CITIZENS OF HERITAGE SQUARE
Amphitheater idea at Heritage Square
PREVIOUSLY PRINTED IN THE DAILY ASTORIAN
By Nicole Bales, The Astorian
May 2, 2023
A group of Astoria residents that formed a nonprofit with the hopes of turning the empty pit at Heritage Square into a public gathering space is asking for the City Council’s partnership in making the vision a reality.
Taz Davis, the treasurer of Citizens for Astoria Oregon, presented a basic concept for the downtown block during a City Council meeting on Monday.
The group envisions a public square stretching from the Garden of Surging Waves to the corner of 12th and Duane streets. The square could include an amphitheater with a covered stage, benches, sloping lawn areas for informal seating and picnics, gardens and a gazebo for events.
Davis said the square could even include a welcome center or gift shop.
“These are all basic concepts that come from us,” he said. “None of these are written in stone. But we want it to become a central gathering place, providing a place to gather and assemble, seek solitude and support activities and experience for all ages.”
Davis said the group would like to engage the community on design plans and would work to raise funds for the project through donations, grants and the city’s urban renewal funds. He added that as part of the partnership with the city, the group could provide maintenance support for the square to take the burden off the city’s parks department.
The city acquired the Heritage Square block two decades ago when Safeway moved to Uppertown. In 2010, heavy rains caused the foundation of the former grocery store to crumble, creating a pit that has turned into the defining feature of the block.
The Garden of Surging Waves, a park honoring Chinese history in Astoria, opened in 2014 with the hopes of a plaza or amphitheater to follow.
However, the City Council’s direction on Heritage Square has shifted over the past several years. The block has also proven to be tricky and expensive to develop.
The council considered Heritage Square as a site for a new library with the potential for housing before tossing out the idea in 2016.
The City Council agreed to make housing at Heritage Square a policy goal in 2017, but there was no progress made toward that goal until the fall of 2021, when city councilors requested expressions of interest from developers.
In the early part of 2022, the City Council explored a concept for workforce housing that would have included some units of supportive housing for people with mental illness and addiction challenges.
The targeted income range would have allowed the city to obtain state and federal funding to help develop the block.
However, the concept drew public backlash, which led the City Council to ultimately back away from the project after getting a detailed look at the potential $37.8 million cost.
The residents behind Citizens for Astoria Oregon were vocal opponents of the proposed workforce housing project last year and formed the group in response to the plans.
During the meeting on Monday, Ed Overbay, a woodworker and business owner behind the nonprofit, said it is time to return to the original goal.
“A vibrant public square next to a place of reflection and commemoration — that was the plan and it is the right plan,” he said. “It’s time to complete that vision.
“Building the square in the heart of our town will truly be a legacy project that will be treasured by and appreciated by ourselves and visitors and countless generations. Astoria does need the square. We need to complete this last building block of our town’s revitalization.”
City Councilor Elisabeth Adams, who represents downtown’s Ward 3, said she has participated with the group since coming onto the council. “And I have been really amazed and excited in the enthusiasm and hard work that they’ve put together,” she said.
City Councilor Tom Brownson noted that it could cost millions to improve the block.
“Personally, I think it’s a great idea that it be a public space,” he said. “And I’ve never disputed that it’s not a laudable goal. The devil is in the details, of course.”
Mayor Sean Fitzpatrick said he is looking forward to watching the process progress.
“And I want to thank everyone who has contributed their time and efforts to this,” he said.
A downtown public square is transformative
PREVIOUSLY PRINTED IN THE DAILY ASTORIAN
By Ed Overbay
May 11, 2023
Twenty years ago, when Astoria acquired the old Safeway block, it was immediately recognized as an opportunity for our town to finally have a meaningful public space right in the heart of our downtown.
Various approaches were considered as a way to build the square, such as Clatsop Community College’s downtown urban campus concept, where the American Legion building would be taken down, and a college campus erected, with a commons to the north of the block serving as a public space. We also considered rebuilding the library there, again, with an open public space as part of the layout. Ultimately, neither of these two approaches proved viable, and both projects found other remedies for their missions.
