Historic Vancouver waterfront project begins

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Years of debating and planning came to an end Wednesday when golden shovels dug into the soil of the biggest development project in Vancouver’s history.

Update

■ Previously: Federal, state and city representatives agreed to $44.6 million in infrastructure access to connect downtown Vancouver to the former Boise Cascade industrial site, where developers plan to invest more than $1 billion in building across 32 acres on the Columbia River.

■ What’s new: Elected officials broke ground on the access project Wednesday; Columbia Waterfront LLC has begun leasing and sales.

■ What’s next: Work on the infrastructure will be substantially complete by the end of 2011. Developers say they hope to build out the site over the next 10 to 20 years.

Elected officials including Sen. Patty Murray, Congressman Brian Baird and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt broke ground on the $44.6 million waterfront access project. The infrastructure work will be the first step in allowing more than $1 billion worth of restaurants, retail, office and living space to be built on the 32-acre former Boise Cascade industrial site.

A section of town that was once owned by Esther Short and has housed a lumber yard and a paper mill will now become 22 city blocks dedicated to commerce, said Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development. Gramor has joined with several local investors to form Columbia Waterfront LLC, the company that will develop the site.

“The city of Vancouver is about to become a waterfront town again,” he said. “This property will once again become a center of economic activity.”

Work will begin this fall to realign BNSF rail lines; next spring crews will bring Esther and Grant streets under the tracks from downtown and connect water, sewer and utilities. In a development agreement approved by the city council last year, the work must be substantially complete by the end of 2011, with full completion by mid-2012.

Cain said private development is set to begin in 2013. Columbia Waterfront LLC is already leasing and selling on the property.

Leavitt called the public-private partnership “unprecedented in the history of Vancouver and Southwest Washington.”

He said the money being put forward by taxpayers will result in a 30-to-1 return from private investment and create 600 jobs in the short term and more than 20,000 permanent jobs in the future.

“By any measure, that is a sound investment of public dollars,” Leavitt said. “It will forever change the face of Vancouver.”

Last fall, city officials broke down the cost of the $44.6 million project as $15.5 million in city funds, $8 million from the developers and $2.5 million from BNSF Railway, with the rest expected to come from state and federal sources. Federal appropriations in 2009 and 2010 have totalled just over $5 million, while the state has provided $5.3 million in grants.

Murray, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee, said she’ll keep working to bring more money to the project.

“It’s a shot in the arm for the local economy, and it’s important for all of us today to create thousands of jobs,” she said.

Outgoing Democrat Baird, who is not seeking re-election to his 3rd Congressional District seat, addressed a group of local high school student body presidents in his remarks. He called for the students to realize that when leaders talk about doing things for future generations, that means them, and Baird criticized those who would put down ambitious projects like the waterfront.

“People had to come together and have a vision,” Baird said. “It’s really popular today … to either bash the government — that’s really fun — or bash people with money — that’s fun too. But projects like this don’t happen without both.”

Gramor, based in Tualatin, Ore., has a track record of projects in the area: It is in the process of building the $40 million, 18-acre Lacamas Crossing at Northeast 192nd Avenue and Southeast First Street, the future home to the county’s second Costco.

The company also recently secured $60 million in financing to build a retail center in Beaverton, Ore., which bodes well for downtown Vancouver’s waterfront, as many developers have struggled to find funding for their projects. The Beaverton project will house a new Big Al’s, Cinetopia and New Seasons.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.