By Saundra Sorenson. Originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 9/25/14
After eight hours of testimony and deliberation, the Lake Oswego City Council voted to overturn the Development Review Commission’s rejection of the latest Wizer Block design.
The City Council voted 5-2 Wednesday evening to allow developer Patrick Kessi’s plan to build a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development at the corner of A Avenue and First Street in downtown Lake Oswego.
Councilor Karen Bowerman expressed concerns about how funds from the Lake Oswego Redevelopment Agency would be paid back, in the event the residential and commercial project did not hit anticipated revenues. But Bowerman’s question about the Evergreen Group’s “exit strategy for payback to the city as a creditor” was judged by the council to be outside the purview of the hearing.
Councilors Bowerman and Lauren Hughes proved to be vocal critics of the project.
“The exceptions are very specific,” Hughes argued. “As I went back and read DRC minutes, it seemed to me that what they were really stuck on was scale. (It was) too massive. That to me is kind of the heart of the matter, is we’ve gone to four stories all the way around, ringing it, where I don’t think that’s what the code meant to say.”
“They couldn’t approve the project because of sale issues, it being too big,” she added. “I feel like we’re at a point where we’re being asked to push the code beyond where it intends to be. And push the (Urban Development Plan) into a place where it was never intended.”
But Councilor Jeff Gudeman did not feel the UDP should be regarded as a controlling document.
“The UDP is a visionary statement,” Gudeman said. “We’ve already gone beyond that visionary statement in the UDP with the building of Lake View Village.”
He added, “While the opening paragraph of our code in this particular area does set out the vision, the specifics of it — which the DRC has acknowledged they met the specific criteria listed — leads me to having to say the DRC erred in their decision. And as they noted in their report and material, they struggled with trying to define ‘small scale.’”
Mayor Kent Studebaker agreed.
“I may not like this particularly, I may think it’s too large, but this is what the code says, and I think it’s our obligation as the council to go with what the council says, rather than to say, I’m going to go with subjective (criteria).”
Studebaker also said it was a disservice not to provide certainty to any developers considering projects in the city.
But Bowerman found the largely residential project was not in the spirit of the UDP.
“The point is for there to have a sense of vitality offered in this compact shopping district, and that is not offered by what is private space, used by just a couple hundred people,” She said. “Retail begets retail. Retail in quantity begets customers. That’s what we’re trying to build in a compact shopping district. That’s what is missing by failing to support that particular part of the code.”
Hughes cautioned the council against signing on too quickly with what she viewed as essentially a “public-private partnership.”
“We are looking at close to $6 million,” she said. “I feel like we do very much have an obligation to assure that what goes in there is the right thing, and that it has community support. I don’t think it has enough community support.”
Photo Credit: REVIEW: VERN UYETAKE – City Councilor Jon Gustafson (foreground) listens to a second night of Wizer Block testimony Tuesday. The council was expected to vote on the project Wednesday night.
Jordan said that much of the criticism about the project was likely due to the fact it would house rental units, not condos.
“It is different to have a downtown rental complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. And that doesn’t mean that because of the quality of the materials, the expense that’s going to be brought into this block to make it fit the Lake Oswego style, it’s going to be something that you will be ashamed of.”
Councilor Skip O’Neill, who made the motion to approve the proposal, reminded the council that his campaign was largely based on attracting “quality developers” to Lake Oswego.
“What we (don’t) want to do is to get wrapped up in the motion, and (ask) the developer to redesign and redesign until at some point we either exhaust him and it goes away, or we decide it’s appropriate,” he said. “That’s now the way development works.”
He took the city’s more than 300-page building codes to task, saying the city needed to simplify.
Ultimately, approving Block 137 “sends a good message to the community that we have a first-class developer, first-class architect and first-class development that everyone will be proud of,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re going to change each other’s minds on this,” Hughes said. “I do agree with Councilor O’Neill that we have a horrific code.”
The council passed a motion to approve the plans with some conditions set, thereby overturning the Development Review Commission’s ruling.
Studebaker, Gudman, Gustafson, O’Neill and Jordan voted to approve the motion, while Bowerman and Hughes voted against it.
The council is expected to finalize its decision during its Oct. 7 sessi