DevNW is hoping to turn Evergreen Church into 19 units of affordable housing. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A former church in a downtown Salem neighborhood will be remodeled into apartments after action by the Salem City Council Monday that won’t please some area residents.

By a 7-1 vote, the council backed a decision by the Salem Planning to allow the church property to be rezoned and used for multi-family housing.

In over two hours of testimony opponents said the rezoning for Evergreen Church at 905 Cottage St. N.E. would set an undesirable precedent throughout town and supporters said such housing is sorely needed.

Mayor Chuck Bennett was the only vote against the change, lamenting the loss of historic homes in Salem’s neighborhoods to development.

“I continue to believe that our affordable close-in neighborhoods that are devoted to families is something we need in Salem. It’s a kind of housing that if we need housing for a variety of needs, neighborhoods like NEN and Grant and Highland, CANDO, even parts of SCAN, are really what we need to keep preserving,” he said.

The developer, DevNW, amended its project after the council in June denied federal funding for it.

READ: Why Salem City Council nixed an affordable housing development over an office space

DevNW is planning 19 units of studios and one-bedrooms on the church lot, forgoing an earlier proposal to transform the parsonage into office space.

Emily Reiman, DevNW CEO, told councilors they plan to retain the exterior of the building and convert the inside of the church into separate units.

“We have zero interest in tearing down those buildings and putting in a high rise,” she said.

The council’s approval also comes with the condition that the building height be limited to 40 feet if the building is ever torn down and replaced.

Reiman said the people living in the complex would be determined by the applications that come to the nonprofit but said it could range from veterans to youth leaving foster care.

The Grant Neighborhood Association opposed elements of the development in June and again on Monday.

Paul Tigan, the Grant Neighborhood Association land-use chair, said DevNW failed to fully engage neighbors and that the project would create parking issues for nearby residents.

The council earlier this year eliminated minimum parking space requirements for future developments in certain parts of town to encourage alternate modes of transportation.

A central concern of the neighborhood association was that the rezoning would set a precedent that would allow for larger developments in historic neighborhoods throughout the city.

“This isn’t fear mongering. It’s hard wired right into the city code. The next applicant only has to show that there’s been a change in the immediate vicinity to justify their rezoning application,” he said.

Tigan said approving the zone change would lead to unintended consequences down the road, citing the controversial Costco shopping center which council approved in September.

“I hesitate to say this but sometimes you think you’re approving one thing, and you’re actually approving Costco. And it takes 10 years for that decision to lay out. This is the top of a slippery slope,” he said.

Councilor Chris Hoy said he was confused and concerned by the neighborhood’s position because they said they would support an affordable housing project in the neighborhood.

“It seems like, as I read this application, we got a place that’s actually talking about what you’re supporting,” he said.

Hoy said he doesn’t think the project will have a negative impact and it would be the first test of the council’s decision to eliminate parking requirements.

“If we are committed to enhancing and supporting transit, we’ve got to be willing to make the tough calls. And this is a tough call,” he said. “I hear you on the parking, but I think it gets to a better place ultimately.”

Councilor Vanessa Nordyke pointed out that the city is short 3,000 units of multi-family housing, according to a city analysis.

Rebekah Engle said in written testimony wrote to councilors to say opposing the project would shut off a viable source of help for the issues brought on by homelessness.

“The attitude of wanting homelessness to go away, but not being willing to invest in changes that are proven to help, needs to be done away with. If we are going to work together to solve these problems we all need to be willing to adjust to a few changes. Living with the status quo of residential suburban type neighborhoods with little variety is part of what has gotten us into this problem. We are going to need some changes to our thinking to solve our current issues and I believe this project with DevNW is a great place to start that process,” she wrote. 

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Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.