In Our View: Peek-a-Boo to the Water

Progress picks up in Vancouver's march back to the Columbia River



Not to worry, southwestern downtown Vancouver has not experienced seismic upheaval recently. Those rumblings represent demolition work being done as the city’s exciting waterfront project gains momentum.One of this week’s developments might seem insignificant on first review, but it’s actually a major milestone. Construction crews punched through the BNSF Railway berm near City Hall and, for the first time in 104 years, there’s an unobstructed street-level view from downtown to the waterfront. It’s more than just a visual reminder of how things used to be in old Vancouver. The view also heralds the city’s march toward what officials believe will be a huge economic development triumph.

The Columbian shares that belief for many reasons. First, there’s the public-private partnership that is projected to yield a 30-to-1 return on the public’s investment. Long-term, the $44 million conversion of the old, private, hidden Boise Cascade paper mill site into an ultra-public, upscale destination is expected to attract $1.3 billion in private reinvestment.

Think some more about that conversion: To turn a decaying, 32-acre industrial site into a vibrant hub of retail, residential and parks activity helps define a city’s positive growth. So, that little peek-a-boo south from Esther Street actually is a bold proclamation that Vancouver is on the move.

This move has been under way globally from time immemorial: people to water. Earlier this month, Alisa Pyszka of the city’s economic development department described the waterfront project in a Columbian story: “It’s hearkening back to the original vision of getting people back to the water.”

She’s right. And it’s the same re-establishment of public access to the water that was accomplished in 2008 with the dedication of the Vancouver Land Bridge, a component of the Confluence Project. Now there’s a pedestrian connection between Fort Vancouver and the Columbia River.

The inconveniences of construction noise and transportation disruptions in the next few years will be worth the ultimate gain. That extension of Esther Street (and Phil Arnold Way) under the railroad berm is one of two links planned for the waterfront project. The other will be Grant Street, which is being improved between The Columbian and the newspaper’s parking lot. More work will start soon on extending Grant beneath the railroad tracks.

More than 3,000 residential units and 1 million square feet of office, retail and restaurant space are planned for this project. And there will be numerous benefits for folks who already live downtown. They’ll have more choices for shopping, and they’ll have something else that can’t be measured with dollars: precious silence. Train whistles will be silenced as railroad crossings are closed at Eighth and Jefferson streets.

No parcel of land within any city ever remains the same. It either improves or decays. Vancouver city leaders had the same choice with the waterfront property that they had with what became Esther Short Park, the reigning pride of downtown. In each case, they made the right decision. We suspect there’ll be a new pride of downtown in a few years.