Strictly Business: Downtown Vancouver can regain its old glow

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Downtown Vancouver hasn't been truly vibrant since the early 1940s, when thousands of people flocked to this city to work at the Kaiser Shipyards.

At the time, visiting the city center was a heady experience. At least, that's what my late father-in-law, whose family arrived in Vancouver in 1937, told me over the years. During World War II, he said, downtown streets bustled with department stores, restaurants, and theaters. With 40,000 new residents who had moved here for work, Vancouver's downtown sidewalks were crowded and people were everywhere.

Those crowds went away, of course, when the war ended and the work of building aircraft carriers and cargo vessels came to a sudden end.

Downtown has never been the same. Along came the gritty waterfront aluminum and manufacturing industries, and downtown filled up with cardrooms and pawn shops. New suburbs emerged on the outskirts as the central city withered -- a familiar post-war pattern in American cities.

But downtowns from Manhattan to Camas have staged comebacks, and Vancouver has shed much of the shabby image from its cardroom and barroom days. Now, consultant Michele Reeves says she sees an opportunity for downtown Vancouver to further raise its game. Turns out our history -- the former shipyards, Esther Short Park, Fort Vancouver and the old Army barracks -- are among our community's biggest assets.

But we've got to connect them, said Reeves, who pointed to the downtown core's historic, pedestrian-scale street grid as one of the sector's biggest advantages over Vancouver's suburbs, where the automobile is almost essential.

Reeves said Vancouver's downtown has "good bones" in its network of street blocks, providing a perfect setting to capture the interest of young Generation Y adults. More than 80 million strong, that population prefers to live in communities that are laid out for walking, biking or taking public transportation to work and stores.

And older generations are ready to give up suburban yards and commutes in favor of urban amenities, if downtowns offer quality housing and appealing attractions.

Reeves, who has consulted for Vancouver's Downtown Association, says downtowns are where it is easiest and most affordable to create pedestrian-friendly infrastructure because these areas already have the "scale of development, historic street grid and mixed-use amenities that appeal to Generation Y and some downsizing (baby) boomers."

Reeves' recent presentation has made me see downtown Vancouver in a whole new light during my noon-hour walks around the urban core. I'm encouraged by ongoing work to connect downtown streets to the now-vacant 35-acre Boise Cascade waterfront tract, and I'm eager to someday attend groundbreaking events for the site's condominium high rises, office buildings and retail spaces.

The waterfront development, with its planned 8-acre park, could become a whole new asset to complement the city's shopworn but historic buildings with walkable street grid.

Perhaps downtown's sidewalks will never again be as packed as they were in the 1940s. The world has changed too much for that. But it could again become the healthy heart of a growing community and, for the first time, a true neighborhood for young and old. It could become even more vibrant than it was in its brief moment of glory.

Cami Joner: 360-735-4532, http://twitter.com/camijoner or cami.joner@columbian.com.