Willamette wants a new grocery store. Developers have other ideas.
More than two years after the closure of the Haggen grocery store on Blankenship Road, prospective developers are getting creative.
Though many in the area continue to clamor for a new grocery store in that location, the most recent idea floated to West Linn city officials and local neighborhood associations involved to senior housing. Jeff Sakamoto, the Portland area development director for the Arizona-based Wolff Company, met with City staff and community members in July and early August to discuss a potential project that would involve changing the zoning of the property and constructing high-end senior housing.
While feedback was mixed, Sakamoto said the company remains interested in the property at 1855 Blankenship Road and aims to decide by September whether it will move forward.
The Wolff Company is described on its website as a "fully-integrated real estate private equity firm" that invests in multifamily housing development.
"We're still definitely considering a project," Sakamoto said. "We did have some neighborhood feedback that we're considering, and we're making adjustments to our plan."
Wolff, which has constructed senior living facilities in Wilsonville and Hillsboro, first approached the City with the idea in June.
"Staff has had some contact from the Wolff Company, an Arizona-based firm interested in purchasing the former Albertsons site, demolishing the existing building and constructing independent living residences for seniors," City Manager Eileen Stein wrote in a June 28 memo to the City Council. "Depending on the details, a variety of land use applications may be required."
Stein added that Wolff was advised to conduct meetings with local neighborhood associations to gauge public reaction. The first of those meetings was held at the Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association July 3.
There, Sakamoto presented Wolff's vision to build a three- or four-story building with 150 units and a first floor reserved for private dining and a spa. Such a development would require a zoning change from commercial to mixed-use, and the neighborhood association ultimately voted to approve a resolution in opposition of the idea.
The resolution, which was approved 16-0 (two people abstained), cited concerns about parking, traffic, zoning and the ongoing shortage of grocery options in the area.
"A replacement of the vacant grocery store with another grocery store will best fit the needs of the over 1,000 households in the (Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association)," the resolution read.
Longtime resident and Willamette Neighborhood Association President Gail Holmes said she and John Morgan — a consultant with the City — also met recently with Sakamoto.
"Their idea of 'retail' was a private restaurant for residents, which is not OK in the (mixed-use) zone," Holmes said. "You can't create a private club on the first floor for retail."
Further, Holmes remained adamant that a new grocery store should come onto the property. At the Willamette Neighborhood Association's Aug. 8 meeting, a resolution in support of a grocery store passed unanimously.
"The WNA resolves that the building formerly owned by Haggens Grocery Store be occupied by a grocery store, at least in part," the resolution read. "In addition, retail businesses (such as a pharmacy, coffee shop, and or a floral shop) would be welcome accompaniments. All of these businesses would fill a real need and are conducive to a healthy community life and would be appropriate to the current zoning."
The meeting was Holmes' last as president; she stepped down in preparation for a move to a different town. But even as she plans to leave West Linn, Holmes — who has also served on the city's Economic Development Committee — remains invested in finding the best use for the vacant property.
"I'm for stopping the blight we have there," she said. "We need something going on there, but (the Wolff idea) didn't fit the zone and I'm very much a person who wants to follow the zone and code.
"I don't want Willamette to look like we're working against the Wolff Company, because we're not. We desperately need a grocery store, a pharmacy, that sort of thing."
Sakamoto said that Wolff's vision for the West Linn property is similar to a development called Revel Amberglen in Hillsboro — a four-story, 143-unit independent living community for residents aged 55 and over. The facility has a private dining room and partners with celebrity Chef Beau MacMillan for its menu.
"We're (also) looking to do these projects in Bend, Eugene and Camas," Sakamoto said.
He said he's aware that community reactions to the idea have been mixed.
"People have reached out and said what a great fit it would be," Sakamoto said. "There's other folks that are really set on having a grocery store."
But Sakamoto and Wolff have doubts about the likelihood of another grocery store coming in.
"If a grocery store was going to come in, they probably already would have," Sakamoto said. "We've done our due diligence and, to be candid, there's not a lot of interest in that regard."
Since Haggen closed, the City has worked to recruit a new market at the Blankenship Property. But City officials said the property faces a number of constraints including size (at 50,000 square feet, it is larger than most grocery stores) and a relatively small surrounding population compared to other sites in the Portland metro area.
The City is also limited in its reach given that the property is privately owned.