Astoria OKs plans to turn historic Waldorf into apartments

The view in the reception area of the Waldorf Hotel.

For the past 30 years, depending on the day and the developer, the historic Waldorf Hotel downtown has been something people want to reopen, rebuild or demolish.

At a meeting Tuesday night, the Astoria Planning Commission unanimously approved a conditional use permit for Innovative Housing, Inc. to turn the Waldorf into 40 workforce housing units with retail space on the bottom floor, putting the vacant and neglected hotel firmly on the path to renovation.

Parking was the one sticking point — though ultimately not a strong one — for some commissioners, given the perceived parking problems downtown and the Waldorf’s location next to City Hall. But they agreed with Commissioner Joan Herman, who said, “We’d be really short-sighted if we were to let parking get in the way of having this building not only restored but also provide more affordable housing.”

As a condition of approval, Innovative Housing will work with the owners of downtown leased parking areas to reserve several off-street parking spaces. These spaces will be made available to tenants to lease when the building opens.

“This decision allows us to apply for state funding,” said Julie Garver, director of housing development for Innovative Housing, which has a purchase and sale agreement with the building’s owners, Groat Brothers, Inc. “This was critical and very much appreciated. … This was the most critical step of the entire year.”

The nonprofit has redeveloped many historic buildings as affordable housing in the Portland area. The Waldorf — also known as the Merwyn — will be a challenge, but a familiar one, Garver said. The project is estimated to cost around $7.1 million and wouldn’t be possible without grants or tax incentives. Garver expects they will hear back about applications for state funding sources by May or June.

“If we get funded the first time around by the state, we can start as early as this time next year,” Garver said. While the organization has also planned for the possibility that the project won’t be funded the first time around, they are confident they have a strong case, especially given the community support for the renovation.

When Sarah Lu Heath, executive director of the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association, first came to Astoria a year ago to take on the job, she asked people, “If you could change one thing in downtown, what would that be?”

“Overwhelmingly it was either ’Make Marine Drive more attractive,’ which we are working on, or ‘Save the Merwyn,’” she told the Planning Commission. The downtown association has worked closely with Garver since Innovative Housing began expressing interest in establishing housing in Astoria.

“If we look at what’s holding economic development back in Astoria it is always housing,” Heath said.

Garver said the majority of the studios and one-bedroom apartments that will fill the upper floors of the Waldorf will rent for $425 to $550 a month, aimed at people with incomes between $19,750 and $27,060.

City staff had recommended approval of Innovative Housing’s application with a handful of conditions that ranged from implementing a parking strategy to the more typical requirements to obtain all necessary permits and submit an occupational tax application. Given the historic nature of the building, any major modifications in the future will need to be reviewed by the Historic Landmarks Commission.

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