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Astoria moves ahead with workforce housing downtown

The Astoria City Council pushed ahead last night to bring workforce housing and housing for people struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues to Heritage Square.

Calling the amount of community input staggering and passionate on both sides, the council voted 3-2 to negotiate with a Portland developer Edlen & Co. to redevelop most of the downtown block bounded by Duane, Exchange, 11th and 12th streets.

Mayor Bruce Jones and City Councilors Joan Herman and Roger Rocka voted in favor of the project. City Councilors Tom Hilton and Tom Brownson voted against it.

One of the controversial components is a proposal to include 33 micro units of supportive housing for clients of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare — people undergoing treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse

Rocka said that to get healthy, people need a safe place to live.

“You can’t treat for mental illness and then have them have to go out on the street and deal with survival,” he said. “Where am I going to sleep tonight? Am I going to freeze? What am I going to eat? How do I keep my clothes dry? And this is a place where that can happen.

He added, “For people who are afraid this is going to bring more people they don’t want to see downtown, this is more likely to be able to get people off the streets.” 

But Brownson believed the housing project wouldn’t be the best neighbor and should go elsewhere. The downtown block is also home to the Garden of Surging Waves and the American Legion. The Astoria Senior is nearby and has expressed opposition to the project.

“I am not convinced that placing it as proposed wouldn’t lead to more problems than it solves,” Brownson said. “The impact that any building at this location has on both the senior center and the American Legion building may be too much.”

The main building, likely to be four stories tall, would contain up to 75 units for individuals earning up to $43,000 a year and couples up to $49,000. Some units would be for residents who  earn a little less.

Jones, who announced this month he will not seek reelection in November, has been a strong proponent for the project and stood firm during discussions Tuesday night.

“This project could be amazing for Astoria,” he said. “It could be amazing for members of our workforce as well as seniors, artists and others who meet the income levels if we were to do this project. I think those people could breathe life into the downtown. I think they would be active members of the community.”

Herman voted for the project but was distressed by the form some of the dissent has taken. Posts have proliferated across social media platforms, conveying a range of information and claims about what the project could look like or mean for Astoria.

“There has been a great amount of misinformation and fear-mongering, some of it deliberate in my opinion by members of our community who should know better,” Herman said. “It is not befitting the town that we all love.”

A group organized a protest outside city hall ahead of the meeting and some city leaders, including Planning Commissioner Cindy Price, have been vocal in their opposition to the project. Planning Commissioner Sean Fitzpatrick, who announced a bid for mayor last week, has also voiced concerns and questions about the project.

The city hopes to complete a basic concept plan by April, to be eligible for state funding. 

Jones told KMUN this is just the first of many public meetings to come. There is a long process ahead, he said.

KMUN reporter Katie Frankowicz contributed to this story