Like a festering sore, controversy continues on the development of Coxcomb Hill. There's enough frustration to make everyone angry.

Many Astorians feel there is no compelling reason to construct an interpretive center.

Most are frustrated by a long, arduous process which has produced uncertain, if not unsatisfactory, results. Some view the Friends of the Astoria Column, particularly the Portland members, as presumptuous.

Listening to street talk and reading the Friday Exchange in The Daily Astorian, one gets the impression this is a class struggle and that John Jacob Astor Park and perhaps Astoria as a whole is under occupation by Portland forces. It needs to be said outright, Astorians asked Portlanders - not the other way around - to join in the venture of building an interpretive center.

Secondly, the perception that the Friends are untrustworthy - simply because many live outside of the area - lacks a historic understanding of our city's development. It was Portland investors who did much to pull Astoria out of the ashes after the Great Fire of 1922. The Liberty Theater, for instance, was not constructed by local investors. Countless other projects would never have happened without outside assistance. Although the contribution of the Great Northern Railway was significant, the construction of the Astoria Column was largely financed by Vincent Astor, a true outsider.

Anger focused on presidentMuch anger has been focused on the Friends of the Column, board president, Jordan Schnitzer, who as one of Oregon's wealthiest citizens, is becoming larger-than-life. Schnitzer may be philanthropic, but he is first and foremost an aggressive businessman, and this assertiveness is the way things are done in the Big City.

Some hope to stop this runaway train by a citywide vote. Sorry, we voted for it when we elected the Astoria City Council. Construction of the interpretive center is an established goal of the city of Astoria.

It has been on the city's radar for more than 17 years and it is highly unlikely the city will reverse its direction now. Those who believe the city lacks vision, need to find those who have it and help them get elected.

Park master plan was goodBoth sides of the argument will have to agree, however, the process of creating the John Jacob Astor Park Master Plan was a master stroke by Mayor Willis Van Dusen. In a discussion about the park's future, impassioned citizens clearly delineated Coxcomb Hill's assets. It was heartening to hear both poetic and practical discussions on the virtue of Astoria's greatest outdoor space - a park where locals and visitors share public art and awe inspiring views.

Much of the goodwill gained during the plan's formation was lost, however, when the City Council failed to adopt it as an authoritative directive. Today, the master plan is a guideline, nothing more. Neither the city or the Friends are obligated to follow it verbatim. They are free to interpret or pick and choose what suits them. In turn, they have needlessly angered the public, feeding both uncertainty in the project and a distrust of those involved.

Center grows to 4,500 square feetWhen the proposed interpretive center was unveiled, it was evident the Friends were blinded by the strength of their convictions. Guidelines were stretched and suspicions were raised again over the Friends' sincerity to follow public input. The master plan recommended a 1,500-square-foot building footprint constructed above ground on the site of the existing caretaker's house. As now proposed, the interpretive center is 4,500 square feet.

It is also located in the "red zone," an area the public bluntly stated was to be preserved for its views and prime parking locations. The cleverly submerged visitor center does not technically block views, but it does rob the best view from legions of people who park their cars facing west and view the sunset - a simple pleasure now lost to "improvements."

The Friends will have a hard time winning this quagmire, because sometimes the plan is too schematic. The freshly laid plaza around the Column is an example. The Astoria Column was originally designed as if it were a garden folly, where a monumental piece of architectural antiquity is contrasted with plantings or a natural landscape. Modest paved areas, as originally constructed, did not detract from the artistic tension between the Column's form and artwork, and that of the surrounding vegetation. The master plan recommended alteration to this scheme, but the result may not have been anticipated.

Now, a hard-surface stretches broadly from the base of the Column. The oval around the monument is more narrow to accommodate diagonal parking. The mound on which the Column stands is lower, closer to street level to accommodate wheel chair access to the plaza. The result is the Astoria Column and surrounding vegetation appear to be incidental to the parking lot.

OvercrowdingBut these are details. The master plan wrestled with a much larger issue - and it did it rather well. It attempted to understand and regulate the impact of overcrowding a hilltop park with increased activities on a confined greenspace. Thanks to an unenforceable plan, the park's fate is less assured. But there are some certainties.

First, without strong leadership, we stand to lose more than we will gain. It is important to remember the concept to build an interpretive center was not initiated through broad public concern. The need was internally developed and is maintained by the city. Therefore, it needs to take the lead and provide the public with better security.

Second, submerged or not, the interpretive center's presence will forever change the site - no matter how much money is thrown on Coxcomb Hill or how much political pressure is exerted to alter it. The Astoria Column was designed as an esthetic experience. Its images pay homage to explorers, pioneers and indigenous people. In an attempt to further interpret history, a visitor's center - by paving and crowding the site - further removes the visitor from a historic context and ultimately diminishes the site on both an esthetic and academic level.

This is not good stewardship for future generations. Coxcomb Hill will be less sublime and less reflective. In an attempt to explain everything, we will lose much of what can only be experienced first-hand.

There may not be a happy ending to this mess. The city has virtually handed the reins to the Friends. It is up to them to act in good faith and extend goodwill. The Friends could start by truly listening to the frustrated public, being less sure of their convictions and being willing to treat Coxcomb Hill less like a corporate takeover and more like a community endeavor.

John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria.

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