Proposed parking garages panned

Preliminary designs for CRC facilities fuel worries for downtown

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Preliminary design drawings for three park-and-ride garages to accompany light rail in Vancouver are sparking criticism of their looks and have some questioning if they’ll do anything to spark downtown redevelopment.

This spring, Vancouver long-range planners and the Vancouver City Center Redevelopment Authority wrote the Columbia River Crossing with concerns over the garages’ architectural style, size and lack of multiuse features, such as incorporating apartments or offices onto the top floors of the buildings.

Paid for by the Federal Transit Administration, the CRC will put in three park-and-ride garages: the Columbia Park and Ride, at Columbia and Fifth streets; the Mill Park and Ride, at Washington and 15th streets; and the Central Park and Ride, near the line’s Clark College terminus.

The hope, downtown boosters say, is to build something that adds to redevelopment — not just a concrete slab where commuters park their cars and immediately leave.

“It just seemed a shame to us,” said Ward Cook, chairman of the City Center Redevelopment Authority, whose group has particular worries about the designs for the Columbia Park and Ride. “The garage probably has to be there, let’s just get some valuable use from it.”

But the CRC’s hands are tied when it comes to paying for more than a basic park and ride.

The Columbia and Mill garages both already include plans for retail space on the first floor, which is required as part of Vancouver’s downtown design codes.

However, getting the money to build a bustling multiuse transit-oriented development instead of a basic above-ground parking garage is difficult, particularly in Washington.

Some of the city and redevelopment authority’s concerns — asking for more plant screening, to use a brick facade instead of concrete, or to have the building blend better with its surroundings — can easily be fixed, CRC spokeswoman Katy Belokonny said.

In fact, the timing is right to get that kind of feedback on what at this point are very conceptual designs, Belokonny said. Plans should be finalized by 2013.

On the Web

To see the full list of concerns about park-and-ride design by the city of Vancouver to the Columbia River Crossing, and also to view a PowerPoint presentation on the location and design of the stations, visit the CRC website and click on the May 2011 link.

Then, she said, there’s the “more substantial financial changes.”

Essentially, the FTA will pay for basic above-ground garages. If Vancouver decides it wants parking underground or multiuse development, either the city or private developers are going to have to pay the difference.

“When you start putting it underground or adding mixed use to it, (the FTA is) not going to cover that funding,” CRC Deputy Transit Manager Wesley King said.

To help with the city’s requests, the CRC is conducting a market research study to see how feasible private backing of a multiuse site could be, he said.

Vancouver certainly doesn’t have the money to foot the bill for a fancier building type, Transportation Policy Director Thayer Rorabaugh said.

Under state law, the city also cannot offer tax breaks or other direct gifts of public funds to encourage a private developer to build there, as Portland did for many of its transit-oriented developments.

“When you look at successes from TriMet and the city of Portland … we don’t have the same mechanisms in Washington as they do,” King said.

Looking ahead

That shouldn’t keep the CRC from planning for mixed-use garages, Rorabaugh said. The city may have the money in five years, or a developer could step in, he said.

“Is there the money today? I don’t know if there is or not,” he said. “But about the time we decide to build this stuff, could there be potential funding sources and partners out there? Yeah, I think there could be.”

He suggested planning the structures so residential or office space could easily be added on the top of the garage when the time is right.

While he agreed that homes should be put on top of the Mill Park and Ride, Rorabaugh questioned the City Center Redevelopment Authority’s desire to see offices or apartments in the Columbia Park and Ride.

The east side of the building will be abutting the light rail and state Highway 14 ramps — looking out the window on the third or fourth floor will mean someone would be staring at concrete, he said.

Cook, of the redevelopment authority, argued there may be a way to build the garages so that offices or apartments could be built on the half of the building that faces away from the traffic.

Either way, both agreed that the Columbia Park and Ride’s looks are going to have to change.

Cook said he was “shocked” when he first saw the plans.

The design, he said, was done by the “guys who did the new (Portland) airport parking garage. And (ours) looks just like it. It’s appropriate at the airport, but not in downtown Vancouver.”

Rorabaugh also said the exterior needs to blend a bit better.

“There’s no question that the architectural facade needs some work,” Rorabaugh said. “It needs to blend in with the hotel and conference center. We don’t want it to be this big ugly thing that is going to force the eye to look at it, and not the nice architectural look of the hotel, or the park.”

Aesthetic issues

The city’s long-range planners also submitted a number of other aesthetic issues with all three of the garages.

“The proposed buildings should look more like retail/office buildings rather than like parking garages,” Vancouver planners Sandra Towne and Greg Turner wrote in a four-page memorandum in March.

Among their concerns: The Central garage should be taller, so that pedestrians don’t have to walk an “unrealistic” distance to the train. The Mill garage does not fit in with its historic surroundings. The Columbia garage is almost two blocks long and should be “broken-up with distinctive architectural elements, especially at its center.”

“We’re working directly with them now on the facades and treatments,” the CRC’s King said.

An improvement in the look is the minimum Cook said he wants to see at the Columbia Park and Ride. The best-case scenario, he said, would be underground parking there. But he said he knows the money is iffy.

“That’s the scary thing about the FTA — they can do just about anything they want to,” Cook said. “It could look terrible, and they could just stick it there, and we’d be stuck with it.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, andrea.damewood//twitter.com/col_cityhall.