Developers who want to build a Grocery Outlet in Astoria face a public airing of the project on Thursday, but the discount chain is already experiencing pushback from some in the community.
Concerns range from the traffic impacts to the project’s proximity to the Astoria Co+op, which is set to open a new grocery in the Mill Pond neighborhood by the end of the year.
Neither are concerns the city’s Design Review Committee can address at the hearing on Thursday. Retail is considered an outright use at the property, and city staff have recommended approval of the project.
The only sticking points are the strange shape of the lots where Grocery Outlet wants to build and a problematic “Y”-shaped intersection nearby.
The state is required to improve the intersection at Marine Drive and Commercial Street near 21st Street as part of a lawsuit brought against the Oregon Department of Transportation by disability advocates.
The Grocery Outlet project, if it passes design muster Thursday, would speed up the timeline to improve the intersection. But the owner of City Lumber believes a reconfiguration of the intersection could mean the end of his business off Commercial Street.
Developers have proposed a one-story, 16,000 square foot Grocery Outlet on properties off Marine Drive between 21st and 23rd streets that were formerly the homes of TP Freight and NAPA Auto Parts.
Grocery Outlet would take up most of a triangular block formed by Marine Drive and an orphan section of Commercial Street. The back of the store would face 23rd Street and the new co-op building.
Astoria has been resistant to chain stores — the Design Review Committee, following recommendations by staff, denied a permit from Dollar General in 2017 over questions about the store’s design — but Grocery Outlet might be harder to shoot down.
The store’s developers have taken design cues from the new co-op, even planning to utilize similar corrugated metal siding. The store will look different from the more typical design seen in other communities like Rainier.
The site falls under two of the city’s design overlay zones — Civic Greenway and Gateway. The Design Review Committee must drill into design details, most of which the Grocery Outlet application met to city planning staff’s satisfaction.
There are only two points where the committee might be able to make an argument to deny the project: how the building and parking lot are situated; and how people will access the store from Marine Drive.
In her staff report, city planning consultant Rosemary Johnson was careful to note the difference between “shall” and “should” when it comes to these standards.
Building design standards are a “shall,” with little to no wiggle room. If a project meets the criteria, it meets the criteria.
When it comes to how a building is oriented and where entrances to the property are established, however, “should” prevails. Here the Design Review Committee has some flexibility.
But Johnson encourages the committee to take a hard look at the difficulties inherent in developing the site.
“Another type of development could occur on this triangular site that could meet more of the design standards,” the staff report finds, “but since the use is allowed outright, and with the various conditions for mitigating landscaping and other design elements, it would be ‘unreasonable’ to require full compliance with these criteria.”
The staff report acknowledged the proximity of the Astoria Co+op, but added, “while (Grocery Outlet) will be a similar use, it will cater to a different audience.”
And while the Design Review Committee can scrutinize access to a development and parking questions, evaluating traffic impacts is not one of their tasks.
The city has received a number of letters against the project — and at least one letter in favor of the project whose writer was still very concerned about traffic.
In one email to the city about Grocery Outlet, a woman simply wrote, “Please, no Food Outlet. Thank you.”
Others are more detailed in their objections, arguing that Astoria’s backbone is its small businesses and contrasting Grocery Outlet with the Astoria Co+op.
“I’m all in favor of competition, but this isn’t competition,” wrote Laurie Caplan, of Astoria. “This is one of several national chains willing and eager to undercut, if not eliminate, local businesses.”
If Grocery Outlet passes its design review hearing Thursday, it will still need to work with the city and the state regarding a plan for access driveways, Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility at crosswalks and the intersection at Marine Drive and Commercial Street.
This is where Jeff Newenhof, the owner of City Lumber, starts to get worried.
At the intersection, the sidewalks are in less-than-ideal shape and there are no ADA-accessible ramps.
The intersection is one of thousands around the state identified as problematic following a 2016 lawsuit against the Department of Transportation over accessibility issues. Grocery Outlet’s presence would not change this fact, it would just accelerate the conversation.
In a 1999 transportation growth management plan for the east side, where a change to the intersection was first proposed, Newenhof pointed out that a road realignment would eliminate City Lumber’s on-street parking, discourage customers and make it difficult for large trucks to make the turn.
Unable to find a resolution, the intersection discussion was flagged for future consideration.
Aspects of the 1999 plan have since been folded into a 2013 city transportation system plan. Newenhof’s concerns remain the same.
City engineers and the state are waiting on site plans from Grocery Outlet’s developers. What improvements might be required, who is responsible for them and what those upgrades and improvements end up looking like are all open questions.
In 2008, Newenhof hoped to tear down the City Lumber store and build a new one in the same location. In a predevelopment meeting with the city and ODOT, he said he was given a laundry list of expensive improvements he would need to make around the intersection, including the installation of a stop light at 23rd Street, if he wanted to build.
“With all those expenses our project stopped dead,” Newenhof said.
This year, Newenhof was planning a major overall of the lumber yard, as well as a remodel of the store, to make it more visually resemble the 1920s and ‘30s-era version.
“If the Grocery Outlet wasn’t going to happen or if I could be assured the intersection wasn’t going to be changed, I’d go forward with it. But I can’t get that assurance from the city,” Newenhof said.
City Manager Brett Estes said it is important to consider what has changed since 1999.
The roadway configuration proposed in 1999 was “much more dramatic” of a change than what would likely occur now, he said. The state was operating under different standards 20 years ago in terms of what they could require.
There is a degree of flexibility in how the intersection is addressed and city engineers and ODOT plan to work closely together on a solution, city and state officials.
“It’s going to be kind of a balancing act to make sure we can require the ADA safety improvements while balancing their needs for parking and things of that nature,” City Engineer Nathan Crater said of City Lumber’s concerns.
Newenhof is not against Grocery Outlet, but is concerned about the impact to his business.
“The last thing I want to do is stop growth in Astoria,” he said. “I’d hate to stop development across the street from us. But I do have to look at our own business and how it can survive.”