- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - Astoria City Council backs away from library renovation plan

The Astoria City Council backed away Tuesday night from a library renovation plan that would demolish the old Waldorf Hotel and instead agreed to look at other options, such as building a new library with workforce housing at Heritage Square.

The City Council had decided last year on a $4.6 million renovation plan for the Astoria Public Library that involved the demolition of the vacant Waldorf. But preservationists have fought to save the dilapidated hotel, previously known as the Merwyn, and newly elected city councilors have been open to alternatives.

Mayor Arline LaMear, a retired librarian who has supported the library’s expansion into the Waldorf, suggested at a council work session Tuesday night that the city look at building a new library with workforce housing in partnership with the private sector at Heritage Square.

A similar option had been floated a decade ago for Heritage Square. The mayor cited as examples the Sellwood-Moreland Library in Portland, a mixed-use development with condominiums and commercial space, and the Hollywood Library in Portland, which has apartments and a coffee shop.

“To me, it’s a way of perhaps solving two problems,” LaMear said.

Councilor Drew Herzig, who had wanted the City Council to explore options to demolishing the Waldorf, praised LaMear for offering another approach. The mayor has made library renovation a priority since she was first elected to the council in 2008, but she said last week that she did not want the decision on how to proceed to be personal.

“Nobody cares about this more than Mayor LaMear does. Nobody has been on this for as long as Mayor LaMear” has, Herzig said. “If she’s willing to step back and say, ‘Maybe we need to go a different direction.’ I think that’s incredible on her part.”

Other councilors also welcomed LaMear’s proposal to separate the fates of the library and the Waldorf. The library’s long-standing problems, which include aging infrastructure and a lack of accessibility for the disabled, have been overshadowed recently by the attention on saving the hotel.

But in the course of a nearly two-hour discussion, councilors circled back to where they started and were unable to untangle the library and the Waldorf.

Councilors said they would also entertain an idea from Ted Osborn, the president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society and a retired architect, to expand the library into the basement and first floor of the Waldorf and use the upper floors of the hotel for housing.

The preservation society has led the campaign to save the Waldorf, which preservationists view as an example of Late Commercial with Renaissance detailing and an important component of the city’s historic downtown. The hotel, built in 1926, was closed for health and safety code violations in 1989.

“Sure you have to gut the library, you have to gut the Merwyn, but then you’ve got a lot of solid value there,” said Osborn, who told the council he has been drafting plans for a melded library and hotel.

LaMear said she has “grave doubts” but did not object to looking at Osborn’s idea.

Councilor Russ Warr initially warned that it would be a “real slap in the face” to the library board for the council to step away from the library renovation plan. The library board had recommended the renovation plan after extensive study and public feedback.

“My fear is that we’re going to get into a position where we’re not ever going to renovate the library or do anything with the Merwyn Hotel because it’s going to get so messed up that nobody’s going to want to touch it,” he said.

Yet Warr said he is interested in seeing Osborn’s idea for a blended library and hotel.

David Oser, who serves on the library board, said afterward that the library renovation plan does not have the necessary support from the community.

Several observers have complained that the renovation plan was crafted with the presumption that the Waldorf would be demolished and the library’s budget and staff would be not be increased, which at the time restricted the options available.

A new or renovated library will need both public and private money to succeed and financing would likely be difficult if the community is divided.

“It’s not going to happen unless the whole town is behind it,” Oser said.

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Information from: The Daily Astorian, https://www.dailyastorian.com

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