Vancouver: a case study in downtown revival

This time it's that other Vancouver, the one to the south, touting successful urban development. And in this case turning around a crime-ridden park.
A redevelopment in Vancouver outside Portland has transformed a park in the heart of the city as well as creating residential and business opportunities.

A redevelopment in Vancouver outside Portland has transformed a park in the heart of the city as well as creating residential and business opportunities. Courtesy of Jean Godden

Some years ago, Esther Short Park in Vancouver, Wash., was a wasteland: dirty, unkempt, and crime- and drug-ridden. The park had become a scary place. It was bad — so bad that Vancouver's mayor responded to citizen complaints and decided to take a look for himself.

He arranged a tour of civic leaders. But when he got to the heart of the park, he was struck, not by inspiration but by a shopping cart. A transient plowed into him and barked, "Get the hell out of MY park."

A dozen years later, the confrontational transient isn't memorialized at Esther Short Park. But perhaps he should be. Because today the park is a very different place, a poster child for what an urban park can and should be.

Recently, I went on a walking tour of the park led by Eric Holmes, Vancouver's assistant city manager. It was, if you'll excuse the cliche, a mind-blowing experience.

The newly renovated park is a five-acre 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, along with attractive benches, public art, and inviting expanses of grassy lawn.

As we walked the park's perimeter, Holmes explained that much of the impetus for the renovation came from a local businessman, the late George Propstra and his wife, Carolyn. Propstra founded Burgerville, a local eatery and now a regional chain. He also spurred development, first donating $2 million to park improvements and then, later, contributing $1.3 million to build the brick bell tower.

With the revived park plans underway, the area immediately surrounding the park became the city's next focus. The city purchased land around the park, cleared away a brewery warehouse and some dilapidated housing, 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 including a multifamily tax abatement for 10 years.

City government played a role in the land-use plan, assuring the preservation of view corridors and the use of mid-block walkways, wide sidewalks, and appealing street furniture. Heights were carefully considered; instead of a ring of three-story buildings, there's a mix including structures of four, five, and six stories. The idea was to make the area around the park active so there would be eyes on the street.

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

Park maintenance, which costs $90,000 a year, is partially funded through rentals. The goal is to keep the park full of activity, with weekly music events and other festivals year-round.

The convention center and an adjoining hotel, owned by the city, were 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 convention-center money and enabled the city to make use of a tax-increment financing pilot program.

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


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 5, 8:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting example of how an urban park can turn around an area. That's why I and others in FROG (Friends of the Green at Seattle Center) are pushing for a park, about the same size as the Vancouver one Jean writes about, in the South Fun Forest at Seattle Center. We think this will work better than the proposed Chihuly Exhibition at that site. Councilmember Godden should understand. She was part of the unanimous City Council vote for just such open space at Seattle Center. I hope she remembers that vote, and the lessons of Vancouver, Washington, come this fall when the Chihuly proposal will come before the council. More at www.FROGseattle.org.

Posted Mon, Jul 5, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Yesteryear memories of Vancouver are of pawn brokers. It felt like Bremerton without the shipping yard or that city's new waterfront park. Though Vancouver didn't feel crime-ridden, it did feel sorely neglected. Should its budding revival be attributed to updated Ester Short Park? Only in part. New housing complexes and commercial venues did more to bring vitality to the other Vancouver.

The Fun Forest Arcade building is an albatross that should be razed; not decorated with shrubbery and gloss. Its footprint is insultingly out of proportion with its surroundings. Its blank exterior walls declare 'cheap' warehouse. Its interior is dark and unsuitable for a kids playroom or any public venue. Any new building should halve the footprint, be architecturally respectable, retain kid and family venues, and be several stories tall as a 'landmark' and view station. Chiluly could install a fine gallery on some upper floor, but not its overheated workshop and warehouse-orama showroom.

Wells

Posted Mon, Jul 5, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately the trend in the next few years will be utilizing our parks for the victims of baby boomer greed, a Cormac McCarthy apocalypse metaphor of shopping carts become real in 2012.

Small-mid Town America is likely were we will first see a resurgence as property values being historically depressed has resulted in a realistic economy.

Revisiting the dreams of the Seattle Commons is likely to have the opposite effect; though realizing that Seattle Center **is** our downtown park is a small step in the right direction.

Posted Mon, Jul 5, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

This is interesting:
On another adjacent block, the city cleared away a brewery and used eminent-domain powers to acquire a sizeable property, which sparked a lawsuit that was later settled. That block now houses a commercial building with office space on the lower floors, capped by some high-end condos and an adjacent downtown parking garage. Parking is key to some of the development, built to accommodate the many events at the park and at the adjacent Vancouver Convention Center.

Using eminent domain to build commercial property makes me think of Kelo v. New London. Was the justification the parking garage? Is it owned/operated by the government?

I realize this isn't being suggested for Seattle, but I would think that even here, such a move would generate much opposition.

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