Trust sees Academy restoration as financially viable project

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

THE ACADEMY CAMPAIGN

• What: The Fort Vancouver National Trust has launched a $16 million campaign to raise money to purchase the historic Academy for $10.6 million, with the balance of funding to start work on the project.

• To donate or share memories of the site: http://academycampaign.org/community/academy-alumni.

photoClick map to enlarge

The journey back to Vancouver's roots continues in preservation work for its wealth of historic structures.

Despite the weak economy, high demand for the niche-market space has fueled work to restore and maintain the nineteenth-century West Barracks' buildings and stately Officers Row mansions, said Elson Strahan, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which manages the city owned properties at the Fort's historic site. Tenant lease payments help the trust preserve the structures and launch new capital projects, such as replacing nine roofs on Officers Row this year.

Next up is the venerable Academy building, across I-5 west of the Fort Vancouver Historic Site. The trust signed an agreement in May to purchase the site for $10.6 million from the Hidden family, owners since 1969. It is now raising funds, preparing for initial renovations and planning work for the site at 400 E. Evergreen Blvd.

The Fort Vancouver historic site's popular public, office and residential space altogether generate a net profit of between $300,000 and $400,000 annually. That money is plowed back into capital improvements by the nonprofit trust, which holds the master lease on more than 100,000 square feet of historically preserved office space and more than a dozen residential units owned by the city at the Fort Vancouver National Historic site.

Unlike a private property owner, the nonprofit trust can also use the money to leverage government grants to help maintain the historic aesthetics and upkeep of the structures.

It's part of the organization's goal to retain tangible ties to the community's local history. That's done, in part, by maintaining the visual appeal and quality of the structures.

"It's different from being a landlord," Strahan said.

New, but old project

That focus on safeguarding history led his organization to its newest project, The Academy, and a $16 million campaign to cover the purchase cost and renovations. So far, the trust has raised about $2.3 million of that amount.

Although the three-story building appears structurally sound, "It needs to be upgraded and

brought up to current standards, with a plan put in place," said Roger Qualman, a commercial real estate broker with the Vancouver office of NAI Norris Beggs & Simpson, and a member of the trust's board.

The red-brick structure sits on seven acres directly across the six-lane chasm of Interstate 5 from Officers Row and the West Barracks.

Although the bulk of The Academy building is now used for offices, its historical significance -- as the 1873 home of Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence -- interested the trust's extensive board of historic preservationists, Strahan said. The group also views the site as the natural westward progression of work at the national reserve.

"We see the Academy as being very symbiotic with the West Barracks," Strahan said.

Built in the 1870s, the brick structure sits cater-corner to another brick building, the West Barracks' Post Hospital. Built in 1905 and vacant since the 1990s, plans are in the works to repurpose the Post Hospital building as a center for arts and education.

In the meantime, The Academy's restoration could lend support to the project and provide a glimpse back in time, said Mike True, the trust's chief financial officer and chief operations officer.

Built on the highest point of land in the downtown area, "The Academy and its interpretation will help us envision the historic landscape and link the two sites with a community connector over I-5," True said.

Discussed as part of the Columbia River Crossing project, the proposed connector would be a parklike freeway cap over I-5 bordering the existing Evergreen overpass. Designers say it will re-establish a link between downtown and the national historic site.

That connection could help attract a creative services company or cluster of similar firms to another 73,000 square feet of yet-to-be-renovated historic office space in the West Barracks, just west of the downtown core.

Chic, yet traditional

The trust is working with the Columbia River Economic Development Council, Clark County's largest nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter, to fill the space. The discussion has so far involved talks with several interested companies, True said.

An agreement to take up multiple offices in the Artillery Barracks' vacant east side and second floor could include a deal that would finance its remaining restoration work.

"It's just a matter of how to make the financial metrics work," True said.

Landing just the right tenant could act as a springboard to attract other such firms and help fill commercial vacancies throughout the city, according to Eric Fuller, a Vancouver commercial real estate broker and past president of the economic development council's board.

"These are generally small companies that grow and end up in other facilities as they mature," he said.

Aside from the economic benefits, few communities ever regret saving historic buildings, according to Art DeMuro, president of a private Portland real estate redevelopment firm, Venerable Properties and a leading expert in historic preservation.

DeMuro, now a consultant to the trust in the year-long due diligence process to purchase The Academy, said most of his for-profit redevelopment projects follow a standard process.

"We fall in love with the building first, and then search for that development pro forma that allows its restoration to be financially feasible" and pay for itself over time, he said.

DeMuro's company has salvaged and restored interest in neglected Portland buildings including its White Stag Block and Ladd Carriage House downtown and Fire Station No. 7 on Southeast Stark Street.

He took on the Academy project because he sees it as one of the most important restoration projects in the Portland-Vancouver area, DeMuro said.

"The building is highly historically significant and we wanted to be a part of that legacy," he said.

DeMuro, a former history teacher who developed a passion for historical architecture, said the challenge of bringing new life to old buildings is all about finding new uses.

"We don't build museums, we build commercial properties that make a profit," he said.