Green Light - City councilors give OK to new downtown building despite neighbor protest

Pacific University nabbed a reprieve from the Hillsboro City Council last week when councilors voted unanimously to grant the university a zoning variance, allowing an expansion of the school's Health Professions Campus to move forward in the city.

Pacific wants to build a four-story, 62,000 square-foot building along the Hillsboro MAX line at the intersection of Southeast Eighth Avenue and Main Street. But the plan drew massive opposition from neighbors, who thought the proposed building was too tall.

The Hillsboro Planning Commission agreed with that assessment and denied the school a variance from a zoning rule that would have forced the upper stories of Pacific's building to have a smaller area.

On Jan. 8, however, the city council disagreed, saying Pacific's revisions to the building made it compatible with the character of the historic neighborhood.

That conclusion came as a huge relief to officials at the university, which is based in Forest Grove.

'It's not the final step, but it's the next step and we appreciate that they were able to look at all the issues and make the decision that they did,' said Sara Hopkins-Powell, executive dean and vice-provost for the College of Health Professions.

The decision came after four hours of testimony from neighbors upset about the prospect of a building looming large overhead. City Councilor Cynthia O'Donnell, citing a conflict of interest, recused herself from voting on the issue and instead argued against the variance.

O'Donnell lives near the proposed building.

Neighbors can still appeal the city council decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. The city council is scheduled to meet again Tuesday and is expected to reaffirm its findings.

'It's not that they didn't believe that historic neighborhoods were important to Hillsboro but they felt that the design that Pacific was proposing was not significantly harming the historic zone,' said Hillsboro city spokeswoman Barbara Simon.

The proposed building will still feature a stair-step design, said Hopkins-Powell, but with the variance the university won't have to build a fifth floor, which the zoning allows, and the upper stories will be more conducive to classrooms.

The new building will also feature landscaping to help improve neighbors' views of the building.

Hopkins-Powell said the university hopes the new building will achieve LEED gold status, a designation given to structures that adopt sustainable building practices.

The plan is for work on the building to begin in March. It will house the university's School of Professional Psychology, currently located mostly in downtown Portland.

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