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.
In recent weeks, the city of Vancouver 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 lease and operating expenses; Vancouver's administrative employees are now housed in five buildings spread over 10 miles.
All in all, Vancouverites can be proud of their city's redevelopment. But it's not been easy getting to this stage. There was tremendous pushback on some of the projects, most especially the hotel bonds. Citizens complained that the $1 million debt service payments on the bonds should have been used for other purposes such as roads and infrastructure.
One city councilmember refers to the process as "ten years of pure hell." That official is still in office, though, serving a fourth term and pretty pleased with the way things have turned out. City investment in the housing projects amounted to $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 central city renaissance.