Wizer Development Hits the “Sweet Spot”

By Jamieson Grabenhorst, originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 8/21/14

The vocal opponents of the Wizer Block redesign have offered many subjective objections and they have every right to voice their opinions. We do after all live in a democracy where free speech is not only allowed but is sacrosanct. But free speech should not be confused with facts, and bad facts repeated often enough do not become the truth.

The truth is that years ago, this city had a vision for the core of Lake Oswego. In local government terms, that “vision” is called a code. The vision or the code was planned and prepared for, and so in time the Lake View Village proposal was presented. That project was also a tough project to introduce to some members of the community and required the persistence of the city and its visionaries, who recognized an opportunity to bring life back into downtown Lake Oswego. Now, many years’ later, preparation and opportunity have once again come together.

The city prepared its infrastructure for such an opportunity. The block has a willing seller who owns the property and a building where leases are coming to an end. There is a willing buyer, whom a majority of the Development Review Commissioners agreed had redesigned the proposed development to code. Presently there are low interest rates that are attractive to financial investors, and there are market demands for quality downtown residences, retail and commercial space. Golfers, tennis players and softball players all understand the “sweet spot” of their clubs, rackets and bats, and they strive to hit that sweet spot. Several decades could elapse before another confluence of events makes the Wizer Block a sweet spot for enhancing Lake Oswego’s future. So let us not confuse free speech and repeated bad facts with truth and reality.

The facts are that the redesigned Wizer Block is compatible with both the size and scale of its neighbors. It respects the code — in height, density, parking, open spaces and architectural style, as the DRC recently found. It will complete downtown exactly the way the city envisioned years ago.

The reality is that Lake Oswego has again been presented with an opportunity. Let’s have some perspective and some foresight. We should not miss the chance for a code-compliant, architecturally pleasing and high-quality development just because of the shouting.

Opponents criticize a great project that meets all of the code requirements. Opponents might design and build a different project if they owned the land — but they don’t. It will be a dangerous precedent if this development, which meets all objective code standards and is exactly what the city envisioned, is stopped by noisy opponents.

The current opportunity for the Wizer Block is the sweet spot of the village and the community, and city government should hit its combination of favorable circumstances out of the ball park. The shouting should not cause Lake Oswego to miss this chance. This moment may not come around again in a very long time.

Jamieson Grabenhorst is a resident of Lake Oswego.

New Life and Success for Our Downtown

Letter by Ellie McPeak, originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 8/21/14

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

— Lewis Carroll (“Through the Looking Glass,” Chapter Six)

Much of the opposition to the proposed Wizer redevelopment has focused on “village character.” What do people mean when they say the project threatens their “village?” The code itself actually defines the term.

To quote Section 40.05.004 of the code: …”village character” means a community of small-scale structures that appears and operates like a traditional small town. A village is typically composed of an assembly of smaller mixed-used structures. … Adherence to village character is not intended to require an historical reproduction of a turn-of-the-century small town, but rather to encourage the development of a sophisticated small city…”

(Note the term “mixed-use structures.” Some of the opposition seems to think only retail is allowed. No. A mix of residential and commercial is described in the code.)

The next section of the Code says: “Building siting and massing shall create a village character by compliance with the following requirements …”

So, the code says we create “village character” by complying with eight major requirements, which include design, materials, the number of stories (at least two but possibly four), the height (under 60 feet), the location of entrances and the design of street corners. These specific requirements are what the code defines as “village character.” They are met, with just two exceptions, by the Wizer proposal. Lake View Village, on the other hand, had 11 exceptions.

Why the DRC turned the proposal down is a complete puzzle. They are supposed to evaluate a proposal by reading the code. “Village character” is not what I think it is, or what the folks who put up the Save our Village signs think it is. We don’t get to choose what it means. We are not in Alice’s Wonderland. We’re in Lake Oswego.

“Village character” is spelled out in the code. The project meets the code definition, so it is in keeping with “village character.”

I’m confident the council will carefully read the code. When they do, they’ll approve the Wizer project. The people who will live there and the businesses it will create will bring new life and success to our downtown.

Ellie McPeak is a Lake Oswego resident and a former member of the Lake Oswego City Council.

Majority Welcome Wizer Project

A letter by Bill Mathers, originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 8/14/14

The community of Lake Oswego has evolved substantially over the past few decades. While this growth and development has enriched our lives and greatly improved our village, each phase was contested at every turn by a minority of its citizens. Fortunately the leadership of the town was able to overcome such objections and guide responsible projects to completion for the benefit of all.

The Wizer redevelopment project presently under review is currently facing similar obstruction as it sits in the crosshairs of predictable criticism. However, for the majority of citizens — who welcome worthy projects such as this — let’s hope it passes, as have other successful projects in the past. We have elected a City Council to act for the common good, and trust that they will do so again.

We all agree that a successful and thriving community requires continuous growth and renewal; it is also widely acknowledged that the Wizer Block needs such renewal. The current project has been thoroughly reviewed and revised to meet every one of our community standards and guidelines. Thus, it should be approved and not held up by the minority who predictably object to every form of community renewal.

