It won’t be just water under the I-5 bridge

Vancouver asks how it will use — and police — the blocks below a high concrete lid

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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See a map detailing the Columbia River Crossing’s potential impact on downtown Vancouver at http://www.columbian.com/documents

Elected officials, business leaders and citizen groups have spent more than a decade debating the particulars of a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge.

Much less attention has been given to the space underneath.

As the bistate Columbia River Crossing project office finalizes plans for the $3.6 billion freeway and transit project, city officials are coming to grips with the fact that a sizable chunk of downtown Vancouver is about to fall under the bridge’s shadow.

A city-sponsored brainstorming session last year suggested trails, boat access, parkland and festival space.

But the plan remains undefined, and funding is uncertain.

The city last week advertised its interest in hiring a design team to sketch a set of conceptual drawings for a portion of the area beneath the bridge. At an estimated cost of $50,000 — split among the city, the Port of Vancouver and the Fort Vancouver National Trust — city officials expect the concept to be finished by the first of November.

“Hopefully, what we end up with is more of a clear set of drawings,” said Matt Ransom, Vancouver’s transportation planning manager.

But there is no guarantee the city will have the money to turn those drawings into reality.

A vast tract of vacant space underneath the bridge would undermine Vancouver’s nascent effort to revitalize downtown, but beyond that, city police representatives are raising concerns about what it could mean for public safety.

Design for safety

Vancouver police Lt. Mike Witney, who has recently begun meeting with CRC officials, said the specific design could raise or lower the risk. For example, he said minimally lighted or secluded locations could “invite people who want to commit crime.”

CRC spokeswoman Carley Francis said the crossing staff is “super-concerned” about public safety under the bridge.

“From a police perspective, I would do everything I could to impress upon the powers that be,” Witney said. “If I saw something that would impact the city in a negative way, I would want to do something to address this now.”

The existing twin three-lane bridges span a narrow pedestrian trail and Columbia Way before they drop the freeway and all of its associated on- and off-ramps onto the ground level in Vancouver.

The new bridge will be much higher, to allow tall boats to pass without having to block I-5 for bridge lifts.

The new crossing will enter the city at roughly the height of an eight-story building, then continue over the top of the BNSF Railway berm before it lands at ground level nearly a third of a mile north of the river. What to do with this new area was the subject of a brainstorming session last year involving city planners, design consultants and citizens. The group emphasized the importance of turning the area into publicly accessible open space that reconnects the city with its waterfront and the Vancouver National Historic Site on the east side of I-5.

The group highlighted numerous opportunities, but it also alluded to the risks from inaction.

“Aesthetic appeal of the waterfront and under-bridge spaces may deter from image of community,” according to a summary of the session. “Vacant open space adjacent to the central business district could create a management nuisance.”

In hiring a design team, Ransom said, the city hopes to minimize those risks by developing a clearer vision for the area.

“We’re on the tip of the iceberg of really trying to develop ideas,” he said.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.