It’s all about the view

The Astoria Bridge seen at night in mid-October 2012. Residents voiced concerns about impeding the views in the Uniontown area.

Skeptical residents gave city planners an earful Tuesday night on the Bridge Vista phase of the city’s Riverfront Vision Plan, cautioning against zoning changes that might accelerate development and obstruct views near the iconic Astoria Bridge.

The city is contemplating code, zoning, building height and design revisions that could shape future development in Uniontown. The changes could set more restrictive standards for building over the river than exist today, but could also expand the zoning in other places to create a pedestrian-friendly patch and allow a broader range of commercial and residential projects.

Dozens of residents filled a town hall meeting at the Holiday Inn Express to give city planners feedback that will be shared with the Astoria Planning Commission later this month. Preliminary recommendations could go before the Planning Commission and the Astoria City Council between February and May, with final approval of the Bridge Vista phase possible in June.

Hypothetical, computer-generated models of what potential development near the bridge might look like under the new zoning drew a mostly negative reaction at the town hall. The models showed buildings over or near the river that would diminish pedestrian views of the water and the base of the bridge.

Roger Rocka, the former director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, described the potential density as “really frightening.”

Ted Osborn, who is active with the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, reminded city planners how important and iconic the bridge is to the community. Obstructing views, he said, is like going out on the Staten Island Ferry in New York and finding fried dough stands surrounding the Statue of Liberty.

Jan Mitchell, a retired city planner, spoke of the potential for Astoria to become like Carmel or Newport Beach, Calif., pricey enclaves for the wealthy and tourists.

Others, however, urged against an emotional overreaction to what is essentially an attempt by the city to improve land use along the river. The first phase of the four-leg Riverfront Vision Plan — the Civic Greenway, which runs roughly from 16th Street to 39th Street — was approved by the City Council in October and includes restrictions on development over the water that were sought by preservationists.

Jon Englund, the president of Englund Marine & Industrial Supply, warned against “crying wolf” when no specific development projects have been proposed.

The city’s preliminary concepts for the Bridge Vista phase presume some greater development over the river near the bridge, but several developers — including Robert “Jake” Jacob, who designed the Cannery Pier Hotel in Uniontown — said high land costs and government regulatory hurdles make building on the water prohibitively expensive.

Dave Pearson, the deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, who serves on the Planning Commission, said afterward that he thought the town hall was productive.

“Right now we’re still looking at what this will be,” he said. “The City Council approved the Riverfront Vision, now we need to build what it’s going to look like.”