Astoria needs clearer vision for waterfront

Hollander Hospitality has appealed the city's rejection of a proposed four-story hotel on the Astoria waterfront.

Small towns define themselves in many ways. Design is one of them. Some towns muster the gumption to insist on architectural design that responds to the neighborhood for which a building is proposed. Other towns roll over and let anything happen.

When towns give developers carte blanche, they quickly become a monotonous version of national franchises you may observe in many other cities.

That choice lies at the heart of what Astoria’s Historic Landmarks Commission and Design Review Committee accomplished on June 25. They denied an application for the proposed Fairfield Inn and Suites on the waterfront at Second Street.

The two panels said “no” for differing reasons, including its size and appearance. But the essence of the project’s shortcomings was nicely expressed by Loretta Maxwell, owner of the Grandview Bed and Breakfast, who said: “This building could be anywhere.” Online, critics referred to the hotel as a “box.”

Astoria has a recent history of pushing national brands to do better. When a Holiday Inn Express was proposed near the Astoria Bridge, the Uniontown Historic District Association — led by the late Rae Goforth — insisted that the hotel respond to its surroundings. And the project’s developer did. The same process played out with Kentucky Fried Chicken. The city also leaned on Safeway to respond to its setting, and that company followed through.

There are many ways of describing architecture. Lack of personality in a building is what generated the community’s judgment on the proposed hotel.

Good, innovative design is not necessarily expensive. The essential ingredient is corporate imagination and corporate will.

If you look at franchises in towns that really push developers — such as Carmel, California, and Port Townsend, Washington — you see how the likes of McDonald’s and Costco are capable of committing the resources to show imagination.

Astoria is a singular place — because of its history, its culture and its physical setting. Our leaders would be fools to demean that richness with architecture that is mediocre to bad. Astoria deserves better than what the two panels were given.

The problem going forward is that the community’s voice is anything but clear. So we have standards. What are they?

A hotel is an outright allowed use in the area in which Hollander Hospitality wanted to build. The company has appealed the rejection, saying the Design Review Committee “turned otherwise objective standards into subjective standards in violation of the express language” of the city’s development code.

“The nature of the process is if we want more information, we need to go through an appeal,” said Sam Mullen, vice president for Hollander Hospitality.

Mullen is right, in that developers willing to invest money in our city shouldn’t have to guess what we want. Many community members were vocal in their criticisms of the company’s plans, but that’s not the same as rules in writing.

The timing of this is instructive, as the city has just commenced what is expected to be 10 months of discussions about the Urban Core, the final piece of the Riverfront Vision Plan that will guide future development along the Columbia River from Second Street to 16th Street. The hotel is part of Bridge Vista, a section of the riverfront plan adopted in 2015 that covers Uniontown.

If we don’t want ugly hotels that block the public’s view of the river, we should find nonsubjective ways to codify that.

Elizabeth Menetrey, who served on the city’s Riverfront Vision Plan committee, allowed that the hotel is allowed under city code. However, it was in opposition to an overall city goal of maintaining sweeping, open vistas along the water’s edge in that area, she said.

For the Urban Core, the city has an opportunity to “make a nebulous vision firm,” she said.

“I think here you have a chance to be a little conservative in what we allow.”

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The community’s voice is anything but clear. So we have standards. What are they?

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