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Workforce housing plan raises ire

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

February 24, 2007

Hood River County Commission Chair Ron Rivers is hopeful that good communication will resolve the concerns of a frustrated citizen group.

He said members of the Downtown Hood River Neighborhood Association seem to believe that a county-led workforce housing project is a “done deal.”

Rivers reiterated following Tuesday’s meeting on the issue that no decisions have yet been made. He said no plan to convert part of the State Street parking lot across from the county administration building into housing units will move forward without public involvement.

“This project is just in its infancy and we are only exploring options at this point,” said Rivers. “The process to consider any proposal is going to be open and transparent so that everyone has a voice.”

On Feb. 16, the county board drew ire from DHRNA after agreeing to enter into negotiations with the James Winkler Development Corporation. Commissioner Maui Meyer recused himself from the discussion and vote because of a past working relationship with the Portland firm.

For the past year, the county has been setting up the framework to possibly provide more low- to middle-income housing. Officials are worried that even professional workers, such as school teachers, and firefighters, are being forced to live in other communities because of high local housing costs. And Hood River is being robbed of the vitality that is created by socio-economic diversity.

The county board decided in February 2006 to spearhead the movement for more affordable housing. Their focus fell on the parking lot because it was already zoned to accommodate the project. And, since the land was under county ownership, the construction costs would be lower than if property had to be purchased.

Unknown at this time is whether up to 41 condominiums could be built on the northern section of the 50,000-square-foot lot, or if special tax breaks would be sought by dedicating a portion of the land to low income apartments. The county has also not decided whether it would sell or lease the lot to a developer.

“The land use process that could be undertaken is still unknown,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

Rivers and Commissioner Barbara Briggs, a member of the citizen advisory group who came forward with the recommendation for Winkler, said the company had a proven track record of designing a plan to accommodate neighborhood concerns. Winkler also specializes in creating in-fill projects through public/private partnerships.

However, the county’s Feb. 20 decision to initiate discussions with Winkler drew approval from only one audience member.

Julie O’Shea expressed her gratitude at being able to live within the city limits of Hood River because of an affordable housing project near 13th Street.

“There are a number of kids who live there as well and they have plenty of places to play. It makes for a great neighborhood,” she said.

The elected body was challenged on several fronts by numerous other citizens. They believed the “highest and best” use of the property — if it had to be developed at all — was as office space.

“Jobs are as important as affordable housing,” said Steve Ford.

Members of the DHRNA also asked why all but 60-65 spaces in the parking lot would be covered with development – when the city was seeking a developer to create 100 new parking spaces.

“It is really hard for us to understand why the city and county would both have RFPs (Request for Proposals) out for developments that focus on a city and county need, but that each RFP would focus on one problem while ignoring the other,” read Julie Gilbert from a written statement.

She acted as spokesperson for DHRNA and also addressed these other key points of contention:

* The city’s 2020 Keeping Hood River on Track study revealed that citizens did not believe high density developments were a good fit in neighborhoods with single family homes.

* The parking lot already had a lot of traffic movement as the driveway for one home, and a pick up circle for the kindergarten and pre-school programs held in an adjacent church.

* The lot served the public well, not only for visits to county offices, but for First Friday parking and overflow seating during the Fourth of July fireworks.

* The city was seeking greater preservation of open space – and the parking lot provided a play area for children during the evenings and weekends.

DHRNA contends there is already a problem with children from other high-density units in the neighborhood playing in driveways and along busy sidewalks. Gilbert said there is not room in the crowded downtown blocks for the common open space available in other housing developments.

She acknowledged that affordable housing is a major issue in Hood River. However, she said the county needed to step back and ask if the parking lot was the best place for that type of a project.

Rivers said the negotiations with Winkler would provide the answer to that and many other questions.

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