The Astoria City Council and the Planning Commission appear supportive of a suite of measures from a countywide housing study to encourage denser and more affordable housing, with several caveats to preserve livability and historic character.
The council and commission met Thursday to find commonality on which policy and development code strategies in the 2019 housing study to pursue. The meeting came shortly after the two boards approved new state-mandated development code amendments to expand the use of accessory dwelling units for increased density.
Astoria, at around 9,700 people with several large apartment complexes in the works, is also nudging up against state requirements for cities of at least 10,000 to add more middle housing — everything between single-family homes and mid- or high-rise apartment buildings.
A majority of councilors and commissioners appear supportive of strategies in the housing study to set minimum zone densities, to the point of prohibiting single-family homes in higher-density R-3 zones, which City Manager Brett Estes said comprises most of the city’s vacant buildable land.
“Think about Tongue Point,” he said of the large swath of undeveloped federal and private land. “That whole area is zoned R-3, multifamily.”
Under city codes, a subdivision of single-family homes could be built in Tongue Point, Estes said. City staff recommended requiring at least duplex-level density in remaining high-density zones.
Planning commissioners, including Daryl Moore and Cindy Price, cautioned against creating too much of an incentive to tear down older but nonhistoric homes. The only protection from most old homes being torn down is historic designation.
“Astoria has a South Slope that is not at all designated historic, as far as I know,” Price said. “But that place has beautiful views as well, and is a lot of R-2 that could be subject to the sorts of economic incentives for demolition and bigger buildings.”
Height and mass
Commissioners and councilors also appear receptive to increasing the allowed height and mass of buildings in higher-density zones, depending on compatibility with surrounding homes. The discussion brought up the former Central School site, two blocks of medium-zoned vacant land along Irving Avenue where multiple housing proposals have fallen to neighbor opposition.
Moore, who has served on the Planning Commission for six years, said building heights have always been the biggest point of resistance, but something he wants to address.
“I think the higher buildings don’t block views any more than the lower buildings, except in extreme circumstances,” he said.
The City Council has established a goal of building mixed-use, affordable- and market-rate housing project at Heritage Square. Commissioners and councilors appear receptive to adding more high-density housing in such commercial zones.
They were also in favor of lowering off-street parking requirements, noting that Astoria’s historic homes often don’t meet the requirement and utilize street parking.
“A lot of those homes were built without cars in mind,” City Councilor Tom Hilton said. “If we’re going to increase housing, we need to streamline some of the requirements we’re going to put on future homeowners and future development. There has to be a way for us to maybe encourage people to get out of their cars, also.”
Megan Leatherman, the city’s community development director, brought up a compact residential zone similar to the Mill Pond neighborhood the city established for cottage cluster housing near Safeway.
Councilors and commissioners appear supportive of more cottage clusters as part of the missing middle housing between homes and multifamily complexes. Warrenton has approved codes for cottage clusters.
“Cottage cluster housing is a way to be able to achieve higher densities, but maybe not at taller heights,” Estes said. “It’s used in infill situations quite commonly.”
Urban growth boundary
To address a deficit of single-family homes, Estes queued up a discussion for later by the City Council on whether to expand the city’s urban growth boundary east. Astoria’s city limits stretch east to Tongue Point, far beyond the urban boundaries.
“If we are talking about urban growth boundary swaps or amendments to address our state-noted deficiency, that will be to the south and the west of Coxcomb Hill, in what is many times seen as our urban forest,” Estes said.
The process would take several years and likely be expensive enough to require grants, Estes said.
Mayor Bruce Jones opted to hold off on discussing city expansion until a future meeting.
The City Council brought up recommendations to increase density several years ago, but pulled back after community opposition. Jones said councilors need to anticipate community opposition and stick up for good ideas coming from city staff and the Planning Commission.
“The worst thing that can happen is to have the Planning Commission spend a year developing code amendments at our direction, and then as soon as there’s some community opposition to those code amendments, we all say, ‘Oh no, never mind. We weren’t really serious about it,’” the mayor said.