The Oregonian I January 24, 2016
About 50 nervous Lake Oswego residents gathered for a community meeting, where officials rolled out plans for the biggest proposed downtown redevelopment in the city’s history.
Residents vented their spleens over two hours about a variety of concerns. How much traffic will this generate? Will the proposed density ruin downtown’s character? How much will all this cost?
“There’s a lack of detail here,” one man complained. “We’d like answers before we buy into it.”
That was in 1988, decades before Lake Oswego’s halting embrace of a downtown redevelopment plan that is only now being finally realized.
Downtown’s landmark Wizer’s Oswego Foods is gone, replaced by a swarm of construction workers and equipment. A dramatic reshaping is well underway on the final block of downtown that had held out for so long.
Now, as then, some worry that the four-story, full-block project that’s resculpting downtown’s hub will overwhelm the surrounding urban landscape and clog adjacent arterials with too many cars.
But many city residents appear excited that Lake Oswego, after decades of starts, stops and controversy, is joining the growing number of suburban towns embracing a movement characterized by full-service, walkable downtowns.
“This is really just a continuation of the village,” said Marsha Van Wyngarden, who lives directly across the street from the bustling construction site. “It’s an amazing evolution and we’re thrilled by it.”
The project, due for completion in July 2017, consists of three four-story buildings that will include 200 residential units, a two-story, 430-space underground parking area and 42,891 square feet of commercial space.
The city, through its redevelopment district, is kicking in about $5 million to the project’s $93 million total. The public contribution, much of it in the form of waived fees, is intended to reserve a portion of the parking space for public use.
The replacement of Wizer’s low-slung, vintage 50’s brick grocery store is the capstone of a larger effort that has already completely reshaped the blocks immediately east and west of what is formally known as Block 137.
To the west, Block 136 now features shops, restaurants and condominiums. To the east, along Oregon 43, Gramor Development’s2003 Lake View Village, a mixture of stores and restaurants, dominates.
Taken together, the three blocks will provide the array of urban amenities that, for decades, many city residents weren’t sure they wanted.
“For a long time, I don’t think most of the city wanted to be a destination point,” said Jim Crowell, a Lake Oswego native and construction-company owner. “But this is only the beginning. Within five or 10 years, you’ll see big new redevelopments lining every downtown street. The market for this is just way too strong not to make that happen.”
Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, isn’t sure coming changes will be quite that dramatic. But what is occurring now, he said, places Lake Oswego squarely at the forefront of cities striving to meet regional demand for walkable urban locales.
“Beaverton, Forest Grove, Milwaukie, Tigard, Camas, Oregon City – all of these places that people thought would always be automobile-oriented suburban landscapes – are embracing walkable urbanism in significant ways,” Seltzer said. “This is the moment when interest in really peaking in reinhabiting some of these older urban spaces.”
It’s not a trend embraced by everyone, especially in Lake Oswego.
Gene Wizer had tried for years to come up with redevelopment plans for the block where his father, Jim, built Wizer’s Fine Foods in 1960 after moving across A Avenue from the establishment he first opened in 1948.
The store became a local institution, where it wasn’t unusual to see third-generation customers walking the aisles. Shelves were stocked with some of the world’s most famous gourmet foods, many of which, in the Portland area, were found only at Wizer’s.
The younger Wizer, who died in December at age 77, was only steps away from deals with private developers at least three separate times over the years, most recently in 2008. When the recession hit, those plans again fell flat.
Until 2012, when Wizer launched into talks with the Evergreen Group, a Portland-based real estate developer. Their original proposal sparked immediate opposition, calling for a five-story structure that would have led to far more residential units than the final plan ended up including.
A citizens’ group, Save Our Village, quickly formed and successfully contested the application before the city’s Development Review Commission. The Lake Oswego City Council subsequently overturned that decision, which Save Our Village then took to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
They struck out both there and in a subsequent appeal to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The end came in November, when the Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
“I was excited to see Lake View Village go up, but we just threw common sense out the door with this one,” said Barry Dennis, a group member and small-business owner who had an office in the now-demolished Wizer building. “I’m far from alone in thinking it’s just ridiculous to have this giant monstrosity dumped into the middle of our downtown. It’s crazy.”
Mayor Kent Studebaker, though, joined City Councilors in supporting the project. The proposal, he said, fell within the parameters of the city’s design code and fulfilled Lake Oswego’s long-held dreams for downtown redevelopment.
“From everything I’ve seen, it will be a really good project for this city,” Studebaker said. “For years, people here have supported an evolution toward more walkable downtown amenities. And this is exactly what they’re getting.”