End of an Era at City Hall

After 44 years, Vancouver moves its headquarters to new building

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



If you go

What: Dedication and open house at the new City Hall followed by a historical walking tour.

When: Noon to 3 p.m. Sept. 17.

Where: New City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St. A walking tour of previous city hall buildings departs at 2 p.m. from the new City Hall.

More information:http://www.cityofvancouver.us/announcements.asp?submenuID=16578&id=85158

Vancouver’s 44-year-old City Hall on 13th Street started “acting up” as soon as city employees began discussing with indiscreet excitement the upcoming move to a new City Hall building.

“We have joked that the building knows we are turning our back on her,” said City Manager Eric Holmes. “It seemed like the elevator started going out more when we started talking about the move.”

The elevator’s erratic behavior was followed by a 1½-foot-by-4-foot sink hole on the west side of the building and a few occasions of a horrible stench in the men’s restroom caused by low water in the waste pipe’s water trap, Holmes said.

Despite her protests, the old City Hall will be empty and alone in her circa-1960s garb by the end of Thursday.

The last employees still in the old building packed up boxes Wednesday and bid farewell to their longtime offices.

City Hall’s successor, an 118,000-square-foot building at 415 W. Sixth St., consolidates city services that were scattered between five separate locations around the city and is expected save $1 million per year in operational expenses, combined with rent revenue from lease space.

The packing Wednesday stirred up memories and unveiled some quirky mementos from the past, including a 6-foot-tall cutout of former Mayor Royce Pollard. Peggy Furno, a customer service coordinator in the city manager’s office, found the cutout hidden behind a tall filing cabinet. Furno and another employee quipped that they wanted current Mayor Tim Leavitt to hold the cutout during a group photo in front of the building later that day.

Leavitt, who was elected in 2009, even has deep-seated memories of the building. As junior at Fort Vancouver High School in 1988, Leavitt participated in a student government day when students held a mock council meeting in City Hall’s council chambers. Leavitt played the role of a councilman, a role he would serve in reality for several years before becoming mayor.

“Today, we are a closing a chapter for the community, 44 years in this building,” Leavitt said Wednesday. “But it’s time to put a new face on the organization.”

The 1960s decor choices at the old City Hall perplexed many of the employees. Furno remembered that the first edict of City Manager John Fischbach, who was hired in 1995, was to remove the gold shag carpet in the city manager’s office. There’s still a collection of pictures of stallions in gilded frames in the men’s restrooms on the bottom floor, Holmes said.

During a spate of growth in the city, a bank vault in the building was converted into a conference room. Having a meeting in the room was always a little disconcerting, said City Councilwoman Jeanne Harris, the longest-serving member on the council.

“It was weird,” Harris said. “When you were sitting there, you wondered if a staff member might come by and lock you in.

“We were creating spaces out of nothing for people,” she said. “In the new City Hall, everyone can be together. It’ll create more efficiency in the future.”

Several years ago, some homeless people made a home out of City Hall’s sealed tunnel, which was previously used as a connector to move prisoners from the police station across the street.

Back to the future

The city purchased the new City Hall in June 2010 for $18.5 million, about half of its value, from Bank of America after Downtown Vitality Partners, a group that includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell, forfeited ownership in bankruptcy proceedings. The building for about a year served as offices for The Columbian.

The city’s move brings city headquarters back to the place where city government originated, in downtown’s heart. The first City Hall, used from 1886 to 1889, was at Fourth and Main streets, near a cloverleaf interchange between Highway 14 and Interstate 5 on the edge of downtown, according to the Clark County Historical Society. An editorial in the Clarke County Register newspaper in 1888 complained that the city had a surplus of $2,500 yet the city had a City Hall “hardly fit for a barn and hayloft,” according to the historical society.

The new City Hall is the seventh in a chronology of Vancouver city hall buildings that date back 154 years. Historical society members will lead a walking tour of four former City Hall buildings at 2 p.m. Sept. 17 starting at the new City Hall.

Furno, who has worked at the city for 32 years, said she watched Vancouver grow and revitalize from her office on the third floor at the old City Hall.

“We saw the whole rebirth of Vancouver,” she said. “Now that we are moving, we get to see the next phase, the waterfront redevelopment and possibly a new Interstate 5 bridge. Vancouver was just a sleepy little town when I started. Now it has all these great buildings, a new library, a renovated park.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.