A decade ago, it was decided that the Garden of Surging Waves, a project already in development, would be located at the northwest corner of the Safeway block instead of where it was originally slated to have been built.
By 2012, the City Council renamed the block Heritage Square, and it was incorporated into the comprehensive plan to redevelop the block as an urban park. The council accepted a conceptual design for the north half of the park as an urban plaza, including the Garden of Surging Waves.
By 2014, the Garden of Surging Waves was completed and dedicated. The garden was built on the premise that an urban plaza would be built alongside it. Donors were very excited about this arrangement.
Now, here we are, nine years after the garden was dedicated, and the rest of the site is embarrassingly still underutilized and incomplete. We still do not have the public square that was to have been built next to the Garden of Surging Waves. The garden sits, incomplete, like a room half built.
Why a public space in this particular and unique location?
Because it is, in fact, the ideal location, the only location, for a landmark public square in the heart of our downtown.
Why a public square? What’s the big deal?
Because a downtown public square is transformative. Nothing facilitates and builds community, coming together in groups large and small, like a central public square. And community, after all, is what really makes Astoria shine.
Nothing facilitates and cements a community’s history, culture and identity like a public square.
A public square will enable our existing and future groups and organizations to finally have a convenient, central venue for events, celebrations, entertainment, marketing opportunities and so much more.
Plazas, or public squares, have been ubiquitous to civilization for thousands of years. Plazas, squares, commons, greens, agoras, piazzas, campos, quads, yes, they have been around for a very long time and are deeply woven into our need to be able to come together in a common public place. They are part of our DNA.
Great cities large and small the world over recognize the great cultural and economic value a central square provides.
Astoria is a great city and needs its very own public square!
Our central square will become the iconic hub for all that happens in and around downtown. It will become a destination location unto itself. This will be placemaking at its best, right in the center of our fair city.
So again, here we are, 20 years out since the city acquired the block. It is now 2023, which just so happens to be 100 years since the rebuilding of our entire downtown after the Great Astoria Fire of 1922.
Now, at the centennial of the rebirth of our downtown, let us resolve to get this done and finish what was started with the building of the Garden of Surging Waves. A perfect symbiosis — a vibrant public square next to a place of reflection and commemoration. That was the plan, and it is the right plan. It is time to complete that vision.
One hundred years ago, this city came together, and with solid leadership and resolve, they rebuilt our downtown, and they did it effectively and remarkably quickly! What a legacy that generation left behind! A legacy so transformative, so enduring, we are literally standing on it today.
Building this square in the heart of our town will truly be a legacy project that will be treasured and appreciated by ourselves and visitors and countless generations to come.
Astoria needs this square. We need to complete this last building block for our downtown’s revitalization.
The bottom line is, if not now, when? If not us, who?
Let us be the ones to make this happen.
This City Council,
This committee of citizens,
Let this be our legacy.
Let this be our enduring contribution to our great little city.
Let’s make this happen.
Letter: Things that matter
PREVIOUSLY PRINTED IN THE DAILY ASTORIAN
By JOHN F. CROWLEY, ASTORIA
May 13, 2023
Winston Churchill once observed that, "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities."
My mind turned to that as I read of the Citizens for Astoria Oregon's campaign to develop Heritage Square. After Safeway moved out of its Duane Street location more than 20 years ago, and the rains turned it into a hole in the ground, the site was considered for a parking lot, a relocated library, then for workforce housing, three ideas that flopped.
This citizens' group recognizes that we deserve a genuine community gathering place, something that should have been accomplished many years ago in a city with this history, and I applaud their effort. Their call for the City Council to join in the project should be answered in the affirmative.
As a councilor noted in the news story, it could cost millions to improve the block, but somehow funding is found for things that matter, so they should roll up their sleeves and accomplish something that makes a difference in this city, and will for generations. They may even find their names on the dedication plaque.
Two points in closing: Some of the more affluent Astorians should pledge their support. And, those planning the development should consider a police satellite station, something that, as police logs testify, is already needed.
I thank the Citizens for Astoria Oregon and wish them well, for it seems that only through them will the right thing be done.