Vote follows two nights of public debate; appeal to City Council is likely

Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Development Review Commission members listen to public testimony during the second of two hearings last week on the proposed development of the Wizer Block in downtown Lake Oswego.Lake Oswego's Development Review Commission voted 3-2 late Wednesday night to reject a proposal for a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development on downtown's Wizer Block.

The vote, which came shortly before midnight, is likely to be appealed.

The DRC will now meet Aug. 18 to adopt its findings; that would open a 15-day window for appeal to the City Council, which next meets in September.

Wednesday's marathon session followed a five-hour hearing July 21 and three more hours of public testimony July 23. At issue is a redesigned proposal from Evergreen Group LLC and developer Patrick Kessi to replace the former home of Wizer’s Oswego Foods with 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.

DRC Chair Bob Needham and Commissioners Gregg Creighton and Kelly Melendez voted to reject the proposal; Vice Chair Brent Ahrend and Commissioner David Poulson voted to approve it. The discussion Wednesday night came down to two main points.

First, the commission was divided on whether Kessi’s proposed design reflected downtown Lake Oswego's “village character.” Largely at issue was the sense that the buildings' massing did not conform to the city’s code provision regarding the aesthetics of downtown buildings.

Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Nancy Shebel and Patrick Haar voice their opposition to plans for the Wizer Block during the DRCs July 23 session.Kessi had attempted to address that criticism in his revised plan for Block 137, creating building fronts that featured a variety of setbacks, plane changes, material changes and breaks in rooflines.

Second, the commission was split on how much of the structures’ ground floor was devoted to residential use and on what kind of residential/commercial split was appropriate for the so-called "compact shopping district."

Ahrend argued that, by city code, “mixed use” was up to a developer’s interpretation. “What they’re proposing ... we don’t have anything to say that’s right or wrong,” he said. “Personally, that's a liberty ... that I can't deny. A builder-developer has to have that ability to mix it up himself.”

Needham mostly agreed. “If you say that, hypothetically, someone came forward with a project that was first-floor retail, do we have any say of what percentage is on the second or third floors? No, we don't,” he said.

“It’s clear,” Needham added, “this town needs high-density housing. But it’s also clear it’s been identified and earmarked in the urban design plan" for locations other than in the downtown core.

That point was met with substantial applause from the audience.

The commission emphasized the decision would not be final until it meets again at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18, at which point it will likely adopt its findings.

"There's a good chance it'll get appealed no matter what we decide," Creighton said.

Opponents of the plan had flocked to City Council chambers last week to make their case. Most of the arguments against Block 137 included charges that it was too dense to fit the city’s vision for the downtown core, and that added traffic congestion would choke the area and have a devastating impact on retailers.

Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Developer Patrick Kessi takes notes before responding as opponents comments during the Development Review Commissions hearing on July 23.Leslie Pirrotta argued that devoting only 13 percent of the development to retail was “not conducive to a shopping district.”

“The apartment complex creates its own, isolated, self-contained community. It does not enhance the downtown experience for Lake Oswego residents,” Pirrotta said. “It fails to provide public gathering places.”

“Moreover,” Pirrotta added, “207 apartments at a 50-percent turnover rate means 100 move-ins and move-outs each year. That’s an average of two moving vans, double-parked on our streets, every weekend.”

The design review process itself was compared unfavorably to that of Lake View Village in the early 2000s. Residents described Gramor Development’s approach then as “collaborative.”

Anne Meneakis, who lives in the Evergreen neighborhood and headed the Evergreen Neighborhood Association while Lake View Village was being considered, detailed what she saw as key differences between the two projects.

“Contrary to the center of the proposed Wizer development, which serves only private purposes, the parking structure in the center of Block 138 serves as an aesthetically concealed public parking structure, which serves the larger community,” Meneakis said. “I respectfully request the Wizer Block developer be equally required to reduce his project’s mass and so comply with the code of a community of small structures, just as Gramor was required to do and so complied.”

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Developer Patrick Kessis revised proposal for downtowns Block 137 calls for a four-story, 290,000-square-foot development; it would include 207 residential units and about 36,000 square feet of retail space. Three hours into the week’s second hearing, Evergreen Group representatives presented their rebuttal, with Gene Sandoval of ZGF Architects saying that “we believe that Block 137 is the right project.”

“It is consistently complementary to the mission of Lake Oswego codes and guidelines,” Sandoval said, “and is the recommendation of your city staff.”

Sandoval said Evergreen’s redesigned plans for the Wizer Block would give downtown Lake Oswego a feel akin to that of a European city. The design “meets all criteria for village character you have developed for decades,” he said. The plans are “respectful of your code and its intent. It is a good neighbor. It has the village character of this city.”

Sandoval and attorney Christen White addressed opponents’ concerns about the size of the development by comparing its “footprint” to that of Lake View Village.

“Our small-scale structures have building footprints you can completely circumnavigate, that are similar to or smaller than (those on Lake View Village’s site,” White said, adding that Evergreen’s plans include almost double the amount of landscaping required by city code.

“We’ve been asked to compare ourselves over and over again (to Lake View Village), and we’re going to own those comparisons,” she said. “We can own them on the facts. Along First Street, in this significant redesign, (we) create seven separate storefronts. And by our calculations, that number is about similar (to) across the street (at Lake View Village), if not identical.”

White said Evergreen Group believes that, except for “a small overlap on our property,” the proposed development meets the city’s desire to create a compact shopping district in the downtown core. And she said the developer had listened to commissioners’ concerns Monday about its request to include ground-floor residential units in the project and had now converted those residences into “live-work units.”

“The entire ground floor is work (space),” White said. “Whether that’s residential or office remains to be seen. But living (space) will be on top.”

Kessi said this week that he was pleased with the hearings.

“It was good for us to be able to really lay out for the DRC the essential elements of (of the design) for the code, relevant to height, footprint, density, parking, architectural style,” he said. “It was good that we could really express the facts.”

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