Local News: Astoria Planning Commission – a closer look at waterfront building height

Story script:  Listen below [5:43]

The short answer was that the planning commission decided to recommend a 35-foot height limit, which is not what many members of the public said they wanted. The city received hundreds of signatures on petitions, and offered many concerned comments at city council and planning commission meetings. Public sentiment was clearly in favor of a limit of 28 feet. So why did commissioners go for something contrary to vigorous public opinion? Let’s take a closer look at their process.

In this case, commissioners were dealing with a complex web of potential unintended consequences as they considered voting on the 28-foot height limit. They were also up against a time crunch: If they had not voted Tuesday evening for something they could send to the city council for consideration – the resulting time delay for approval, and eventual implementation, would have meant new city code might not be in place until late fall.

And ever since the Fairfield Inn project, a 45-foot tall hotel recently OK’d for the waterfront under existing city code, there’d been consensus on the city council, at least, that code approved a decade or more ago was too permissive, so time was an issue.

Part of the rationale behind the 28 foot limit was that it would discourage mass market hotel projects. But, commissioners felt they needed to consider more than just height. Here’s commissioner Brookley Henri:

Brookley Henri:

“I think we should discuss massing and building sizes today. If we don’t get that in the code, then we haven’t really finished our work. We agreed upon these height limitations, so our next responsibility is to make sure we don’t end up with these ‘whales’ that block the view. Because our height restriction has encouraged these very long buildings.”

By “whales,” she referred to a dilemma also raised by other commissioners, who were worried that a 28 foot height limit, coupled with a proposed 30,000 square foot floor plan limit, would simply create long, low buildings along marine drive with few view corridors, which could make views worse.

That said, Commissioner Darryl Moore had never been never in favor of the 28 foot limit.

Darryl Moore:

“I don’t see how reducing the height from 35 to 28 creates or preserves views in any fashion. And it’s the long buildings that people find offensive.”

But Moore suggested another way of looking at things that offered the commission a compromise: the concept of Floor Area Ratio or F-A-R. Floor area ratio is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the piece of land on which it is built. This approach to massing could break up the profile of buildings to avoid a block of structures. A proposal with a carefully defined F-A-R would limit how much of a given plot of waterfront land could be occupied by buildings, and potentially, it could protect public views. So commissioners discussed F-A-R in conjunction with height.

The process yielded two proposals. One succeeded, the other did not. Commissioner Cindy Price introduced a motion to keep the 28 foot height limit, and add the F-A-R into the commission’s code amendment proposal, to honor what she said was overwhelming public support for 28 feet. But the commission had also repeatedly heard from property owners on the waterfront that 28 feet would result in projects that were not worth the investment to build them.

While the meeting was sparsely attended, during public comment periods some people renewed their concerns about height limits above 28 feet. Some referred to the fact that at the previous commission meeting, where commissioners Sean Fitzpatrick and Chris Womack were not in attendance, a majority of commissioners had been in favor of the 28 foot limit. With the full commission present, that majority did not hold.

Astoria resident Elizabeth Menetrey:

Elizabeth Menetrey:
“I brought in 80 petitions and another 100-and-something petitions. We had lots of people for 28 feet. There was such a strong callfor 28 feet. I know, I realize that there’s a problem with the massing. But I feel like, ‘OK, this was reported in the Daily A’ and we’re all like, ‘yay!’ and now this is a different planning commission – a different outcome. So I’m very disappointed.”

Astoria resident Chris Farrar, who is on the county planning commission, also expressed his frustration:

Chris Farrar:

“Well, here we are again. A long. Long series of meetings and hearings, and I appreciate the job you’re doing and I know it’s tough. And I know it’s often difficult to listen to all the testimony and try to come to a good decision. There aren’t as many people here tonight as there were at the last meeting. But if you recall it was clear at the last meeting that the public had a view about what kind of a city they want and what kind of development they think is appropriate, to preserve the qualities that this city has.”

In the end, the council agreed on 35 feet and a .75 F-A-R, and the motion passed. Even commissioner Price agreed the proposal as approved was a good compromise between business and resident interests. She said she voted no on the second proposal as well, to honor the wishes of the many members of the public who wanted heights limited to 28 feet.

The city council will review this new proposal and discuss it at their meeting August 19. The public will have an additional opportunity, then, to comment again. I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.