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UPDATED: City Council approves Wizer Block plans

Overturns DRC rejection late Wednesday


Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Mayor Kent Studebaker and City Councilor Donna Jordan listen to public testimony Tuesday from opponents of a plan to redevelop downtown Lake Oswegos Wizer Block.

BREAKING:

  • City Council votes 5-2 to overturn the Development Review Commission's August decision, effectively approving the Evergreen Group's proposal for Block 137.
  • Yes votes: Mayor Kent Studebaker, Council President Jeff Gudman, and councilors Jon Gustafson, Skip O'Neill and Donna Jordan. No votes: Councilors Karen Bowerman and Lauren Hughes.
  • Councilor Jon Gustafson says: “This isn't a vote on whether I like this particular project. It's a vote on whether this project meets the code. We don't get the benefit of just picking and choosing the projects that are allowed in this city. If they meet the code, we have a legal obligation to allow them.”
  • PREVIOUSLY:

    After almost eight hours of public testimony, the Lake Oswego City Council sat poised Wednesday night to render its verdict on one of the most contentious and controversial redevelopment projects to hit the city in more than a decade.

    The choice facing the council: Uphold or overturn the Development Review Commission's rejection of developer Patrick Kessi's plan to build a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development at the corner of A Avenue and First Street in downtown Lake Oswego.

    Councilors were expected to vote on Kessi's Wizer Block appeal late Wednesday night, after The Review's deadline for today's issue. For the most up-to-date information, visit the paper's Facebook page or go to lakeoswegoreview.com.

    Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - City Councilor Jon Gustafson (foreground) listens to a second night of Wizer Block testimony Tuesday. The council was expected to vote on the project Wednesday night. At issue is a proposal from Kessi's Evergreen Group LLC to replace the former home of Wizer's Oswego Foods with three four-story buildings. The development would include 207 residential units and about 36,000 square feet of retail space.

    In August, the DRC rejected Kessi's plan by a 3-2 vote, saying it did not reflect downtown Lake Oswego’s “village character” and its requirement for "small-scale structures"; that the residential/commercial split Kessi proposed was not appropriate for the city’s so-called “compact shopping district” as defined by the Urban Design Plan; and that it violated code restrictions on ground-floor residential use in the city's core.

    Kessi appealed that ruling in late August, and the City Council set aside three nights this week to hear public testimony and make its own decision.

    City councilors were required to disclose any ex parte contact before the hearing. Councilors Donna Jordan, Lauren Hughes, Karen Bowerman and Jeff Gudman all reported having to shut down a number of conversations regarding the Wizer Block issue.

    “I’ve walked out of many a meal,” Gudman said.

    Attorney Christe White summarized Evergreen Group’s position on Monday night, saying the DRC was wrong when it used the phrase “small-scale structures” as approval criteria and that commissioners erred in ruling the project’s ground-floor residential space did not meet the criteria for a high-density “compact shopping district.”

    The public testimony that followed was limited to three minutes per speaker, and only those who had previously submitted something for the record, either in writing or by testifying to the DRC, were allowed to address the council. Among those speaking in support of the project were two City Council candidates: Ed Brockman and Joe Buck.

    Brockman, a real estate broker, worried about the message the city would send other potential developers if Kessi’s proposal was rejected.

    “It's crucial we send out a message from Lake Oswego that (developers) can rely on predictability when they come here to spend money, especially the upfront due diligence money that they have to spend,” he said.

    He emphasized what he saw as the city’s need for a robust rental market.

    “We need a wide variety of housing types here,” Brockman said, “which supplies the needs of all people, not just some.”

    Buck, who had previously spoken to the DRC as a director of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, registered his support Monday night on his own behalf.

    “People love the town we live in, and the fear of the unknown can sometimes surpass our appetite for unrealized potential and what will further enhance our community,” Buck said.

    He agreed with Brockman’s call for a more predictable development approval process.

