(Updated from earlier notice before the meeting)
A public hearing before the Hood River Planning Commission on Monday pointed clearly to the city’s moral dilemma — it wants to foster development of more affordable housing, and it wants to foster amenities like open space and parks, but it currently finds itself facing a choice of one or the other.
Speakers early in the hearing (the Buzz couldn’t stay for the entire event) voiced strong arguments on both sides of the question of whether the city should rezone Morrison Park — about five acres now used for a disc golf course — so it can dedicate the land for affordable housing.
It’s the latest step in addressing the most pressing issue the city has faced in years — growing pains, and the impact on housing prices and affordability.
In arguing against the rezone, local attorney and activist Brent Foster said the lack of a funding mechanism has forced the city to its own version of Sophie’s choice: Which of two beloved children should live?
He suggested that rather than “piss off” a lot of the city populace by sacrificing park space, the city instead step back and look at taxes or fees or both that could support acquisition of park space where it will best serve residents.
City planning director Cindy Walbridge, in articulating the rationale behind the city’s request to rezone the land, noted that the city already owns it, and wouldn’t have to find and finance other land at market rates for affordable housing.
The park property — at the northwest corner of Wasco Avenue and 20th Street — is now zoned Open Space/Public Facilities. The city is considering a change to Urban High-Density Residential (R-3). The new zone would allow construction of apartments by the Mid-Columbia Housing Authority.
Written public comment will be accepted for another seven days, before the commission meets again to deliberate. If it supports the zone change, that decision will move for a final “yea” or “nay” decision by the City Council.
The zone change is one of several tactics that the city council approved last fall when it adopted a Housing Strategy. The strategy includes these three goals:
- Strategy 1: Increase the efficiency of use of land within the Hood River UGB. Under Strategy 1, the city specified “actions” that would help it achieve strategic objectives. For Strategy 1, Action 1.1, the city said it would “Identify land to rezone to allow additional moderate and high density single family detached and multifamily development
- Strategy 2: Regulate and manage secondary and short-term rental housing
- Strategy 3: Develop affordable housing. Under this strategy, the first identified “action” would be to “Identify publicly owned properties that could be used for affordable housing and partner with the Mid-Columbia Housing Authority to develop affordable housing.”
Locals had barely caught their breath over the short-term rental discussion when this discussion popped up. Walbridge said the city is working on all three strategies simultaneously.
Foretelling the potential tone of the current debate, letters to the editor of the local paper have termed the potential residential development at Wasco and 20th as “a tenement” and “a ghetto.”
Since at least 1954, the land has been zoned for high-density residential, Walbridge noted. Lot 700 (i.e. Morrison Park) has been operated as park space under a temporary use agreement with the Hood River Valley Parks & Recreation Department.
While acknowledging that losing a park “is a tough pill to swallow,” speaker Jon Gehrig of the group Livable Hood River argued for the use of park space to address the pressing need for housing affordable by the city’s lower-wage workers.
Former Mayor Arthur Babitz supported the rezoning, as well.
“We need to focus on how to make this work well rather than trying to kill it,” he said.
Oak Street resident Kate Hoffman also spoke in favor of the zone change. “I’ve seen way more people begging for a space to live than space for them to live,” she said.
Of opposite opinion, Lawrence Jones, Jay Sherrerd, Susan Crowley and Foster raised concerns about loss of limited park space in the neighborhood, about deviation from city comprehensive plan language that directs the city to protect park lands (Crowley), about impact on neighborhood character (Sherrerd), and creation of a “ghetto” (Jones) by concentrating low-income housing north of Wasco Avenue.
Crowley also argued that the city should work to distribute housing for all income levels throughout the city, especially in the undeveloped land between 30th Street and Frankton Road.
Before the meeting, The Buzz talked with Joel Madsen, executive director of the Housing Authority, about what’s involved.
“The lowest hanging fruit is land in public ownership,” Madsen said. “The city has very few lots that are publicly owned. It’s not technically owned by the park district or intended for long-term park use.”
Land east across 20th Street is also zoned R-3, but some of it now supports single family homes, from which some of the early opposition has come.
Madsen says that the city in 2008 hosted an architecture class from the University of Oregon, to engage a community discussion about how that lot could be used for housing and how it could be developed.
“It’s definitely been on our watch list of potential developments back to 2008,” Madsen says. “It really lends itself to housing because of its proximity to shopping and the park-and-ride lot to its northwest.:
The Rotary Skate Park sits south across Wasco, and other open space farther south belongs to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Madsen says the five acres under consideration could support 50 to 80 rental units.
“We need to be cautious with that number, because we have not done pre-development work on that site,” he says.
Addressing growth and potential traffic impacts in the area, Walbridge told the audience that the city has dedicated $109,000 toward installation of a traffic signal at the corner of 20th and Cascade. She also noted that the state has planned funding for a signal at Rand and Cascade in 2018.