Hood River City Council lays out the Waterfront's future

Council unanimously passes waterfront refinement plan

The Hood River Waterfront has been a focus of much attention in recent years, from both the general public enjoying access to the Columbia River and from those invested in the area’s next phase of development.

Photo by Adam Lapierre
The Hood River Waterfront has been a focus of much attention in recent years, from both the general public enjoying access to the Columbia River and from those invested in the area’s next phase of development.

In what was one of its last actions of 2014, and for some, one of their last actions as city councilors, the Hood River City Council voted Monday evening to pass an ordinance implementing the Waterfront Refinement Plan, which sets down design concepts and zoning restrictions for future development at the Hood River Waterfront.

The passage of the plan came at the conclusion of what was another four-hour land use hearing enjoyed by the council, where members of the public and city council debated about how best to manage and balance the competing uses that comprise both the current and future waterfront.

The refinement plan places an overlay zone on a large portion of the Port of Hood River’s waterfront lands located west of the Nichols Boat Basin all the way to The Hook, excluding properties in the southwest portion such as Hood River Juice Company (Ryan’s Juice) and the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The zone places a number of restrictions on the size and style of development at the waterfront. Building footprints for commercial and retail uses are restricted in many of the subareas of the zone, particularly on the west edge of the Nichols Boat Basin, where the port has planned for a park and waterfront trail as well as a handful of small commercial buildings, and a boathouse for non-motorized watercraft such as stand-up paddleboards. It also implements design standards, placing restrictions on building materials, trim and accents, the types of trees that can be planted, minimum numbers of windows and parking spaces, and other aesthetic considerations.

Another key aspect of the plan involves rezoning an “L”-shaped swath of land located immediately south and west of Portway Avenue and North Second Street, respectively, from commercial (C-2) to light industrial (LI), as well as a small strip of land located between Ryan’s Juice and Anchor Way. It also removes an archaic restriction on the building that currently houses Solstice Wood Fire Café and Bar, which only allows a C-2 designation for the purposes of an expo or visitors center.

Development at the waterfront has been a hotter topic even more than usual this year as the Port of Hood River works on redeveloping the west edge of the Nichols Boat Basin and Key Development makes plans to demolish the old Expo Center and construct two new commercial buildings in its stead. The latter issue, along with the arrival of other businesses down at the waterfront, caused a handful of downtown business owners to voice concerns this past summer that the port was creating competition for both the downtown and Heights business districts. Others wanted to see less development altogether, with more green space and public access for recreation.

The text of the waterfront plan makes note of these competing uses, stating that the purpose of the plan was to “create an active recreational area with recreational facilities and some limited commercial development within the LI zone” as well as “establish urban design standards.” City Manager Steve Wheeler noted that it was a “difficult process to go through this and satisfy all these competing interests.” He added the city had been trying for years to pass similar plans, but had failed.

What's the plan?

Places restrictions on building square footage and footprints

Limits uses deemed non-essential and non-accessory to light industrial uses

Places caps on building heights

Outlines design concept and aesthetic features for buildings

Parcels at Expo Center rezoned from commercial to light industrial

Outlines landscaping and parking requirements

Places limits on extent of development at west edge of Nichols Boat Basin

Requires public access for recreation at west edge of basin

“I don’t think there’s any one plan that would satisfy everybody,” Wheeler said. “If there was, it wouldn’t have taken 20-plus years to get where we are today.”

Despite Wheeler’s comments, several of the dozen or so people who testified during the hearing felt that the current process felt rushed and that more time was needed to refine the refinement plan.

Both Heather Staten and Polly Wood of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee advocated for more time, with Staten telling the council “you really need to take the long view on getting this exactly right,” as the plan would impact future waterfront development. Wood requested that the total amount of space allotted for commercial buildings near the west edge of the Nichols Boat Basin be reduced from 7,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet and that building height maximums be decreased from 24 feet to 20 feet.

Susan Froelich also advocated for more time, stating that “it took three years just to rezone the event site” and that it was only “taking two to three months to rezone this entire area,” referring to the waterfront. She added she felt the amount of development allowed by the plan would create traffic congestion down by the port.

“There’s only one way in and out of there,” Froelich said, referring to the North Second Street overpass, “and that’s a problem.”

Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, also felt the process was “moving pretty fast,” and asked that council add a provision that required commercial entities treat stormwater onsite. He also asked for the reduction of parking spaces.

“We don’t need to sacrifice our green space for parking,” VandenHeuvel said.

Others didn’t share the same feelings. Port Commissioner and business owner Jon Davies felt the proposal had been properly vetted and that the port was “giving up a lot” and that no plan would satisfy all groups. He stated the current plan would make developing the area more challenging as the aesthetic restrictions would “raise the price of buildings significantly” in the future.

“You’ve got a plan in front of you that people aren’t 100-percent happy with, which must mean we’re close to the finish line,” he told the council.

Fellow Port Commissioner Rich McBride agreed, stating that it was “a good document, a compromise document, a workable document.” Port Executive Director Michael McElwee echoed commissioners’ sentiments, testifying the “process has been conclusive and comprehensive.” He argued against reducing the footprint of the commercial buildings near the Nichols Boat Basin, noting that the port needed “a modicum of commercial development” in order to support the neighboring green space and waterfront trail.

Steve Gates, another downtown business owner and a member of the plan’s project advisory committee, also didn’t agree that the process had moved too fast and stated he felt the port had been “good stewards” of the waterfront and would continue to do so.

Council made some minor changes to the proposal — including removing copper as a building material over concerns from one audience member that runoff from the copper may harm salmon — but essentially left intact the document approved by the Hood River Planning Commission the previous week. Councilors deliberated about whether to wait to do the required second reading of the ordinance, which would have delayed the final decision on the plan to January, when it would go before a new mayor and three new council members. Councilors were in general agreement that they should pass the plan now, although councilors Kate McBride and Mark Zanmiller initially expressed some reservations. Councilor Laurent Picard, who was present at the beginning of the meeting via speakerphone, but disconnected as he stated it was too difficult to hear, also advocated for more time.

Mayor Arthur Babitz asked Mayor-elect Paul Blackburn what he felt the council should do about the second reading of the ordinance. Blackburn advocated the council hold a meeting to perform the second reading of the ordinance before the end of the year.

Councilor Brian McNamara agreed.

“If we don’t do it or if it doesn’t happen, I don’t know where it’s going to go or if it’s going to get shelved,” he said of the plan.

Councilors approved the first reading of the ordinance for the Waterfront Refinement Plan and will have a special meeting next Monday at 6 p.m. specifically for the purpose of conducting a second reading of the ordinance.

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