When the former Waldorf Hotel, also known as the Merwyn, reopened as affordable apartments this spring in downtown Astoria, it was the first time in a long time that people outnumbered pigeons in the historic building.
The hotel, sandwiched between City Hall and the Astoria Library, has been vacant for years. A deteriorating eyesore, the building faced the threat of demolition several times.
Now, it’s taking on new life as housing geared at the North Coast’s workforce.
The renovated apartment complex offers 40 units, most of them studios and most of them set at low monthly rents, reserved for people and households living off limited incomes. Only four units will rent at market rates.
Affordable housing is in increasingly short supply on the North Coast where rents have skyrocketed in the past decade. The tourism industry — and the often lower wage jobs found in the hospitality and service sectors — continue to dominate the local economy.
But if the Merwyn represents what can be accomplished when certain groups work together, it is also a reminder of just how difficult such undertakings can be.
“So many things had to go right for this project to come to fruition,” said Sarah Lu Heath, the former executive director for the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association. “Definitely in the beginning people were not shy to say how impossible this was.”
‘Save the Merwyn’
Almost from the time she began her job as the downtown association’s director in 2016, the Merwyn was on Heath’s radar.
She remembers sitting in a bar one night — the Voodoo Room on Marine Drive, she thinks — getting to know people. She had just started her new job.
She wanted to know what was at the top of people’s minds for things they wanted to be addressed downtown.
“If you were in my shoes,” she asked a group that included local historians and preservationists, “what would you do?”
The Merwyn, they said.
“As I dug more into it, it really struck me that it sat between City Hall and the library and had been empty for decades,” she said.
The Merwyn opened in 1926 and operated as a hotel for years across several owners. It was converted into affordable housing in 1980 and was known for a time as the Waldorf Hotel, after a late-in-life rebranding.
According to state and city records, the hotel closed for good in 1989 due to safety concerns. For the next two decades, it remained abandoned.
Eventually people began to talk about tearing it down.
The hotel seemed to be seen as “an impediment to (the city’s) efforts to expand the adjacent Astor Library, both in programs and in space,” wrote Doug Thompson, board president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, in the society’s April 2015 newsletter.
An initial effort to demolish the building stalled. When the city and building owners renewed conversations about tearing it down, they encountered a volunteer campaign to save the historic building.
The “Save the Merwyn” campaign succeeded, but, as Thompson noted in 2015, this wasn’t the end.
Their success instead placed them at a sort of crossroads. A number of challenges loomed ahead.
The building was saved but not restored. Discussions about a possible library renovation or relocation would continue for several more years. Meanwhile, the ultimate fate and potential purpose of the Merwyn was still unknown.
Community members wondered: What developer or organization would be able or even interested in tackling such a big and costly challenge?
Enter Innovative Housing Inc., a nonprofit based in Portland with a record of fixing up older buildings and turning them into successful affordable housing.
Among the first of several things that went right were Heath’s familiarity with the nonprofit’s work and her existing professional relationship with Julie Garver, the development director for Innovative Housing.
Heath reached out to see if Innovative Housing was interested in a project on the North Coast.
Funding a need
For several years, Astoria’s leaders had discussed the need for affordable and workforce housing in the region.
Though some elected officials and residents believed the city could do more to create such housing, others, including city administrators, said the city should not become a landlord. Instead, they said, the city should look at ways to help facilitate and support projects.
Innovative Housing had a business model built around establishing and maintaining low rent units. The nonprofit was well-accustomed to hustling for state grants and funding for their projects, juggling multiple timelines so all the pieces — funding, state or city permits, public outreach and fundraising — aligned.
Even then, the nonprofit faced a significant setback in 2018, about a year after purchasing the hotel when the state rejected a request for funding. It had found there was not a need for such housing in Astoria — a determination that provoked disbelief and outrage among local officials.
City councilors and others questioned the state’s criteria. Garver remained optimistic.
State funding for affordable and lower-income housing is very competitive, she told city councilors.
“The good news is that we always prevail,” she assured them that winter, “even if it takes a little longer.”
The following year, the nonprofit secured $2.8 million from Oregon Housing and Community Services — a critical piece of funding to round out the project’s $6.7 million renovation budget.
By the end of 2019, work on the Merwyn had begun.
A building born again
Unexpected costs popped up as renovation work revealed other issues. The coronavirus pandemic hampered progress on the Merwyn in 2020, but only slightly. Other grants filled funding gaps and work proceeded smoothly, Garver said.
The Merwyn was a unique project and had some unique challenges, she added, but key to their success was community buy-in.
“We are deeply appreciative of the Astoria community,” Garver said. “I think it’s just in the community’s nature to band together.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated the city’s ongoing need for affordable housing, Heath believes.
“As long as I’ve been in Astoria it’s not been not needed,” she said. One of the questions she asked herself as the Merwyn was transformed was, “Is this project unique?”
Garver pointed to work by Clatsop County to look at zoning changes in certain areas to allow for denser development. This could go a long way in preparing the ground for other projects.
“We really need 40, 50, 60 units to make a project work because the operating budget is pretty tight,” she told Mayor Bruce Jones at a City Council meeting earlier this year.
From a funding perspective, it is best to have sites ready with appropriate zoning, she said. State and other funding opportunities for this kind of housing are highly competitive. If a project has to go through a conditional use process or some other zoning process, that means delays and the potential to miss out on key funding.
Innovative Housing needed to do a lot of heavy lifting to launch the Merwyn project and see it through to the end, Heath said.
Not every developer may have such resources and it is an open question on whether the state has the right funding mechanisms to recognize the need for housing in rural areas, she added.
But — all of that aside — she sees possibilities for other projects like the Merwyn.