Astoria had nearly finished drafting code amendments for the Urban Core, the final section of the Riverfront Vision Plan guiding development along the Columbia River. But a heated debate over a proposed Fairfield Inn & Suites caused many to rethink development standards along the waterfront and put the downtown changes on ice.
Now the city, mostly finished with other portions of Riverfront Vision Plan, is brushing off guidelines for the Urban Core that try to strike a balance between a public wanting river views and private property owners wanting flexibility to develop.
The Urban Core runs along the waterfront between Second and 16th streets. The plan anticipates a mix of commercial, residential and water-dependent uses with denser development, while still providing river views.
Rosemary Johnson, a city planning consultant, recently refreshed the Astoria Planning Commission on the Urban Core in advance of a public hearing on Tuesday. Commissioners would recommend code changes to the City Council, which could hold public hearings starting in November, with potential adoption as soon as December.
The code changes would largely restrict new development over the water to the top of the riverbank, with numerous limitation zones over undeveloped piling fields and existing piers between buildings. The city met with property owners and purposely placed limitations on areas unlikely for further development, Johnson said.
“We discussed their plans, what was going on, so that we were trying to be conscious of the property owners, who had some rights, plus the citizens,” she said. “We have competing interests there, and we have to look at both.”
In between are nonlimitation areas — mostly existing buildings — where heights would be limited to 28 feet, or 35 feet if the building’s width is reduced. Buildings allowed over water would be limited to 4,000 square feet and the lesser of 150 feet wide or 60% of lot coverage. The city would require 40-foot view corridors in between buildings and some form of public access to the riverfront.
The height standards would be similar on land within 100 feet of the Astoria Riverwalk. Buildings elsewhere in Urban Core could rise to 45 feet if they include multifamily affordable housing and a plaza, courtyard or other public gathering spot. The codes would preserve an 80-foot-wide swath of land along the Riverwalk — 70 feet along street rights of way — and require at least a 10-foot stepback for each additional building story.
“It lets sunlight down,” Johnson said. “It gives an airier feeling than that tunnel effect.”
Last new hotel?
Some of the more controversial language comes in the limitation of uses for buildings over water, where new homes, bars, hotels, offices and medical facilities would be prohibited. Hotels and motels would be a conditional use over land elsewhere in the Urban Core.
A notable exception is the $5.5 million, 39-room boutique hotel already approved and being built within a former fish-processing plant next to Buoy Beer. The project, tentatively named the Bowline Hotel, is a partnership between the brewery's ownership, Adrift Hotel and other investors. It could be the last new hotel approved on the central waterfront.
The political climate has changed since the upheaval over the Fairfield Inn & Suites, a project that prompted the city to revise the Bridge Vista section of the Riverfront Vision Plan and further restrict development.
“I have mixed feelings,” Tiffany Turner, a co-owner of Adrift, said. “I respect and understand the need to grow wisely, and I think Astoria is really grappling with that in an authentic and good way.”
Other property owners, like Steve Fick, who owns a small seafood processing operation on a pier at the foot of Fourth Street, find the proposed restrictions in Urban Core too limiting. The code changes, he believes, could narrow options and hurt property values in a changing business environment.
Fick also owns a historic brick building at the foot of Fourth Street where he is building out a distillery.
“I want my flexibility to be maintained as it is,” he said. “And really at this point, anything else to me is unacceptable. I’ve paid my taxes for over 30 years on the potential to do different things at this place.”
Fick was part of the Planning Commission when the Riverfront Vision Plan first came up a decade ago and said commissioners at the time had a more balanced approach. He sees hypocrisy in the new hotel approved three blocks to the east while the city won’t allow him or other waterfront property owners the same right, or in the city not allowing uses like professional and medical offices that would provide the income to maintain waterfront buildings.
Fick plans to organize property owners to share their concerns during public hearings.
“I’m going to try and help people understand I want to preserve the integrity of the town,” he said. “Those that have the responsibility of taking care of the waterfront need the income to take care of it.”
Johnson understands the difficult balance. But one of the biggest assets of Astoria — economically and aesthetically — is the ability to see the Columbia River from land, unlike in many other cities, she said. It is an argument she said she has made with hoteliers wanting to build on the waterfront.
“Having development that respects our character, and respects that need for that view of the river, is what we’re looking for,” Johnson said. “Because if we lose who we are, we’re going to be Anywhere, USA.”