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City should hold true to vision for downtown core, reject Wizer plan

“Study the past if you would define the future.” — Confucius

Much has been made in the debate over the future of the Wizer Block of the need to preserve the “village” feel of Lake Oswego’s downtown core. Opponents of developer Patrick Kessi’s plan for a mix of apartments and retail shops at the corner of First Street and A Avenue say it is the first step toward the urbanization of what has been — and should always be — a quaint slice of small-town America.

It’s hard to argue with that vision.

Anyone who has strolled along the flower-lined streets, paused at storefront windows or dined in the sunshine at an outdoor table knows that downtown Lake Oswego is a special place. Sit on a curb on the Fourth of July, watch happy parents and children parade past and try to imagine anyplace that feels more like “Main Street U.S.A.”

Patrick Kessi wouldn’t disagree. But he would probably tell you that his proposed development fits that idyllic vision, because it will attract residents who want to “physically, emotionally and economically invest in the core of Lake Oswego.” They will eat at the restaurants, shop in the stores and, yes, sit on the curbs as parades go by.

Here’s what Kessi proposes: His three-building, 290,000-square-foot development would replace the Wizer’s shopping center on a site located next to Lake View Village and Millenium Plaza Park. It would include 207 residential units and about 36,000 square feet of retail space, as well as a variety of outdoor gathering spots and a conservatory that would face Oswego Lake.

The plan is a scaled-down version of Kessi’s original proposal, which he withdrew in the face of intense opposition from community groups. The redesign, which Kessi submitted to the city’s Development Review Commission last month, includes multiple facades to reduce the project’s monolithic feel and a more traditional “village” architectural style. There would be 397 parking spaces on two underground levels and 26 adjacent on-street parking spaces. Gone is a proposed fifth story that would have required an exemption from city codes.

Opponents say the redesigned development is still too big and too dense. Three large buildings, some longer than 256 feet with no real breaks from corner to corner, would be completely different from nearby structures and overwhelm the downtown core, they say. Retail space would be half of what now exists on the site, and parking would still be inadequate.

To be honest, we like the redesign. We think Kessi did listen to the concerns of neighborhood groups, business and community leaders, and city officials. The new mix of English Tudor, Arts & Crafts and Oregon Rustic influences would absolutely complement surrounding buildings; an east-west public walkway between First and Second streets and a north-south walkway connecting Evergreen to the east-west path would provide easy access and new places for visitors to explore.

It would be a very pretty development. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right project for downtown Lake Oswego.

For decades, designers here have worked to create a “compact shopping district” in the downtown core. The city’s Downtown Redevelopment Plan was approved in 1986, and the basic concepts were refined at a design symposium and a series of workshops that followed in the mid-1990s. It’s a vision that planners used to develop the now-iconic Millenium Park Plaza before the turn of the century, and that Gramor Development’s Barry Cain used as the basis for the design of Lake View Village.

Twice in the past, developers have proposed large-scale residential projects for the downtown core. Twice the community has rejected the idea. In 1998, developers proposed putting 220 residential units on three downtown blocks; that idea — in the form of ballot Measure 3-18 — was defeated by voters. And yet when Cain presented his final Lake View Village proposal to the public in 2001, there was little if any opposition to its mix of restaurants, retail shops and offices.

There’s a lesson to be learned from all of that.

You can argue about architectural styles and design aesthetics all you want. You can compare square-footage numbers and the height of building roofs. But you can’t argue with a vision — crafted by city planners and endorsed by the public — that rejects large-scale residential projects in the downtown core and the increased traffic and strain on city services that would come with them.

Change is coming. Growth is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the years of planning that have created our quaint slice of small-town America and accept a pretty proposal just because it meets code. Magic happens when the right mix of people come together at the right time; that was true for Lake View Village, and it will be true again for the Wizer Block.

But this is not that time.

Moving forward with this proposal, as is, would be a defining mistake. It would have staggering implications for any future development in downtown, and Lake Oswego has waited too long for the right proposal to simply settle for the wrong one. This development needs to be done right — with fewer residential units and more retail.

The past should inform the future. The city should maintain its “compact shopping district” and think about what is best for Lake Oswego in the long term.

And when the Development Review Commission meets July 21 to discuss plans for the Wizer Block, it should reject the Kessi proposal.

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