Mayor says council at fault for developer's withdrawal; council questions that assessment

Last week developer Thomas Kemper backed out of the Milwaukie Town Center project, citing a lack of City Council support because three of five councilors questioned the deal.

Mayor Jim Bernard also blames council. But the ones who questioned Kemper say that's laying undue blame, especially considering the current state of the housing market.

Councilors Joe Loomis, Susan Stone and Greg Chaimov raised questions and concerns during the Jan. 15 council meeting at which Kemper asked for a year extension on the start date of the development.

Bernard, despite the fact that council voted 4-1 to approve the agreement with Kemper, called council spineless in a memo published on the city's Web site on Friday.

'We need 'back bone' and folks we need council to grow one,' the memo said.

'We have to have a vision for our community,' Bernard said. 'The vision was set up through our Downtown Plan and we had a group that looked at the site and chose this project, so why aren't we standing behind that? When it came down to sign the final memorandum of understanding, there didn't seem to be a backbone to support that.'

Bernard said 'absolutely' the council's lack of support had more to do with Kemper's departure from the project than the poor housing economy.

'There's no question in my mind that's what happened,' he said. 'None of us can predict what [the housing market] is going to be like two years from now or one year from now or, as a matter of fact, next week - [Kemper's] sticking his neck out, why aren't we behind him 100 percent?'

But Stone said Bernard's interpretation didn't make sense and said Kemper made a business decision based on the economy.

'The facts are this: it was a 4-1 vote, so his comments seem erroneous because the vote was 4-1,' she said. 'I think that Kemper is a businessman and he's got to make business decisions, and if there's any way he could have done this he wouldn't have pulled out … any businessman who feels that he can turn a profit is not going to turn his back on a deal.

'The fact is the council still voted to support the memorandum of understating, so I think it's a bit unfair to say the council didn't support [the project].'

Loomis agreed.

'[Someone said] if you have concerns, now is the time to address them, so I addressed them,' he said. 'It's obvious that it's a bad economy, bad time - but that had nothing to do with the support of the council,' he said. 'We gave him what he wanted when he asked that night.'

Chaimov said he could see how council support might affect a decision and that he didn't blame Kemper.

'I know from my experience in representing developers that there are a wide variety of factors that go into a developer's decision to proceed or not proceed with the project,' he said. 'We believed that if he had what he believed to be the councilors' extremely enthusiastic support for the development he wanted to do, that may have overcome the robust economic [difficulties].'

Stone and Loomis were optimistic about the future of the site, though.

'We'll have a great project there,' Loomis said.

Stone was more specific, considering options other than big developments.

'It sounded good in concept, but there was just a lot of differing opinions in terms of the scale of the building,' Stone said. 'I really want to see our downtown developed, I want to see the retail - I'm not sure we need the density they're trying to force on us … I've never advocated for putting up a high-rise building along McLoughlin to block everybody else's view of the river.

'I imagine there will be discussion about whether another developer should come, but I hope there's also discussion of other options, like a public square.'

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