Bill Mathers

Lake Oswego

Wizer debate yields a balanced proposal that should be approved

written by Mark Eves. Originally published in the Lake Oswego Review 8/14/14

Years ago, the citizens and City Council of Lake Oswego sat down together and, after many months of hard work, adopted a vision for the core of Lake Oswego. That vision was described in a code. As a result of that hard work and a very creative development plan, the Lake View Village proposal was presented.

That proposal was opposed by a vocal minority of our citizens. After numerous meetings and hearings, the project became a reality. It added great value to our core. The project was granted 11 code exceptions. One exception allowed the project to slightly exceed the height limitation. A second one allowed the project to exceed the number of stories allowed under the code. These exceptions were granted because we saw a chance to energize the village core, and we grabbed that opportunity.

Across the street from Lake View Village is the Wizer Block, a city block which is tired, warn and architecturally inconsistent with the plans and dreams of the code we adopted. Many of us feel that it detracts from the image of our revitalized village. Fortunately, we now have the opportunity to finish the job which was started with Lake View Village.

The owner of the Wizer Block would like to sell, and his leases are coming to an end. We have a new, creative developer who believes in the potential of our village, and who is willing to invest in that future by redeveloping the entire block. With low interest rates and our community still struggling from the recession, this is a unique opportunity to solve a problem.The plans presented by this developer are entirely consistent with our code and our image of the village. It also is entirely consistent with the Lake View Village project. Finally, the project can be approved without asking for any material variance from our code.

We had a very vocal minority who opposed the Lake View Village project. We have a similar vocal minority who is opposing this project. In both cases, stunning projects were proposed to replace structures which were simply worn out. The Lake View Village project made our core village a destination for living and shopping. It is undisputed that it created great new economic vitality for our village. The proposed new Wizer Block will accomplish the same objective as Lake View Village. In addition, it will provide a natural transition from the commercial to the residential. I wholeheartedly support it and feel lucky that this opportunity has come to us.

In Lake Oswego, we have a long tradition of listening to the vocal minority. In essence, they have served as our conscience and they have added perspective. In the case of the Wizer Block, the vocal minority reminded us that sometimes we can have too much of a good thing. As a result of their comments, the Wizer Block project has been brought back to a scale that truly fits our village. Thanks to their efforts, a proper balance has now been reached.

The process of vetting the Wizer Block project has now gone on for over a year. We are fortunate that the developer has stuck with us and not abandoned the project. Let’s approve it now and begin a next new positive chapter in Lake Oswego.

Mark Eves is a resident of Lake Oswego.

published in the Lake Oswego Review 08/14/14

Lake Oswego Review: Project will be appealed

Developer Patrick Kessi said this week that he will appeal the Development Review Commission’s rejection of his proposal for a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development on downtown Lake Oswego’s Wizer Block.

Kessi said he was surprised by the DRC’s 3-2 vote, which came shortly before midnight on July 30, because commissioners appeared poised after hours of discussion to grant the few code exceptions he requested.

“By straw vote, the majority of the commission found (the proposal) fit all the criteria,” Kessi said. “After hours of discussion about how the project met the code, the vote to deny was pretty unpredictable.”

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. Any decision by the council also could be appealed to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

In his appeal, Kessi will not be allowed to make any changes to the proposal he submitted to the DRC. But he said he stands behind what he calls “a substantial redesign” that addressed concerns raised earlier this year by neighborhood groups, community leaders and city officials.

“I’m really pleased that we’ve completed this important step in the approval process,” Kessi said. “Now I’m really looking forward to presenting (this) much-improved design to the City Council.”

The DRC’s marathon session last week followed a five-hour hearing July 21 and three more hours of public testimony July 23. At issue is a redesigned proposal from Kessi’s Evergreen Group LLC 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 seemed to come 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.

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.

Brant Williams, the city’s redevelopment director, said that like Kessi, he, too, was surprised by the DRC’s decision because commissioners seemed amenable to the project through much of the night’s discussion.

“We assumed all along it would be a close vote,” Williams said, but Kessi’s proposal met all of the terms of his agreement with the Lake Oswego Revevelopment Agency.

Among other requirements, that agreement stipulated that a minimum of 28,000 square feet of the mixed-use design had to be earmarked for ground-floor, active retail use; that there would be public parking within the block itself; that quality materials be used in the buildings’ construction; and that the development would increase the city’s tax base.

A final report from city staff to the DRC on July 11 recommended that Kessi’s proposal be approved, but opponents flocked to City Council chambers to make their case, on one night filling Municipal Court space and spilling out into City Hall’s foyer.

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. Save Our Village, the local organization that led a grassroots campaign to oppose the development, praised the DRC’s decision this week.

“We are pleased that the Development Review Commission has affirmed Lake Oswego’s redevelopment codes calling for small-scale structures on the Wizer block, designated as our ‘compact shopping district,’” said Save Our Village founder Lita Grigg. “Our followers remain committed to preserving Lake Oswego’s village character. We will continue to work for responsible growth.”

But Kessi warned that the rejection could prove to be a deterrent to other developers in the future.

“What you should be able to count on is predictability,” he said. “You should be able to count on clear and objective standards to get a development approved. Your code should be predictable and fairly applied. And that’s why the vote was disappointing, because it’s troubling for this project and future projects.”

Contact Saundra Sorenson at 503-636-1281 ext. 107 or ssorenson@lakeoswegoreview.com.