    “When folks enter our city to invest in a business, build a home or develop a property, they cannot be subject to the direction of the emotional winds,” Buck argued. “Instead, we provide an objective code for folks to rely on and follow, a code that does not subject applicants to the scrutiny of every last detail of the project's attributes.”

    Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Members of the City Council listen to testimony Tuesday (from left): Skip ONeill, Donna Jordan, Mayor Kdent Studebaker and Jeff Gudman.The council also heard from former Mayor Judie Hammerstad, who recalled entering office in 2001 and inheriting “an urban renewal district for 20 years at that time that had really done nothing.” It was only with the development of blocks 136 and 138, Hammerstad said, that downtown revitalization improved.

    “Block 137 simply wasn't ready,” she explained. “It would've been much better if we had done it all at one time and saved all of you the trouble of having to do this again.”

    She urged the city to approve the Evergreen Group’s proposal.

    “The biggest challenge is going to be your economic viability,” Hammerstad said. “By approving this development, you are once again going forward and making this an economically viable project that will attract other business and other residents.”

    On Tuesday, several opponents expressed their concerns about what they see as an overwhelming residential presence in the downtown core. "Make no mistake,” said resident Bill Ward, “this proposal is for a housing project — a big one."

    Evergreen neighborhood resident Jan Goodwyn criticized the lack of traffic-impact studies in the proposal, and fellow Evergreen resident David Radich said the project did not "meet the overarching code requirement of scale and compatibility."

    "Scale does not exist in a vacuum," Radich said. "It requires comparison. In downtown, (that means) comparison to other buildings."

    Evergreen neighbor Darryl Boom had strong words of caution for the council. "No matter what you do as a City Council,” he said, “this is going to be your legacy."

    Resident Jon A. Bell used his professional background in 3D animation to repackage previous testimony as a visual presentation, showing computer-generated imagery comparing Block 137 to a standard-size football field. In Bell's presentation, each individual building filled the better part of a football field.

    Lita Grigg, founder of the group Save Our Village, said the DRC should be commended for looking at the project twice. She emphasized the need to respect "property rights for developments surrounding Block 137," and warned that the Evergreen neighborhood's residential density would increase by 50 percent if the Block 137 project were approved.

    Attorney Dick Spies said he was asked by the owners of Lake View Village to assess the Block 137 proposal.

    “My conclusion is the proposed project does not meet village character,” he said.

    Spies argued that the project consisted of three large, massive structures, and that the city’s East End Redevelopment Plan stipulated that new or remodeled structures must be designed to complement Lake View Village, Millenium Park and the townhomes on Block 136.

    “The neighboring two-story buildings to the east in Lake View Village are separated by public access ways,” Spies said, adding that they “are clearly dominated by the proposed project.”

    Barry Cain of Gramor Development spoke on behalf of Lake View Village.

    “There's no question that if this apartment project gets built, it will be bad for Lake View Village,” Cain said, arguing that it would undermine the shopping center’s credibility with current and potential lease holders.

    “If this apartment project is approved, it's going to be really hard to convince these retailers that Lake Oswego is headed in the right direction,” Cain added. “If the lack of retail doesn't convince them, the lack of parking really will.”

    Two hours into Tuesday's hearing, councilors began questioning attorney White, who spoke on Evergreen Group's behalf. She said the DRC’s rejection gave rise to issues of “fairness, due process, certainty and the protection of property rights, for us and our neighbors.”

    White was questioned about the alleged lack of traffic studies affiliated with the proposal, as well as the design's placement of residential units on the ground floor.

    Reminded that the Evergreen Group had offered to pay a portion of the costs associated with a traffic light synchronization on State Street, Councilor Karen Bowerman suggested that solution was insufficient.

    "What does lie ahead for this?" Bowerman asked. "It doesn't seem like there's a plan."

    The council was expected to continue questioning White and others before making its decision Wednesday night.

    Go here to view letters in support of and opposition to the Block 137 hearing, as well as ex-parte materials and relevant exhibits.

    Contact Saundra Sorenson at 503-636-1281 ext. 107 or ssorenson@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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