Strictly Business: Waterfront rebirth draws near

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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A temporary cyclone fence blocked my passage to the Columbia River waterfront west of the Interstate Bridge one rainy morning last week. But beyond the new passageway cut beneath Burlington Northern's main line a couple blocks south of Esther Short Park, I could see the wide Columbia River in the distance.

The open landscape between my vantage point and the river, punctuated with a forlorn stand of trees and a water-soaked swath of crumbling pavement, once housed a Boise Cascade lumber mill. It was demolished in 2006 and the 35-acre site, with its sweeping views of the region's showcase river and Mount Hood, awaits its rebirth.

The time for the waterfront's rebirth is finally drawing near. In the coming year, the new passage will become a roadway into the site, opening new horizons for the city. Another new passageway also will connect Grant Street to a waterfront that's been mostly inaccessible for decades. The project is costing $44 million and the city expects the investment to produce thousands of new jobs and massive private investment.

When we look back again a year from now, if all goes according to plan, there will be roadways into the former mill property. Then we will be able to visualize the property's potential for housing, possibly a hotel, a recreational trail, and other anchors for Vancouver's city center.

It's all been a long time coming, with one tough recession throwing the dreamers and developers for a loop. Yet the dream remains ambitious for a city unaccustomed to thinking big -- after all, local leaders balked even at taking a risk on a short-season baseball team that's now headed to Hillsboro, Ore.

Back in June, Gov. Chris Gregoire stood at the Esther Street passageway and predicted that the former mill site could become a "world class destination," a phrase more commonly associated with that other Vancouver. Then in August, the city announced that it would receive a $750,000 Federal Highway Administration grant to extend the Waterfront Renaissance Trail and Waterfront Park into the area, adding to an earlier $1 million state grant. When all is said and done, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said at that time, public investments will leverage more than $1 billion in private development.

When it comes time to build, it's hard to know where to start. Do you create housing without services, or businesses without a local customer base? City officials so far are thinking retail is the best prospect, But experience in Portland's South Waterfront and other areas cut off from established neighborhoods suggests that retailers have a tough time surviving on the cutting edge. The site may be stunning, but the retail businesses will remain off the beaten path for many until the site takes on the character of a community.

Vancouver already has taken advantage of its waterfront with popular restaurants and condos east of the Interstate Bridge, as well as the Renaissance Trail. The popularity of urban neighborhoods, in Portland and increasingly in Vancouver, is an encouraging sign that the long-awaited development could become a quick success. But much work remains beyond the cyclone fence.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business; or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.