Councilmember Godden left office on January 1, 2016.
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Vancouver’s Renaissance



Yesterday I went on a walking tour with Vancouver, Washington’s assistant city manager Eric Holmes. And forgive me if I report in cliché: It was a mind-blowing experience.

The tour started out at the Vancouver Hilton and Convention Center where we’ve been attending the 77th Association of Washington Cities Conference. The hotel is unique in that it is owned by the City of Vancouver, supervised by a Redevelopment Authority and is the only Hilton-managed hotel with both Leed and Green Seal certification.

From the hotel, we crossed the street into Esther Short Park, a 5-acre, four-block square architectural gem in the heart of the city. It is dominated by a handsome Bell Tower and features an enticing water feature, “the Babbling Brook.” The park also has a well-equipped children’s playground with swings and slides, a plaza designed for the weekend farmers’ market, rentable space for festivals and a large area planted with flowers and shrubs. There are 85 mostly mature trees, some of them old-growth cedars, inviting benches, public art and lush expanses of grassy lawn.

Behind the park there is an amazing story. As Holmes tells it, the park, built on land gifted years ago by a Vancouver pioneer, had fallen into disrepair. It was dilapidated, crime and drug ridden and shunned by the general public. Conditions were bad, so bad that citizens complained to the mayor. Finally he decided to take a look for himself.

Vancouver’s mayor was surveying the devastation when, to add injury to insult, he was struck by a cart being pushed recklessly by a transient. Barked the transient: “Get out of MY park. “ That was the beginning of the transformation, not only of the park, but of 30 blocks around the park and, eventually, when the economy improves, as much as 150 blocks. It’s a grand vision, on hold for now, but – if the first chapter in this story is any indicator – it’s going to be Northwest showcase.

As we walked the parks’ perimeter, Holmes explained that much of the original impetus for the renovation came from a local businessman – the late George Propstra and his wife Carolyn. Propstra founded BurgerVille, a local eatery, now a regional chain. It was Propstra who spurred the development, first donating $2 million and then, later, contributing $1.3 million to build the prominently located bell tower.

With the revived park plans underway, the area immediately surrounding the park became the next focus. The city purchased land around the park, cleared away a brewery warehouse and some derilect houses and encouraged local developers to build  housing – some of it market rate, some of it low income, managed by the Vancouver Housing Authority. There were tax incentives – a multi-family tax abatement for 10 years, partially offset by a surcharge on condo sales.

The deals involved city involvement in land-use planning to the extent that view corridors were preserved with mid-block walkways, wide sidewalks and appealing street furniture.  Heights were carefully considered – not a ring of three-story buildings, but four, five and six stories. The idea was to activate the area around the park so there would be eyes on the street.

On another of the adjacent blocks, the city cleared away a brewery and used  eminent domain powers to acquire a sizeable property which sparked a lawsuit, later settled. That block now houses a commercial building  with office space on the lower floors, topped with high-end condos and an adjacent downtown parking garage. Parking is key to some of the developments, built to accommodate the many activities in the park and the adjacent Hotel and Convention Center.

The park, which costs $90,000 annully to maintain, is partially funded through rentals of the space for events like wine tastings and jazz concerts.. The goal is to keep the park active year around. Recently the Association of Washington Cities had a reception at the park, a delightful evening, highlighted by the sounds of the babbling brook and Dixieland band. The burgers and fixings, naturally, were catered by BurgerVille.  

The  hotel and convention center, owned by the city, was made possible through interlocking entities – a public development authority, which sold bonds to build the structure – and a Redevelopment Authority. The transformation received a boost from the state, which matched some of the convention center money and enabled the city to make use of a tax increment financing  through a one time pilot program.

Next to the hotel, also facing the park, is an almost new six-story building. The handsome brick building has its own bittersweet history. Built to house the Vancouver Columbian, the locally-owned daily paper, the building project lapsed into bankruptcy driven by the sad state of the news business and by the recession. The Columbian, fortunately, is still publishing, but has moved back to its old building.

Just last week, the City of Vancouver approved an amazing deal. The city was able to buy the $46 million structure from the bank for a mere $18.5 million. The building will become Vancouver’s new City Hall. The move was helped along by the city being able to buy the Columbian’s lightly used furnishings at a deep discount, an amount that pencils out to 11 cents on the dollar.

The move, set for next summer, will save the city almost $1 million in leasing and operating costs that Vancouver currently spends to house its administrative employees in five buildings spread over 10 miles.

All in all, Vancouverites can be proud of their downtown’s redevelopment. But it has not been easy to get to this stage. There was tremendous pushback on some of the development projects, most especially the hotel/convention center. Citizens complained that the $1 million annual debt service payments could have been used-should have been used – for other purposes: roads and infrastructure.

One city councilmember still refers to the process as: “Ten years of pure hell.” That councilmember, however, is still in office, serving a fourth term and pretty pleased with the way things have turned out.

City investment in the multiple housing projects cost $56 million; but that sum leveraged $250 million in private money – five times the city’s expenditure. It’s money that keeps reaping a benefit and appears to be only the first step in a miracle remake.