Washougal's quiet downtown starting to see more foot traffic

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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photoJack Knutsen walks down Main Street in Washougal on Thursday. Knutsen, who is a stakeholder in a 13-unit apartment complex in the neighborhood, believes that the downtown area has become more pedestrian friendly and thinks it's continuing to trend in that direction.

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WASHOUGAL — The Washougal Town Square is quiet on a sunny Friday afternoon. No one is walking around or using the picnic tables across the street. The dance studio is closed, and Hearth Pizza, an artisan pizza restaurant, is only open for dinner. The tables are set with plates and napkins, ready for patrons to come.

"There just aren't enough people yet," said David Garcia, cook and owner of Hearth Pizza, which opened two years ago.

But Hearth Pizza at 1700 Main St. is starting to get business from people exploring the growing downtown area.

"We have comment cards that ask people how they found us, and I'm always amazed when people say 'walked by.'" Garcia said. "We're not Portland."

The only retail business open Friday around noon is Papa's Ice Cream, which is in its fourth year of business. The owner of the ice cream and deli shop, Ivan Gerring, said the town square looks quiet to an outsider, but foot traffic has actually been growing.

"It's building," he said. "There's a lot of stuff moving in."

Lone Wolf Development, one of the city's main developers, has signed 12 leases for small, independent businesses in the last 18 months, including Massage with Style, PointNorth Consulting and glo Beauty Lounge. These employers brought more than 30 new jobs to the downtown area.

Rents for Washougal Town Square and Lone Wolf's other downtown developments are negotiable and below market average for now, said Lone Wolf spokesman Adam Taylor. His business is trying to give tenants incentives to come downtown. The square has 15,785 square feet of retail space and 17,945 square feet of office space available for lease.

"Things are looking up," Taylor said.

As Washougal's downtown revitalization drums up business, Taylor said, its development model will encourage people to pound the pavement. The area is organized on a grid system with most blocks measuring 200 by 200 feet — the standard block size in Portland.

"The scale of the blocks is very familiar to people and appropriate for walking," he said.

Lone Wolf's first project was the Washougal Town Square, four buildings totaling 48,000 square feet around a central square with 88 underground parking spaces. Taylor said this development model is more commonly seen in dense, urban areas.

"That said, it was very intentionally done," he said.

His vision for downtown is less car-oriented than a typical suburban model because it makes walking to different businesses more manageable. One building in the square serves multiple purposes.

As people walk around, he said they're more likely to interact with other pedestrians, giving downtown a communal feel.

Joseph Graves, a partner at Provider Assistants and CEO at Joseph Graves Capital Management, will be moving to an office in the second floor of the town square, just across from Amnesia Brewing, a Portland-based brewery currently under construction. He lives about a quarter-mile away from the building, but didn't choose the location for its proximity or aesthetics alone. Graves was looking to connect with a place where he can get to know the people running the surrounding businesses and feel like he belongs.

"It's more than just being walkable. You want to be there. You want to spend time there," Graves said. "It's not just a building where I work, it's where I live."

By maximizing the space and putting in the underground parking garage, the Washougal Town Square accomplished in one block what would take up to 7 acres with a typical suburban development method, Taylor said.

"If you want to keep it walkable and livable, you increase density wherever possible," Taylor said.

Will Washougal, with its population of 14,357, ever feel crowded? Although downtown Washougal won't have high

rises, Taylor said two-story buildings and underground parking spaces will help the city make the most of the compact downtown area.

In suburbia, large parking lots take up space and separate businesses from one another, which discourages walking. Someone shopping in a strip mall will drive to one store, shop there, and drive to another store in the same strip mall, Taylor said.

"The scale is such that it's overwhelming to a pedestrian," he said. "This is a healthier model."

Taylor can see the pedestrian tunnel from his office in the town square and sees people walking, running and biking along it. The 9.5-foot-tall and 16-foot-wide tunnel built in 2010 stretches for 115 feet below Highway 14 just east of the stoplight at Washougal River Road, connecting downtown to the water.

"It links the natural amenities to the urban amenities," he said. "Businesses are often looking at quality of life to attract a certain demographic of employees."

John Stanley, 62, walks about a mile to work everyday at the Pendleton Woolen Mill. During his lunch break, he walks through the pedestrian tunnel and lies under the cottonwood trees by the dock.

"This whole area is like a park," Stanley said.

People head to the Vancouver area for entertainment instead of staying local, he said. As more businesses come in, however, he imagines there will be more people like him who enjoy walking the downtown area and the surrounding trails.

The Port of Camas-Washougal is hoping to create a waterfront walkway similar to the Waterfront Renaissance Trail in Vancouver. Dave Ripp, executive director at the port, said they are looking to purchase property along the water and have the walkway connect to the levy trail and the pedestrian tunnel. The current dike trail runs east to Capt. William Clark Regional Park at Cottonwood Beach. He envisions benches along the walkway, a little park and maybe even a restaurant on the water that creates a flow of people going back and forth between the water and downtown.

"We definitely want to see the downtown thrive," Ripp said.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.