Astoria Co-op clears zoning hurdle

Astoria Co-op Grocery hopes to relocate and expand in the Mill Pond neighborhood.

The Astoria Co-op cleared a major hurdle Wednesday night when the Planning Commission approved a request to rezone a portion of the land in Mill Pond where the grocery hopes to relocate and expand.

But the organic and natural food store has several more jumps to land before it can break ground.

The commission voted 5-1 in favor of rezoning a slice of property off Marine Drive and 23rd Street, just over an acre in size, from mixed use — where retail is permitted as a conditional use — to local service, where retail is permitted outright and buildings can be larger. In addition to changing the zoning, the commission also approved an amendment to remove certain uses from the local service zone that could be considered incompatible with a residential area, a nod to the Mill Pond development next door.

Commissioner Daryl Moore was the sole “no” vote, saying rezoning one part of the property and amending the code would complicate “the development code unnecessarily.”

He also was concerned that by allowing retail outright under the new zoning, the commission was taking away the ability of people who live nearby to choose what kind of businesses and what kind of impacts move in next.

Other commissioners pointed out that under the mixed-use zoning, three to four smaller businesses could have been built on the property already. They argued this could have been a negative and much bigger impact to the Mill Pond neighborhood, compared to the 11,600 square feet worth of retail space, parking lot and loading area the Astoria Co-op plans for its expansion.

“I think the co-op is a wonderful use there, and I think they’re as good a neighbor as you’re going to get,” Commissioner Jan Mitchell said.

Commissioner Sean Fitzpatrick cited a conflict of interest and abstained from both the discussion and the vote.

The commission’s decision now heads to the City Council for review.

Most of the people who packed into the meeting room at City Hall on Wednesday, including the entire Planning Commission, are members of the co-op on Exchange Street downtown. People who spoke against the grocery’s application emphasized they are in favor of an expansion. Their concerns are about the location. 

Several Mill Pond residents questioned a traffic study that predicted the co-op’s presence would have little to no impact. They said traffic snarls on Marine Drive, which peak during the busy summer months, would only get worse, and that the co-op’s proposed parking lot entrance off a small street at the north end of the property could create even more traffic issues.

The commissioners shared these concerns, but the majority were in favor of “trying to work it out.” Commissioner Jennifer Cameron-Lattek pointed to the economic and social boon of an expanded co-op. The grocery plans to offer even more items for sale as well as open a deli. Matt Stanley, the co-op’s general manager, expects to add around 35 employees to the payroll.

City staff recommended approval of the zone change, but commissioners added two amendments that co-op representatives suggested and city planning staff agreed with: If substantial construction hasn’t begun within two years of the new zoning being enacted, the zoning will revert back to mixed use. A second condition requires a lot line adjustment to establish the rezoned portion of the property as its own, separate lot.

Because of the property’s location under two of the city’s overlay zones, the grocery has a stringent design review process ahead.

“The building (design) as it is — as far as we’re aware — if it’s not quite there, it’s very close,” Stanley said. “We’ve looked at the design criteria, the architectural guidelines for the overlays and it actually hearkens to the historical nature of the buildings that were there such as the old mill.”

He believes the grocery still has some work to do to address neighborhood concerns. In pursuing a signoff from the Mill Pond homeowners association, the co-op is looking at how it could potentially widen the narrow street at the back of the property that residents identified as a potential traffic issue.

“We are willing to flex within reason to make this happen,” Stanley said. “We want to be good neighbors.”