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Wizer Block opponents vow to appeal Council's decision to overturn DRC

Kessi says he's ready to move forward with redevelopment plans for downtown site


Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Its our obligation as the Council to go with what the code says, rather than to say Im going to go with subjective (criteria), Mayor Kent Studebaker said.Opponents of plans to build a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development on downtown Lake Oswego's Wizer Block said this week that they will take their fight to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

“This is just the beginning for us,” said Lita Grigg, founder of the group Save Our Village, after the City Council voted 5-2 last week to pave the way for a new Block 137.

After nearly nine hours of public testimony, the Council overturned the Development Review Commission’s rejection of developer Patrick Kessi's plan to build three four-story buildings at the corner of A Avenue and First Street. The development would include 207 residential units and about 36,000 square feet of retail space.

“The City Council did not honor the DRC's decision with their vote of no," Grigg said. "The reason (the DRC) voted no was because (the design) did not meet 'small-scale structure,' it did not meet 'village character,' and it did not comply with the compact shopping district. We will be going forward with the appeal.”

Kessi said it might be up to nine months before his group is able to break ground at the Wizer Block. "But even if there is an appeal to LUBA, we're going for it," he said. "We're proceeding ahead.”

Kessi admitted that the approval process for his plan to replace the former home of Wizer's Oswego Foods had been more grueling than for similar projects he had completed in Northwest Portland and in the St. Johns neighborhood. But he emphasized that city codes function as “the agreement that the city makes with the property owner.”

“If you build to that code, and you also listen to community feedback and you incorporate the best suggestions, there should be a clear path to getting approval,” Kessi said. “The path in this case was not necessarily a clear path. The City Council realized that, and overwhelmingly voted for a project that was within the code.”

Not all local developers agree.

Barry Cain, whose Gramor Development built downtown's Lake View Village, testified against Kessi's proposal and has been vocal in his criticism of what he views as an outsized project with too little retail and insufficient parking.

"I don't think there's any question it's going to change downtown in a way that's detrimental to Lake View Village and Millennium Park," Cain said.

The Wizer Block would be better served by a boutique hotel, Cain said, rather than the planned rental units. "I think residential is fine too, if it's secondary to the retail," he said.

Cain said he has found it difficult to get enough commercial retailers to lease spots at Lake View Village. "The objection we always get is there's just not enough concentration of retail down there," Cain said.

"There's no question that this is precedent-setting," he added.

Cain said he had not yet decided whether he would sign on in support of a possible LUBA petition. A notice of intent to appeal — along with a $200 filing fee and a $200 deposit — must be filed within 21 days of a land use decision becoming final.

If opponents miss that deadline, the appeal would be dismissed. (For a complete explanation of rules and costs associated with a LUBA appeal, go here.) The City Council is expected to ratify its decision at its Oct. 7 council meeting.

During three nights of public testimony last week, City Councilors Karen Bowerman and Lauren Hughes were vocal critics of the project. Both voted to uphold the DRC's rejection.

“The exceptions are very specific,” Hughes argued. “As I went back and read DRC minutes, it seemed to me that what they were really stuck on was scale. (It was) too massive. That to me is kind of the heart of the matter, that we've gone to four stories all the way around, ringing it, where I don't think that's what the code meant to say.

“They couldn't approve the project because of scale issues, it being too big,” Hughes added. “I feel like we're at a point where we're being asked to push the code beyond where it intends to be. And push the (Urban Development Plan) into a place where it was never intended.”

But Councilor Jeff Gudman said he did not feel that the Urban Development Plan should be regarded as a controlling document.

“The UDP is a visionary statement,” Gudman said. “We’ve already gone beyond that visionary statement in the UDP with the building of Lake View Village.

“While the opening paragraph of our code in this particular area does set out the vision," Gudman said, "the specifics of it — which the DRC has acknowledged (the developers) met — lead me to having to say the DRC erred in their decision. And as they noted in their report and material, they struggled with trying to define ‘small scale.’”

Mayor Kent Studebaker agreed.

“I may not like this particularly, I may think it's too large, but this is what the code says," Studebaker said, "and I think it's our obligation as the Council to go with what the code says, rather than to say, 'I'm going to go with subjective (criteria).'”

Studebaker also said it was a disservice not to provide certainty to any developers considering future projects in the city. But Bowerman found the largely residential project was not in the spirit of the UDP.

“Retail begets retail,” she said. “Retail in quantity begets customers. That's what we're trying to build in a compact shopping district. That's what is missing by failing to support that particular part of the code.”

Hughes cautioned the Council against signing on too quickly to what she viewed as essentially a “public-private partnership.”

“We are looking at close to $6 million,” she said. “I feel like we do very much have an obligation to assure that what goes in there is the right thing, and that it has community support. I don't think it has enough community support.”

Councilor Donna Jordan said that much of the criticism about the project was likely due to the fact that it would house rental units, not condos.

“It is different to have a downtown rental complex, but that doesn't mean it's bad," she said. "And that doesn't mean that because of the quality of the materials, the expense that's going to be brought into this block to make it fit the Lake Oswego style, that it's going to be something that you will be ashamed of.”

Councilor Skip O’Neill, who made the motion to overturn the DRC decision, reminded the Council that his election campaign was largely based on attracting “quality developers” to Lake Oswego.

“What we (don’t) want to do is to get wrapped up in the motion and (ask) the developer to redesign and redesign until at some point we either exhaust him and it goes away, or we decide it's appropriate,” he said. “That’s not the way development works.”

O'Neill took the city’s more-than-300-page building code to task, saying the city needed to simplify its rules. But ultimately, he said, approving Block 137 “sends a good message to the community that we have a first-class developer, first-class architect and first-class development that everyone will be proud of.”

“I don't think we're going to change each other's minds on this,” Hughes said. “But I do agree with Councilor O’Neill that we have a horrific code.”

The Council passed a motion to approve the plans with some conditions, thereby overturning the Development Review Commission’s ruling. Studebaker, Gudman, Gustafson, O’Neill and Jordan voted to approve the motion, while Bowerman and Hughes voted against it.

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

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