Highway 99 revisited

County mulls plan to turn road from ‘eyesore’ to eye-catching

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower killed Highway 99.

Can Clark County commissioners resurrect it?

Commissioners are getting ready to adopt a detailed plan for improving the dog-eared thoroughfare that lost its power after Eisenhower signed off on the interstate system in the 1950s. Interstate 5 replaced Highway 99 as the main north-south corridor linking big cities along the West Coast because Highway 99 did not meet federal guidelines for an interstate.

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For details on the Highway 99 Sub-Area Plan, click here

Now, commissioners are hoping a new set of guidelines and development incentives will, over the next few decades, improve upon what has been described in public comments as “an eyesore,” “inconvenient” and “messy.”

Commissioners will consider adopting the Highway 99 Sub-Area Plan following a final public hearing at 10 a.m. July 13 at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St.

If adopted, the plan will go into effect Aug. 1.

The plan has been years in the making and reflects input from business owners and neighbors. It targets Highway 99 from the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Bridge near Northeast 63rd Street up to Northeast 134th Street.

Colete Anderson, a county planner who has served as project manager for the past four years, said Thursday that commissioners ranked Highway 99 and the surrounding area as a “focused public investment area.” The county’s currently working on, for example, a proposed sports complex on Northeast 78th Street near St. Johns Road and redoing the county’s old poor farm into the 78th Street Heritage Farm. Elements of that plan include a trail system with viewpoints and signs, energy-efficient greenhouses, continued community and food bank gardens and a parking area that might host a farmers market.

The focus, however, has been encouraging redevelopment of Highway 99.

And, like the strip, the process hasn’t been all pretty.

Last year, the county’s planning commission unanimously passed the plan, with some suggestions for county commissioners.

At the planning commission’s June 17 meeting, three of the seven members dropped support for the plan because it didn’t go far enough. Specifically, they wanted the county to include Highway 99 in the six-year Transportation Improvement Program to improve the street, have a regional stormwater plan and a public “catalyst” project, some piece of major new development to draw in people.

The county doesn’t have the money to do any of those things, Anderson said.

There’s also no money to bury the power lines.

Brad Lothspeich, a former Fire District 6 chief who now works in real estate, has been the chair of Team 99, a group of business owners and residents working with the county.

“(The plan) may not be perfect but I think it’s better for encouraging development,” he said. “I think we’ve made it flexible enough.”

The plan calls for a streamlined 60-day permit review and reduced traffic impact fees, among other incentives.

“If it isn’t a decent deal, you aren’t going to get people to come in and redevelop,” Lothspeich said. “If it’s a better deal on 164th Avenue, they are going to go to 164th Avenue.”

He said existing property owners don’t have to do a thing.

“If you own property you don’t have to tear it down or rebuild or remove your sign,” he said.

At the planning commission’s June 17 meeting, Hazel Dell resident Robert Dean took strong exception to the plan’s guidelines for toned-down signs, arguing the county was restricting free speech.

“I mean, it’s like saying, ‘Michelangelo, you can make David but put trunks on him, OK, put swimming trunks on him, I mean, or don’t make him out of marble or don’t make him the actual size, make him bigger or smaller,’” Dean said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “You’re restricting an artist,” he said. He also said a recommendation of the plan was to get rid of the automotive businesses.

Not true, countered Ila Stanek, president of the West Hazel Dell Neighborhood Association and member of Team 99. She testified that existing signs will not be removed and businesses will not be restricted.

“I would love to restrict business,” she added.

“All we want is shape and arrangement,” she said. “It’s just different. So what we do hope is that new development along Highway 99 will make it more pedestrian-friendly and in that way encourage a healthier lifestyle.”

Vancouver architect Vaughn Lein, a former longtime member of the county’s planning commission, served on Team 99’s technical advisory committee. He said Thursday that the county wants future developers to do things differently, such as fronting buildings along the street. Parcels are owned by a lot of different people, so it’s difficult to achieve a cohesive feel, he said. But over the years, with the right code in place, parcel by parcel the street can be improved.

The county first started taking a serious look at Highway 99 when a group of business owners approached commissioners in 1999, but desire for a better-looking strip goes back to the days when I-5 opened and there was a huge drop for businesses on Highway 99, Lein said.

While commissioners have heard Highway 99 described in negative terms, Lein, asked to sum up the strip in one word, took an optimistic view.

“Opportunity,” he said. “You have to look at it from that perspective, because if you don’t, it’s not going to change.”

Stephanie Rice: 735-4058 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.