Consultant gauges progress toward downtown revitalization

She says there's more work to be done

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Efforts to revitalize downtown Vancouver have inched forward in the two years since a downtown business group hired a Portland consultant to help with the job.

But there is still more work to be done, said Michele Reeves, after a presentation to more than 100 stakeholders, neighbors and visitors at a Vancouver's Downtown Association meeting at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Blank spaces and crumbling buildings -- especially those in the southernmost section of the city center -- still create a disconnect between destinations such as Esther Short Park and the new downtown public library at Evergreen and C Street, about four blocks away. Reeves also said the city center still needs more housing and programs to help retailers compete against sales tax-free Oregon shops.

Truly vibrant downtowns are more focused on pedestrians and cater less to automobile traffic and parking, said Reeves, of Civilis Consultants.

"Great downtowns are always very people-focused," she said.

Reeves' background includes a résumé of work for once-blighted areas such as Portland's now-trendy Northeast Alberta Street and North Mississippi Avenue. She also has worked on downtown areas in the Oregon communities of Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego and Gresham.

In her 2010 critique of downtown Vancouver, Reeves said the downtown core had too many beige-painted buildings with no pizzazz and too many oversized awnings that darkened store entrances and covered up architectural details. At the time, she encouraged downtown advocates to find ways to entice Esther Short Park visitors and guests of the Hilton two blocks eastward to the Main Street businesses.

Two years later, Reeves said she is impressed by the 120-member business association's work so far, especially its effort to land $200,000 in state grant money to renovate the fronts of downtown buildings. In 2011, the money helped add new signage to The Kiggins movie theater, painted and refurbished the fronts of offices and stores and added lighting to create more pedestrian-friendly environments near a few key downtown buildings.

More facade improvements are on the way, said Lee Rafferty, the association's executive director.

With state resources dwindling in general, "They did a great job of putting together the program," Reeves said.

Her 40-minute presentation was attended by more than 100 people who were asked to think about the story downtown is telling "24 hours a day, seven days a week. The characters of the story include everything from downtown Vancouver's hanging flower baskets to its street trees, painted murals and landmarks such as The Kiggins movie theater.

Reeves also advised downtown businesses to think of the area as a product to sell and "treat sidewalks like a stage," letting retail displays, cafe tables, enticing aromas and music spill out onto the street.

"You want to give people the message to come and experience your store," she said.

In a survey of local residents and downtown business and building owners, Reeves asked, "What would a visitor think of your downtown?" The No. 1 answer contained the word Portland, indicating the shadow the larger city casts over the smaller town.

But Reeves argued the older town of Vancouver's history gives it its own character, even if its identity is tied to its metropolitan neighbor.

And Vancouver's downtown could be the kind of urban environment that attracts twenty- and thirty-somethings if it were a bit more pedestrian-friendly and included more living spaces, Reeves said.

Unlike the baby boom generation of the post World War II era, the up-and-coming Generation Y, born in the mid-1980s and later, are focusing on communities that are pleasant to walk in and are served by various forms of transportation, Reeves said.

Across the country, "We are seeing more metropolitan poor living in the suburbs than in the inner cities," she said.

New downtown murals are examples of improvements that enliven the area. Although the downtown association did not sponsor a mural contest, Rafferty said the businesses welcome those murals and anything else that might bring vibrancy to walking the corridors between the park and the library, as well as the Fort Vancouver properties east of Interstate 5.

"That's why we planted the trees along there and the public art at Evergreen and Main," she said.

Reeves mentioned other challenges to downtown revitalization, including the sense of an east-west divide between downtown and the suburbs of east Vancouver and anger over lost landmarks that helped identify the city center.

"People are really mad about the Burgerville being taken out," she said of the downtown walk-up burger stand that was sold last year and torn down to make way for new apartment development.

"You really should be trying to get another downtown Burgerville," Reeves said.

Officials at the Vancouver company have said the company wants to relocate downtown. But they also are waiting for answers to questions about construction, staging and right-of-way acquisition for the Columbia River Crossing project.

It's an uncertainty that has also hamstrung business improvements and expansions in the southernmost sectors of the city center and left some buildings vacant, Rafferty said. "I am aware of the vacancies and we're working to try and fill those," she said, adding that the association's next meeting in October would feature city and state transportation officials speaking about the CRC project.

"Our next quarterly meeting is going to be entirely devoted to information about the project," she said. "We're going to communicate with businesses about how long it will last and how long their storefront might be affected."