The Astoria City Council on Thursday denied an appeal by developer Mark Hollander for more time to build a controversial four-story Fairfield Inn and Suites along the Columbia River.
The developer’s request for a one-year extension of building permits, which expire in December, had been denied by city staff before he appealed to the City Council.
The council’s decision forces Hollander to either appeal the denial to the state, finish a substantial portion of construction by late December, or conform the project to new, more restrictive building standards that would shrink the hotel by two stories to protect surrounding views.
Hollander and his representatives could not immediately be reached for comment about how they intend to proceed.
After being denied several times by city commissions, Hollander appealed to and ultimately won approval from the City Council in 2018 to build a Marriott-brand hotel at The Ship Inn and Stephanie’s Cabin, two former restaurants on waterfront lots off Second Street.
But since the approval, the site has sat largely untouched, the restaurants vacant, the parking lots overgrown with weeds and surrounded by fences. Hollander would need to show substantial construction progress by late December for his project to be vested.
The approval of the hotel was vehemently opposed by many residents worried about development crowding out views. The project inspired the city to revisit development rules in the Riverfront Vision Plan.
Changes to the Bridge Vista Overlay, a section of the plan between Portway and Second streets, reduced allowed building heights from 45 to 28 feet, essentially lowering development from four to two stories. The changes also limited building mass and required north-south orientations to provide view corridors to the river.
The City Council could have granted Hollander an extension had he shown substantial progress or that economic conditions are too bad to proceed. Hollander and his attorney, Steven Hultberg, shared letters from lenders describing the difficulty in financing, along with a market analysis showing the slumping performance of hotels during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve seen a lot of tough times in this industry, but this is absolutely the worst,” Hollander said. “This is a nationwide, worldwide phenomenon. A lot of hoteliers are just hanging on by the skin of their teeth right now.”
But in their denial, city staff argued that Hollander had neither made substantial progress nor proven that economic conditions aren’t right for building a new hotel.
Two other hotels in Astoria are making progress: the Bowline Hotel being constructed out of a former sardine cannery near Buoy Beer Co. and a Hilton Home2Suites developers hope to open near the New Youngs Bay Bridge. The city faces a high amount of building permit activity that has continued through the pandemic.
Mayor Bruce Jones and City Councilor Tom Brownson, who had approved the hotel in 2018 because it met the existing development rules, shared their surprise that Hollander didn’t see the writing on the wall and start building earlier.
“It was very predictable that the city would not choose, in a discretionary fashion, to grant an extension to a project which the community and the code now opposed,” Jones said.
Brownson said Hollander squandered an opportunity to help the community he aspires to be a part of by creating construction and hospitality jobs.
“I would suggest that Astoria’s still a great market,” he said. “And I would look forward to you coming back, if you so desire, with new plans, with a new motel — hotel — that meets the standards in every way that we have established.”
City Councilor Jessamyn Grace West noted that none of the letters from lenders described Hollander as having applied for or been denied a loan to build a hotel.
“It’s really not the city’s responsibility to ensure that you secure financing for this project, which again could have been done prior to the pandemic,” she said.
Hollander has 20 days from the decision to appeal the denial to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.