Gillian Wallis wants to make it clear she’s not a Columbia River Crossing obstructionist. She’s not among those who are against light rail and tolls or wants a third bridge instead.
But she does think that the decision to demolish the 1920 Lucky Lager building at Fourth and Columbia streets — the one she owns — to put in a parking garage for light-rail commuters was done without enough, if any, public input.
The building’s interior was completely remodeled four years ago, and it houses 15 businesses with 80 employees. The building is the last of the defunct brewery’s buildings still standing, and is listed on the Clark County Historical Register.
“I think it’s an asset to the city,” Wallis said.
The controversy is a possible preview of battles between downtown businesses and the CRC as plans for the $3.1 billion bridge, highway and light rail project become more concrete.
Plans for the Lucky Lager building’s demolition happened somewhere between when draft plans were published in 2008 and when the final Environmental Impact Statement was sent to the federal government in September.
The draft shows the parking garage occupying just one block, at Fifth and Columbia streets. In the final plans, the garage expands across the street and onto the Lucky Lager property. A new roundabout bringing the end of state Highway 14 onto Columbia will also consume a portion of the lot.
Wallis, who owns the building with her husband, found out about the plan in late 2010, although the previous owners were told in 2007 that their property was listed as a possible impact area, the CRC said. Wallis said that until 2010, it was only the property's parking lot listed as being used.
“They did notify me; what they didn’t do was get the public’s opinion on this alternative,” she said. “I can’t find anything in the (environmental impact statement), which is where I would expect to find it.”
Columbia River Crossing officials say they followed the proper course for making the decision.
When project planners were first scouting locations for the three parking garages, with a total of 2,890 spaces, for light-rail commuters, the Columbia Park and Ride was set to be within one of the clover leaf loops at the base of Highway 14, CRC spokeswoman Katy Belokonny said.
But as urban design continued, it became clear that wasn’t the best spot for the 570-space garage, she said. The garage moved to a mostly vacant lot at Fifth and Columbia streets.
Ultimately, due in part to concerns about the garage’s blocking views for Hilton Vancouver Washington guests, and also to add first-floor commercial space to the garage — as is required by the city — the decision was made to make the garage longer and not as tall.
The garage will be four stories tall, with parking on the roof, Belokonny said. The cost to build all three garages will be between $158 million and $176 million, the CRC has said.
The previous owners of the Lucky Lager property were first told they may be in the CRC’s path in summer 2007, shortly before the Wallises bought it for $1.7 million. The Wallises were told the property would be claimed Sept. 30, 2010.
“Although my initial impression is that the decision was wrong, I am still investigating that matter,” Gillian Wallis wrote in an email. “What I have definitely concluded is that the decision was made without following due process, whatever the outcome.”
But Belokonny said the matter was discussed by the 22-member Vancouver Working Group, a collection of local stakeholders and citizens. That group met 12 times between January and July 2009, and once in 2010, specifically to advise on light-rail design in the city. It was not clear how many times the Columbia Park and Ride was explicitly discussed.
Wallis again emphasized that while she believes that the overall decision to go ahead with the CRC was done with adequate public input, she still hasn’t seen proof that the decision to take down the Lucky Lager building was done the right way.
“At this point in the process …we should focus on what can be changed — and this I think can be changed,” Wallis said.
Columbia River Crossing engineering manager Casey Liles said it’s possible that some plans could change. But the Highway 14 and Columbia Street intersection, be it a roundabout or not, will likely require the building to come down.
“I think there’s a way to get things changed,” even after the FEIS is approved, Liles said. “Does this mean (plans for the Lucky Lager) could change? I don’t know.”
In the meantime, Wallis has appealed to the Vancouver City Council for help, but the final decision is in the hands of project planners.
“It is very unfortunate that a large project does have impacts, and this is one example of several that we do have on this project,” Belokonny said. “It’s probably a change that will be hard for many of those property owners to accept, and we don’t take that lightly. It’s huge, we know that.”
But inevitably, a project like the CRC can’t be done without seeing some buildings come down.
“We do everything we can to notify people early and often — they still might not like the result of what this project is planning to do,” Belokonny said.