Consultant critiques Vancouver’s downtown

She says urban renewal possible; funding will be an issue

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Vancouver business owners, residents and workers have already formed their opinions about downtown’s assets and irritations.

But how does the city center appear to fresh eyes?

“It has amazing bones,” said Michele Reeves, an outside consultant who held back nothing during a Tuesday talk about downtown Vancouver. Despite its attributes, such as historic storefronts on Main Street and the updated lushness of Esther Short Park, a list of negatives came up repeatedly in Reeves’ presentation, arranged by Vancouver’s Downtown Association. The 117-member group hopes to solve some of those problems by taking Reeves’ suggestions.

For one thing, the downtown core has too many beige-painted buildings that have no pizzazz and almost all of them sport oversized awnings that darken entrances and cover architectural details, said Reeves, principal of Portland-based Rethinking Urban Spaces.

And Vancouver’s Main Street district is cut off from Esther Short Park by the three-tower Vancouvercenter development, a $100 million project built this decade as part of an effort to redevelop downtown. Reeves called the two-block complex a “past mistake” that downtown advocates should try not to dwell on.

“It’s as if you took your best feature and built a giant wall that hides it,” she said of Esther Short Park.

Park visitors and guests of the Hilton Vancouver Washington can see nothing enticing to draw them another two blocks eastward from the corners of Sixth and Eighth streets, said Reeves, who has worked on the revitalization of trendy Portland districts, such as North Alberta and North Mississippi avenues. These once-blighted areas now attract hipsters to streetside tables and refurbished storefronts.

Reeves said the same kind of urban renewal can be accomplished in downtown Vancouver by thinking of the whole district as one large store with connected retail nodes that draw shoppers and visitors from one point to another.

Each node should be inviting, open and welcoming, not foreboding or bland, Reeves said.

“I’m generally not an anti-awning person, but it’s a real issue” in Vancouver’s core, said Reeves, who drove her point home with a slide show of photos comparing historic downtown buildings with Portland’s Alberta District’s awning-free buildings painted in palettes of three and four complementary tones.

Building improvements

Reeves, hired by the association in late January, traced Vancouver’s awning problem to a policy adopted by the city in 1979. The rule said buildings must don the covers to create a “rain-free” environment. It was implemented just after Vancouver Mall (now called Westfield Vancouver mall) opened its huge indoor shopping environment on a bare tract several miles northeast of downtown Vancouver.

“It (the policy) is not practical now and detracts from the buildings,” said Reeves, who was retained for her ability to identify problems and help find solutions, said Lee Rafferty, executive director of the downtown association and former owner of Spanky’s consignment shop.

Rafferty and her business partner, Sandy Kramer, still own their store’s former downtown location at 812 Main St. They closed the store in 2008 and consolidated it to Spanky’s east Vancouver operation, which they sold in 2009. The vacant, three-story downtown location has been listed for sale for more than two years, said Rafferty, who counts herself among the property owners who stand to gain insight from Reeves.

“If you’re a building owner and you haven’t done anything for years and years, this discussion is probably for you,” Rafferty said.

However, she said property owners likely will have to finance their own building’s improvements.

“There are no programs with dollars attached to them,” Rafferty said.

That could pose a challenge for landlords and business owners who already are suffering. Downtown has had a number of setbacks in the past two years with the closure of longtime businesses and struggling boutiques, stalled office and residential projects and an exodus of office workers due to government layoffs.

Even so, Rafferty said that at least three building owners had already responded following Reeves’presentation with plans to make buildings upgrades.

“We will be looking at the rents and sales generated per square foot in the downtown core” to measure progress, Rafferty said.

In the meantime, she expects Reeves’ consultation services to continue through June, paid for by the downtown business group, which operates with a $180,000 annual budget.

Rafferty said the city government supports her group’s efforts, although few public dollars are earmarked for sector improvements.

“Of course, most re-emerging districts have a $10 million fix sitting on the shelf, but nobody has that kind of money at this time,” she said.

In her presentation, Reeves also counted civic involvement among downtown Vancouver’s assets, along with redevelopment plans. Those plans will connect the Columbia River waterfront with downtown, develop a new Interstate 5 crossing, and extend light rail to downtown to transform the area into a visitor’s destination.