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Planning Commission rejects Harrison Apartments

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The Corvallis Planning Commission rejected a $17 million student housing project that would have brought 279 bedrooms to the site of the former Corvallis General Hospital at 2750 N.W. Harrison Blvd.

The developers immediately said they would appeal the decision.

The commission voted 6 to 1 to reject the Harrison Apartments application Wednesday night after more than two hours of discussion, with Frank Hann the only commissioner supporting the proposal.

Chairwoman Jennifer Gervais did not vote. Tad Abernathy recently resigned from the commission, citing personal obligations.

More than 30 people sat in the gallery of the Corvallis City Council Chambers to learn the fate of the controversial proposal, a joint venture between Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, which owns the land, and a Portland development company called Project.

While the proposal for a four-story, 90-unit apartment complex met most of the code requirements for the site, which is zoned high-density residential, the developers were asking for four variances having to do with landscape buffers, site drainage, parking aisle widths and solar access for adjoining properties.

Of the proposed departures from city code, the one that concerned the commissioners most was the request to waive the solar access requirement, which is designed to ensure neighboring structures are not shaded out by new construction.

Some commissioners were concerned the four-story building, with its high-peaked roof, would put some houses across Harrison Boulevard in the shade for more than the allowable four hours during the winter months.

Tony Howell asked whether reducing the building to three stories or changing the design to a flat roof would resolve the solar access issue, but city planning staffers present at the meeting said they didn't have enough data or expertise to give a definitive answer.

Hann made a motion to approve the application with additional conditions that would alter portions of the roofline to address that concern, but there were questions about whether such conditions would be proper.

Other concerns focused on parking and compatibility issues.

The developers were proposing to build 197 parking spaces, including one reserved for a vehicle shared by multiple tenants, as well as extra bicycle parking. With additional credit for being on a bus line, that's well within code limits for a 90-unit apartment house.

But because the Harrison Apartments are targeted at students of nearby Oregon State University, neighbors argued that the parking allotment would be far too small, forcing more cars to park on already congested streets.

James Feldmann backed the developers' assertion that many residents would take advantage of the short walk to campus and decide to do without a car.

"The public didn't express concern about the bicycles and pedestrians crowding the sidewalk, they expressed concern about vehicles, and I don't think the way to reduce vehicles is to increase parking," he said.

Other commissioners disagreed. Howell asked whether the project could be conditioned to prohibit residents from obtaining permits in any future parking district, and Jasmin Woodside suggested the code should be changed to require more off-street parking spots for apartments aimed at college students.

"I know the parking is within city code," Woodside said, "but I'm just thinking the requirement of two spaces per three-bedroom unit or greater is more geared to a three- or four-person family. I just think if we're going to see more developments of this kind, maybe we need to reconsider that."

The compatibility discussion focused on the scale of the building compared to other structures in the neighborhood, a mix of single-family homes and fraternity and sorority houses.

Ron Sessions noted that many area residents testifying against the proposal in previous hearings had objected to the mass of the four-story structure, calling it jarring or out of place.

"It's overpowering for that site, and until there's a major redesign of that building, I'm going to be against it. We've got pages and pages of testimony that say, ‘Oh, this building scares me, it's too big,' " he said.

"There's no reason that there has to be four stories of building right at the setback line."

Hann made one more effort to strike a compromise.

"I do have some concerns about mass and scale," he said, "but I do think we have an obligation to try and condition this proposal in a way that it can be approved."

None of the other commissioners were persuaded, and the application was rejected.

The developers have 12 days to appeal, and Good Samaritan CEO Steve Jasperson and Project principal Tom Cody said after the meeting that they will definitely take their case to the City Council.

"This project is very consistent with the policy documents that govern land use in the city of Corvallis," Cody said. "I would just ask the question: If not here, then where?"

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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