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City drops Heritage Square housing project

The Astoria City Council signaled today that it will be stepping back from a proposed downtown workforce and affordable housing project.

During an executive session earlier this week, city councilors learned exactly how much Portland developer Edlen & Co. was asking the city to contribute to get the proposed housing project at Heritage Square off the ground. City leaders recapped this information at a work session Friday morning.

The nearly 100-unit project proposal comes with an estimated price tag of $38 million. Edlen & Co. planned to seek out various sources of government funding, but asked the city to also contribute by donating the land at Heritage Square for free, offering a property tax abatement for the next 60 years and providing significant money from the city’s Astor East Urban Renewal fund.

John Southgate, the city’s consultant on the Heritage Square project, noted such requests are fairly typical for this kind of housing development.

Jill Sherman of Edlen & Co. said the development company was open to some negotiation, and could perhaps even drop a particularly divisive component of the project that included transitional housing and space for clients of Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare. She said it is possible other funding sources could be secured and the city may see as much as half of its money return — though she could not guarantee this.

But given the divided support in the community for the project and the large contributions being asked of the city, all five city councilors concluded they could not proceed.

Mayor Bruce Jones and City Councilors Joan Herman and Roger Rocka had been strong proponents for the project and said they were backing away from it with much regret.

In his closing comments, Jones said he wanted to acknowledge some people who opposed the project and had, what he believed, were legitimate concerns. But he also acknowledged the people who “are being let down” by the City Council’s decision.

“I want to speak to all of those who are being let down,” Jones said. “Because there are many of you out there who desperately need housing, who are just scraping by, who are just hanging on by a thread — those people who have left Astoria in the last year because you couldn’t afford to live here anymore. I’m talking about artists. I’m talking about working class people. I’m talking about teachers who were offered a job and didn’t accept it because they couldn’t find a place to live. This is a desperate housing situation.”

It is essential, he said that even as the city rejects the Heritage Square project, that they move forward on other such housing projects.

“So,” Jones added, “I’m going to ask that all of you who came to Council and said, ‘We support affordable housing, just anywhere but Heritage Square’ … as you see other affordable housing proposals come to us within the city limits within this next year, please remember that you said, ‘Anywhere but Heritage Square,’ and let’s get those projects built.”

The City Council did not vote during the work session. Since the councilors appeared unanimous in their views, however, Sherman said Edlen & Co. would speak with city staff about pulling voluntarily out of the exclusive negotiating agreement they had with Astoria for the Heritage Square project.