Church annex draws ire of neighbors in Uppertown

Edward Stratton, The Daily Astorian, Ore.
·5 min read

Apr. 7—Lief Erikson Drive in Uppertown divides the neighborhood between large commercial properties such as Safeway and Comfort Suites to the north and mostly single-family homes to the south.

A proposed annex by Bethany Free Lutheran Church on 34th Street has two families up the hill opposed to what they see as encroachment of another box of a building on a historic neighborhood.

Bethany Free Lutheran, formed in 1890, spent nearly a century on Franklin Avenue amid a collection of historic homes on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River. The church moved in the 1980s to 34th Street, buying a lot across the street and next to the U.S. Customs house replica for overflow parking and an eventual expansion.

Craig Johnson, the pastor of Bethany Free Lutheran for more than 20 years, said there has long been talk of building an annex across the street. Older congregation members have expressed concerns over limited access to the Astoria Senior Center, he said, while church-related youth groups have found it more difficult to find after-school activity space in public buildings.

"There's a variety of ways it could be used that we're looking at, in trying to serve the community in various ways," he said.

The Astoria Historic Landmarks Commission approved a plan by the church in March to build a 5,000-square-foot annex, including covered parking, a basketball half-court, showers and a kitchen. Gabled to mimic Bethany Free Lutheran, the building's roof rises to 34 feet and runs east-west.

Appeal

Peter, Paul and Susan Tadei, whose family owns a historic home above the field, and neighbor Riley Pitts appealed the project to the City Council. The Tadei siblings argue their father, Vincent Tadei, would unfairly lose his view after 88 years in the historic home.

"This is not the neighborhood for a building of this size and scope," Susan Tadei said. "Not all property in this city is meant to be built upon."

Carrie Richter, a lawyer for the appellants, argued that the landmarks commission improperly compared the annex to large commercial buildings and a nonhistoric church when determining neighborhood compatibility, rather than accounting for the historic homes it would dwarf.

Allan McMakin, who lives in the former Bethany Free Lutheran Church on Franklin Avenue, expressed concern that the new annex would limit access by neighbors who use an easement to reach downhill properties.

Randy Stemper, who defended against the appeal as project manager for Bethany Free, said the church has gone out of its way to work with neighbors and has met all the city's criteria. The church looked at moving the annex farther east to avoid blocking views but is restricted by a city sewer easement, he said.

"We've proposed multiple different things with the neighborhood to try and make everybody happy," Stemper said. "But at the end of the day, we have asked to develop the property in what is a compatible use and an outright use to the city of Astoria."

City councilors commiserated with the Tadei family and acknowledged the gray area created by neighborhood compatibility not being defined in city code. But they backed the landmarks commission's decision with a 4-1 vote Monday.

"I feel for the neighborhood who disagree with ... the structure itself, the size of it," City Councilor Joan Herman said. "But for its site right along U.S. (Highway) 30, or very, very close to it, I don't think it's incompatible."

City Councilor Tom Brownson argued that the historic homes involved in the appeal do not face the proposed annex and thus are not relevant to the design, which is meant to mimic the church.

City Councilor Tom Hilton, who represents Uppertown, was the lone vote in support of the appeal.

"I believe in the historical significance of our community," Hilton said. "There's no doubt about that. I think in some way, if this goes through and they do build this building, that in some way they should protect the rights of the neighbors so that Mr. Tadei has a view, and his neighbors have access to their properties."

The Tadei family has not indicated whether they will appeal the decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

Fundraising

The annex likely won't come anytime soon, with Bethany Free Lutheran still needing to raise two-thirds of the estimated cost to build it. The church has also put the construction phase on hold until it finds a new pastor to replace Johnson, who is moving to Washington state at the end of April.

Mickey Cereghino, part of Bethany Free Lutheran for seven years and a board member, said church members will eventually vote on whether to construct the annex.

Cereghino is an art teacher at Astoria High School and a coordinator with Young Life, a Christian youth group unaffiliated with the church. He reiterated the difficulty of finding event space and said the annex would help serve youth and other community organizations.

"Our mission is to spread the love and the word of Jesus as far as we can, and as intimately as we can with as many community members and people out there as we're able to," he said. "The annex, or the multipurpose building, we just feel it would be a wonderful tool to be able to do that."