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Appeal heard on vacant retail center

With two neighborhoods, city engineers and ODOT objecting, the Willamette Marketplace is tangled in a political jungle
by: Jim Hart, Graham Bryce, Willamette Marketplace principal owner, sits in council chambers after midnight Tuesday morning, waiting his turn to convince the city council to allow him to remodel/rebuild the old shopping center.

Graham Bryce's remodel/rebuild project at Willamette Marketplace is still undecided, still on hold.

The West Linn City Council voted Monday night to continue the public hearing on the project next week. The vote came after three hours of public testimony that went until 1:15 a.m. Tuesday.

'There's a lot of politics being played,' Bryce said after the hearing, 'and it's very hard to get facts established.'

Bryce is the owner of the Willamette Marketplace property. Last month, the city's planning commission approved Bryce's plan to increase the current 40,000 square feet of retail space in the shopping center to about 70,000. But the Willamette Neighborhood Association appealed that decision to the city council.

At the heart of the appeal is the long-term fate of the 10th Street Corridor. The neighborhood association wants Bryce to postpone development until congestion is alleviated on 10th Street between Blankenship Road and Willamette Falls Drive.

The city has appointed a 15-member task force to discern the best long-term solution to the traffic bottleneck, and that group began its work this week.

'We've had so many short-term fixes,' said , co-chair of the Willamette Neighborhood Association.

'We would be willing to put up with some short-term pain for long-term improved planning,' she said.

But Bryce argued that he should not be asked to postpone his work because the 10th Street Corridor task force didn't exist when the city accepted his application.

Bryce said he has proven with surveys from traffic engineers that the intersection of Eighth Avenue, Eighth Court and 10th Street is failing and needs traffic control.

He told the council that he needs that traffic control now, so he can rebuild the shopping center and get his tenants moved in. He said it's a matter of economics.

'We had to spend $600,000 to submit this application to you …,' Bryce told the council Monday. I lost $250,000 on the (shopping) center last year, driving the (tenants) out, and I'm losing $28,000 every month I don't have tenants.'

Bryce said he was willing to fund a signal at Eighth and 10th, but not the signals on Willamette Falls Drive that have been proposed by the city and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

No one seemed happy about the alternative, as Bryce described it.

'If (the project application) is denied, we have to fill that center back up,' Bryce said. 'Unfortunately, you aren't going to like the kinds of tenants who want to go into a run-down center. (In the existing center) we can't get tenants who necessarily serve the neighborhood … Those are the kind of tenants who call me every single week, and they're ready to write checks.'

He said his comment wasn't a threat, just reality, that he had to get the center back in operation - 10th Street solved or not.

Also appealing the project Monday was the Tanner Basin Neighborhood Association, and speaking to the council was its vice-president, Ken Pryor.

'The neighborhood association is not opposed to development per se,' Pryor said, 'nor is it opposed to redevelopment of this eyesore. However, (development) carries with it an obligation … to not exacerbate existing traffic or other problems.'

Public safety also was one of Pryor's concerns as he described what he called the 'clogging of the 10th Street Corridor.'

Pryor asked for a delay to allow the 10th Street task force to do its work. Roberta Schwarz echoed Pryor's request, suggesting that placing a signal in the corridor would thwart the task force's work.

Andrew Johnson, a senior major project planner with the Oregon Department of Transportation, also expressed ODOT's objection to Bryce's plan.

Johnson also threw another idea into the mix of options: a traffic light at 12th and Willamette Falls Drive, with no left turns allowed at the intersection of Eighth and 10th.

But several people testified that they didn't like that idea because it would add traffic in the middle of a historic district, and the signal would look out of place there.

Johnson's view of the future for the 10th Street Corridor was not very positive because there are so many variables that defy a perfect solution.

'This area is going to be challenged, transportation wise,' he said, 'with or without the development - and it will very likely get much worse in the future.'

Among several Eighth Court business owners speaking in favor of the project (and the signal at Eighth/10th) was Eric Smith, owner of the McDonald's franchise.

While promoting a signal at Eighth, he expressed concerns for the safety of pedestrians who he said would be coming from the shopping center to the east side of 10th Street, toward his business.

The signal, he said, would help sustain all of the businesses on Eighth Court.

Hearing the appeal Monday was a lengthy process. Mayor Norm King said he wanted to at least get through all of the testimony. The last motion the council voted on was to extend the meeting until 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.

But not all testimony was given before the meeting adjourned at 1:15 a.m. After more than three hours of testimony, the council still has to hear some rebuttals before it can deliberate on its decision, which it expects to reach next Monday night.

The hearing will resume at 8 p.m. Dec. 18, in the chambers on the second floor of city hall.