in effect, be a tentative decision tonight,” he said.
The co-op’s new location would face east from the northeast corner of 23rd Street and Marine Drive toward a parking lot. The loading bay would be on 23rd Street, while the driveway to the store would be from Steam Whistle Way, a side street snaking through the Mill Pond neighborhood.
The Planning Commission and City Council previously approved a zone change for the new store. The city’s Design Review Committee approved the co-op’s site plans last month, but Mill Pond residents Cheryl Storey, Barbara Bower and John Ryan appealed the decision to the City Council.
Neighbors have argued that Steam Whistle Way was meant as a neighborhood alleyway, rather than the access point to a busy commercial development. They have called for access from 23rd Street and promoted an alternative that would have the co-op face west toward the parking lot.
“We are not against the co-op,” Bower said during testimony Monday. “We are simply against the traffic issues as proposed.”
Members and staff of the co-op testified against the appeal, arguing that the store has taken pains to present an attractive project, meet the city’s requirements and mitigate neighbors’ concerns. The store’s plans call for widening Steam Whistle Way by 4 feet and installing a sidewalk along the south side, along with landscape and seating improvements.
City councilors wondered why the store couldn’t face west and use 23rd Street for access. They called on Don Vallaster, co-owner of the property and architect for the co-op, who said the co-op had looked at four or five layouts and found the current design gave the best access for pedestrians along Marine Drive and loading trucks from 23rd Street.
Councilors pondered whether to consider traffic issues under their purview, potentially sending the co-op’s plan back to the Design Review Committee. Estes maintained that by city code, traffic issues are reviewed at the staff level.
LaMear, who was also the lone “no” vote in the co-op’s zoning change approval, said it would be terribly remiss not to consider the impact the undeveloped property next to the grocer’s proposed location would have on Steam Whistle Way.
“If that ingress and egress is on Steam Whistle Way, it will ruin that neighborhood,” she said.
The site had previously been planned as a headquarters and Astoria branch for Wauna Federal Credit Union. Price, Brownson and Jones commiserated with the concerns of residents but ultimately said that development was inevitable there, and that the co-op had done enough to mitigate its impact. The grocery wanted a larger store after outgrowing its space on Exchange Street downtown.
“I think five years from now, if the co-op is built, the majority of residents in Mill Pond will be thrilled it’s there,” Jones said.