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It's time for LO to move forward with Wizer project

Twice in the past few months, The Review has editorialized against the construction of a 290,000-square-foot, mixed-use development on downtown Lake Oswego’s Wizer Block.

The proposed project will be too big and too dense for the corner of A Avenue and First Street, I wrote, and the infrastructure now in place will not be able to handle the influx of cars and residents that will surely be drawn to the 207 apartments and 36,000 square feet of retail space that will be located there.

I still believe that’s true.

But on the eve of writing that first editorial, I had a chance to sit down with developer Patrick Kessi, and this is what I told him: The Development Review Commission would reject his proposal. The City Council would approve it. And the state Land Use Board of Appeals would affirm the council’s decision.

Sure enough, all of that has come to pass.

I also told Kessi that he would eventually build his project in downtown Lake Oswego. And that despite my objections, I would likely add my name to the waiting list for an apartment that will sit almost directly across the street from The Review’s office. That will come to pass, too.

Because the process worked.

Opponents of the development, including The Review, had a chance to make their feelings known in an open and honest debate that wound its way from downtown streets to the Opinion pages of this newspaper, from the DRC to the City Council, and eventually to a college lecture hall in Eugene, where LUBA commissioners heard the case before issuing a decidedly one-sided and unequivocal ruling in favor of Kessi’s project.

Save Our Village, the Evergreen Neighborhood Association and LO 138 LLC (which represents Lake View Village) have argued that the Wizer Block proposal does not meet the Community Development Code’s definition of “village character,” and that the city used its own subjective interpretation of that phrase to approve the project. Opponents also contend that the code required the city to compare the proposed four-story development with neighboring lots to make sure it fit a requirement for “small-scale structures.”

On every point, LUBA disagreed.

On the definition of “village character.” On the need for comparisons with nearby structures. And on the inclusion of live/work units, a gym and a library on the first floor.

“We agree that the City Council’s interpretation of the Community Development Code easily qualifies as a plausible interpretation,” LUBA said, “... and that petitioners’ proffered interpretation to the contrary is inconsistent” with the code.

Opponents also raised one of my main objections — that the streets surrounding the Wizer Block will not be able to absorb the increase in traffic generated by such a dense mixed-use development. LUBA rejected that argument, too, as inappropriate for a general land-use decision.

I still disagree with the commissioners on that last point, and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who was right. But I have always believed that the three buildings Kessi proposes for the Wizer Block — with their varied facades, pedestrian walkways and public spaces — will not only fit the definition of “village character” but also enhance the city’s downtown core. Kessi has always designed beautiful projects that blend seamlessly into their neighborhoods; I have no doubt that will be true in Lake Oswego, too.

I also like the mix of retail shops and residential units that Kessi proposes. “Retail begets retail,” opponents have argued, but there’s no denying the amount of vacant shops that already exist in downtown Lake Oswego. Even developer Barry Cain, one of the Wizer Block’s most vocal opponents, will ask the city’s redevelopment agency this week to let him use space on the ground floor of Lake View Village for offices instead of the required retail shops.

Even in a vibrant and thriving downtown, there’s a limit to how much retail space a compact shopping district can accommodate. And every business owner in that district will tell you that the key to their longtime survival is the very influx of residents that Kessi’s project will bring.

Obviously, the project’s opponents disagree, and they are now considering taking their case to the Oregon Court of Appeals. I think that time-consuming and expensive effort would be misguided.

If LUBA had wavered on any point, I might encourage an appeal. If there was even a hint that an issue in the LUBA decision could be considered “unlawful,” as attorney Greg Hathaway has argued, then I might encourage an appeal. If I had any reason to believe that the predictions I shared with Kessi months ago would not come true, I would encourage an appeal.

But I don’t believe that, because there was no wiggle room in the LUBA decision and no new evidence can be brought before the court; in essence, opponents can only recycle the same arguments that LUBA considered to be without merit.

I do believe this, though: The cost of an appeal is likely to be tens of thousands of dollars. The process would likely take three to four months. And in the end, Patrick Kessi will build his mixed-use development on the Wizer Block, just like I told him he would.

The time has come for me to put my name on the waiting list. For opponents to drop their appeal. And for the community to move forward with a project that is destined to become an integral part of the “village character” we all cherish.

Gary M. Stein is editor of The Lake Oswego Review.

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