New Grocery Outlet traffic

Access is an issue for a new Grocery Outlet proposed off Marine Drive.

The Astoria Design Review Committee should tread carefully with Grocery Outlet.

Main & Main Capital Group, a Texas-based firm, wants to build a 16,000-square-foot discount grocery store on triangular lots off Marine Drive between 21st Street and 23rd Street.

The property is in a Local Service Zone, where retail sales are an outright use. It also falls within two overlay zones — Gateway, which covers the east side approach into the city, and Civic Greenway, which guides development along the riverfront.

Many people have legitimate concerns that Grocery Outlet will make traffic congestion worse, contribute to overdevelopment and negatively impact the new Astoria Co+op, the Mill Pond neighborhood and City Lumber.

We share those concerns. Grocery Outlet is better suited for the South Slope, where there are no grocery options and fewer traffic complications.

Tempting as it might be to simply urge the Design Review Committee to find a way to say “no” to this project when it meets on Sept. 5, that would be a mistake. The committee has a fairly narrow, design-centric scope of authority, so an overreach would invite an appeal to the City Council.

The city’s development code exists to promote orderly growth and set standards for new projects. It helps ensure fairness and predictability, so land use decisions are made on the merits, not on the impulses of the loudest voices in our community.

City staff recommended approval of Grocery Outlet, with conditions, but outlined several issues where the Design Review Committee has discretion.

The most important, in our view, is access.

The main access would be a driveway off Marine Drive where TP Freight Lines is today. A second driveway would be off Commercial Street. The new store would be at the back of the lots, at the old NAPA Auto Parts.

Anyone who has driven along Marine Drive where it bends near Mill Pond knows traffic can clog. Westbound drivers would make a right turn into the Grocery Outlet parking lot, which could slow traffic behind them. Eastbound drivers would make a left turn into the parking lot from a middle turn lane, a tricky move that could disrupt traffic.

But drivers will do whatever they think works — see Wendy’s in Warrenton — including cutting through on 23rd Street near the new co-op and the Mill Pond neighborhood, to turning at City Lumber, in search of the second driveway on Commercial.

The Sunset Empire Transportation District’s board, in written testimony to the city, said it is concerned about the traffic impact a Grocery Outlet would have on Marine Drive. The congestion, the board said, is already problematic to the on-time performance of buses.

“While we support economic development, impacts to the surrounding area should be taken into consideration when going through the review process,” wrote Kathy Kleczek, the board’s chairwoman. “With this in mind, we highly suggest that as a condition of approval for this project, that the committee look at how people will access this development and what the impact will be to the traffic on Marine Drive.”

As city staff explains, access from Marine Drive is discouraged in the Gateway and Local Service zones: “Access drives and parking areas should, where possible, be located on side streets or nonarterial streets in order to minimize congestion on Marine Drive.”

But the city engineer and the Oregon Department of Transportation tentatively signed off on the Marine Drive access for Grocery Outlet, mostly because of the middle turn lane and an existing driveway that could be modified.

If the project is approved by the Design Review Committee, Grocery Outlet would still have to address access driveways, Americans with Disabilities Act challenges at crosswalks and the problematic intersection at Commercial and Marine.

Jeff Newenhof, the president of City Lumber, worries ODOT and the city will eventually demand changes to the intersection that will prevent parking in front of his Commercial Street store. He said a significant change could put a planned remodel in doubt and, as he wrote to the city, “in fact may make it necessary for us to move our business out of Astoria.”

Design standards for access, according to city staff, are among the criteria that “should” be met by Grocery Outlet, not “shall” be met. That means the Design Review Committee gets to decide whether it is reasonable or unreasonable to require the developer to fully comply.

We think it is reasonable. The committee should deny the project unless the developer can show that the main access off Marine Drive will not create a bigger mess.

Coming Thursday: Our view of the shadowy group fighting Grocery Outlet.

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