With or without the American Legion, city planners must move forwardSafeway's departure from the block it has occupied for some 70 years presents a singular opportunity. Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen has rightly claimed pride in how the city negotiated the Safeway block's purchase without tapping tax dollars.
This block's eventual transformation will cause a certain amount of dislocation. Not everyone is ready to accommodate this change. Representatives of the American Legion appeared before the City Council Monday night to complain that the free parking spaces they like might vanish.
The Legion had a sweet deal with Safeway, which allowed the Legionnaires to park for free. The Legion building only has an easement to the street. Legion spokesman Jim Ruzik overstated matters when he said his group has become a "stepchild of the city." The city has kept the Legion fully informed about this transition, over a period of more than three years.
The city has attempted to negotiate purchase of the Legion building. But while the city has a clear vision of what this vital block can become, the Legion is freighted with too many visions. A city negotiator has said that it's difficult to sit down with 16 people who have 21 opinions of what ought to happen.
It is an open secret that the majority of the Legion's proposals have been unaffordable to the taxpayers. The city has demonstrated willingness to compensate the Legion for its building and find it a new home. If the Legion won't come to the table with a practical, affordable proposal, the city must move forward with the Legion building in place. But it is unreasonable for legionnaires to expect a freebie when others will be required to pay for their parking.
As Astoria moves toward an eventual solution to its downtown parking needs, we cannot treat parking places as a free good. Parking places, whether on the street or in a lot, consume valuable real estate.
In the short run, the Safeway-Legion block will house parking, and that will be a temporary boon to many downtown employees. But as three well-attended and widely-reported public visioning sessions in 2002 and 2003 demonstrated, the favored potential for this block is a mixed-use development involving a public plaza and a building that could contain retail, office space and perhaps housing.
The good news is that the city of Astoria has negotiated the purchase of the Safeway block and assured the building's demolition. Too many downtowns are hamstrung by empty, out-moded grocery stores.
It is not overstatement to say that development of this prime block can set a new direction for Astoria's downtown. At a minimum, the block's rebirth will give the city a jolt of energy.