Small projects could lead to bigger things for downtown

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A business-led effort to revitalize Vancouver's historic downtown now includes at least eight renovations, new construction and transitional projects. Projects include:

o Schofield Building facade -- Exterior restoration the historic building at 602 Main St. and the entire block bordered by Sixth, Main and Washington streets.

o Headquarters library for Fort Vancouver Regional Library District -- A $38 million five-story public library at the southeast corner of C Street and Evergreen Boulevard.

o Former Columbian building -- Purchased by Vancouver for a new city hall for 260 city workers who plan to move into the six-story building by August 2011.

o Two-story makeover -- Ground-floor retail space for a food market, bakery and art gallery and an upstairs transformation into eight residential units.

o Vacant lot to be temporary park -- Vancouver's Downtown Association is leading a volunteer effort to create a temporary park space at the vacant city block bordered by Eighth and Washington streets.

o Facade makeover -- Planned by owners of downtown buildings along the half-block bordering Evergreen Boulevard on the west side of Main Street to Ninth Street.

o Proposed indoor rock-climbing facility -- In the early planning stages by Portland-based Climbing Management Group at the southwest corner of West 12th and Main streets.

o Proposed Prestige Plaza -- A 101-unit, four-story apartment complex on the northeast corner of West 13th and C streets that is expected to break ground in July.

A business-led effort to revitalize Vancouver’s historic downtown now includes at least eight renovations, new construction and transitional projects. Projects include:

o Schofield Building facade — Exterior restoration the historic building at 602 Main St. and the entire block bordered by Sixth, Main and Washington streets.

o Headquarters library for Fort Vancouver Regional Library District — A $38 million five-story public library at the southeast corner of C Street and Evergreen Boulevard.

o Former Columbian building — Purchased by Vancouver for a new city hall for 260 city workers who plan to move into the six-story building by August 2011.

o Two-story makeover — Ground-floor retail space for a food market, bakery and art gallery and an upstairs transformation into eight residential units.

o Vacant lot to be temporary park — Vancouver’s Downtown Association is leading a volunteer effort to create a temporary park space at the vacant city block bordered by Eighth and Washington streets.

o Facade makeover — Planned by owners of downtown buildings along the half-block bordering Evergreen Boulevard on the west side of Main Street to Ninth Street.

o Proposed indoor rock-climbing facility — In the early planning stages by Portland-based Climbing Management Group at the southwest corner of West 12th and Main streets.

o Proposed Prestige Plaza — A 101-unit, four-story apartment complex on the northeast corner of West 13th and C streets that is expected to break ground in July.

Advocates of Vancouver’s historic downtown have rolled up their sleeves and sprung into action after a six-month crash course on how to revitalize the area.

In all, at least eight downtown improvements are in the works or planned, from the exterior restoration of one of the city’s oldest buildings to a proposed indoor climbing gym, and a vacant block that will soon become a temporary park. The largest project in size and cost is a $38 million, five-story public library, set to open in 2011 on the southeast corner of Evergreen Boulevard and C Street. Prices for other proposals range from $10,000 to $12 million.

Some of the flurry of activity reflects an unfortunate reality for longtime building owners. Property values in the district have dropped substantially — by at least 20 percent, according to one downtown property owner — making it hard for larger buildings like the former Koplan’s Furniture to sell, for example. But lower sales prices have created buying opportunities for newcomers who have brought fresh blood and ideas into the downtown core.

The smaller projects could be a catalyst for larger development, said Portland consultant Michele Reeves, who was hired by the 117-member Vancouver’s Downtown Association to guide urban renewal.

She developed strategies to connect the historic downtown — along Main Street and its parallel routes from Sixth Street north to West Mill Plain Boulevard — to newer, more active development around Esther Short Park. Reeves also suggested ways to spur downtown business and improve property values by reserving ground-floor space for retail shops and restaurants and sprucing up the appearance of historic buildings.

Reeves culminated her work with a bus tour of North Portland’s redeveloped historic Mississippi Avenue district. That area’s makeover and other Portland transformations, like the Pearl district’s redevelopment, started with small projects like the ones under way in Vancouver, Reeves said.

“When you have a mix of older buildings, the revitalization almost always starts through a series of small renovations,” said Reeves, principal of Portland-based Rethinking Urban Spaces. Downtown Association officials declined to say how much she was paid for her work. The private nonprofit association’s annual budget is $180,000.

Reeves hopes projects in Vancouver’s core will play up the architectural details of its historic structures, a cluster of buildings that are unlike any others, Reeves said.

“Rediscovering the history will help your citizens reconnect with the past,” she said.

It will be a challenge for these buildings’ owners to remodel in a way that embraces their historic origins, which in some cases date back a century, to when streetcars served storefronts that were flush to the sidewalks and apartments and offices filled one or two stories above.

Downtown building owner Ed Aschieris said historic preservation is his goal as he begins restoration of the 143-year-old Schofield Building, built by his great-great grandparents at 602 Main St. in 1867.

“For us, it’s about bringing back our family’s personal history,” Aschieris said.

Smaller renovations

The construction dust is already flying at Ninth and Washington streets, where Portland developer Aaron Jones and his partners jumped at the chance to buy a two-story building out of bank foreclosure.

The building’s ground-floor renovation will carve out three sections for retail tenants that include an organic food market, a bakery and an art gallery. Upstairs, the building’s owners plan to transform 18 dilapidated living spaces into eight new apartments, said Jones, a partner with Portland-based Ludesher LLC.

He expects the total cost of the project to run between $200,000 and $700,000 to fix up the bargain-priced building, which Jones hopes will entice market-rate leasing rates from tenants. “Obviously, the price point helped facilitate our ability to be more creative,” he said.

Pam Lindloff, an associate vice president with NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson, predicted the space would continue to attract smaller “mom and pop” businesses, the fastest-growing segment of the market these days.

“If you walk down any developed Main Street, you’re going to see a lot of local tenants, the decor store, the coffee shop, the children’s clothing store,” Lindloff said. “One of the challenges with the bigger buildings is how you divide them for smaller retailers.”

Other downtown projects are still in the feasibility and design stages. That’s normal, according to Reeves, who contrasts downtown Vancouver’s revival to its decades-long period of deterioration.

“In an area that has had decline, you sometimes forget that it doesn’t always have to be that way,” she said.

Critical timing

Despite huge private and capital investments on projects surrounding Esther Short Park, where crowds attend weekend concerts and browse at an open-air market, Vancouver’s original downtown, just two blocks east, has languished. Over the last decade, the blocks immediately surrounding the park developed into $300 million worth of multi-family residences, shops, office buildings, and a new hotel and convention center. Downtown supporters hope to draw from the park’s flowing vitality.

The timing is crucial, according to some, who point to the proposed development of a waterfront district that likely will compete with the historic downtown.

Just a few blocks southwest of Esther Short Park, Vancouver’s 32-acre former Boise Cascade site is set to develop within two or three years. The project includes plans for high-rise condominiums, a park, hotel rooms and retail and restaurant space.

“Yes, there is a waterfront project on the horizon,” said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association.

She said her group’s effort to revitalize the historic downtown can be enhanced by the waterfront project, as long as the routes between the districts remain open, a notion suggested by consultant Reeves.

“She told us to link strong nodes to strong nodes,” Rafferty said.

The Downtown Association followed that advice in July by taking down chain link fencing that surrounded the city-owned block at West Eighth and Columbia streets. The fence created a barrier between the historic downtown and Esther Short Park, Rafferty said. Now, her group plans to develop the block into a temporary park.

“In the past, that block has been an impediment,” Lee said. “Now, it’s going to be a connector.”