“Downtown renaissance” continues with Vancouver’s new City Hall
Saturday, September 17, 2011
It was the grandest of grand openings — as Mayor Timothy Leavitt likes to point out, a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The opening of Vancouver’s new City Hall was marked by rare hoopla — a bagpipe brigade, buffalo soldiers, a military color guard, resurrected historical celebrities from settlement days, walking tours inside and out, free Zumba classes, a “Junior City Council” for kids, Japanese dignitaries offering good wishes from across the Pacific Ocean and bearing a gorgeous calligraphed scroll, a jumbo-sized key to the city and, to top it all off, the Covington Middle School Brass Ensemble pumping out Beethoven’s celestial Ode to Joy.
(Plus, our inevitable local climatic signature: rain.)
“This is an exciting day and a historic occasion,” said the mayor. “This day is a turning point in the renaissance of Vancouver.”
During his speech, attended by hundreds in the towering lobby of 415 W. Sixth Street, Leavitt pointed out that Esther Short herself, the pioneer landowner who donated acreage for a central park in 1855, envisioned a lively town square surrounded by residences, businesses and a City Hall.
“It all comes together, 160 years later. Thank you, Esther Short,” Leavitt said.
“You’re welcome,” called Esther Short, who was in the crowd, and who also goes by the name Donna McLarty of the Vancouver Heritage Ambassadors.
“It exceeds any of the dreams I had — truly, truly,” Esther added after the ceremony. “I had my hopes Vancouver would become a thriving city, but I never imagined anything like this.”
Short added that her legal proviso still stands: If the land she donated is not used for and by the public of Vancouver, it must legally revert to her descendants and heirs. So don’t go thinking any second thoughts now, Vancouver. You’re home.
Vancouver purchased the six-story, 118,000-square-foot building from Bank of America in June 2010 for $18.5 million, more than half off the estimated $40 million construction cost. It was built by Downtown Vitality Partners, a group that includes Columbian publisher Scott Campbell, but was forfeited in early 2010 as part of a bankruptcy settlement. The Columbian, which occupied the building for about a year, had no stake in the sale to the city.
Leavitt pointed out that local business leaders urged the city to jump at the chance to buy the building. “You can be proud of this smart move for all of us. We know we’re doing things right when even the business community says … ‘You can’t pass up an opportunity like this,’ ” he said.
The city funds that made the down payment were legally constrained from anything but capital needs, Leavitt said. The top two floors of the six-story building are being leased by private businesses, he said, and their rent will help the city retire the mortgage.
Consolidating city employees from five scattered sites into one building will save approximately $1 million each year in rental costs, Leavitt said. Other efficiencies and improvements were realized along the way: new software, such green features as motion-sensitive lights and low-flow plumbing, plenty of formal and informal meeting space as well as an open, “low-cubicle” desk arrangement so employees can connect easily — even central copier rooms that have eliminated hundreds of desktop copy machines the city used to pay for, according to tour guide Kathy Goldin.
Vancouver resident Ed Caren double-checked some figures with Goldin — yup, 118,000 square feet for $18.5 million — and whistled appreciatively.
“That’s a hell of a deal,” he said. “Especially given the location.”
As a human resources employee of the city, Goldin said the building’s openness is leading to lots more connections and efficiencies between employees than there used to be. Vancouver City Councilmember Bart Hansen said he loves not having to drive all over town to attend meetings.
Leavitt echoed that idea: “What I really appreciate about the building is that I’ve noticed a marked improvement in morale,” he said. “The open floor plan means there’s a lot more interaction — and I get to see people a lot more.”
In the old City Hall on 13th Street, he said, offices and departments felt isolated from one another. He said any sentimental fondness for the old digs crumbled before the greatness of the new ones.
“After 44 years in that dungeon, this is the building our employees and community really deserve,” he said.
Approximately 250 of the city’s 1,000 employees now work in the building, Goldin said. The others are police, firefighters and public works crews still based in stations and offices around the city.
While ceremony and tours were proceeding throughout the building, some serious work was already getting done in the Vancouver City Council’s new chambers on the second floor.
Four young councilmembers tested the desks and chairs while grappling with a perennial problem: fireworks disturbances around the Fourth of July.
Actual councilmember Larry Smith coached Junior Councilmembers Marley Fouts-Carrico, 10; Layla Holmes, 7; Gabe Fouts, 6; and Rhys Holmes, 10, through a discussion and vote. The final tally was 3-to-1 to ban the “really bad” fireworks and to cut off all pyrotechnics at midnight on July 4.
Smith seemed delighted that such a difficult problem was disposed of in a few minutes. “Great job!” he told the kids.
Vancouver taxpayers incurred no costs for the grand opening celebration, which was underwritten by Comcast and Eric Fuller and Associates, Leavitt said.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said C.T. Thurston, who moved from San Francisco to Vancouver in 1975. “Vancouver is just getting better all the time.”