In our view: Better Days for Block 10

Vancouver's 'request for interest' in downtown site good news for vacant lot

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Having been transformed from the clunky sounding "Block 10" into the more inviting "Heritage Square," a portion of Vancouver's downtown is being prepared for the next step in its evolution. Block 10, er, Heritage Square is ready for its close-up.

City officials have decided to publish a "request for interest" regarding the block on the northeast corner of Columbia and Eighth streets — kitty-corner from Esther Short Park. It's a bit of legalese, but a "request for interest" apparently is the first step in asking, "Hey, does anybody have some great, innovative, dynamic ideas for this space of prime downtown real estate?" In other words, it's a formal way of inviting the private sector to make offers for purchasing and developing the site.

And why not? In the past 15 years, blocks near the site have seen the development of Heritage Place, Vancouver Center, the Hilton Vancouver Washington, Esther Short Commons, and what is now Vancouver City Hall. Not to mention the renovation of Esther Short Park, which served as a catalyst for the makeover of downtown.

Block 10, meanwhile, has languished, forgotten and forlorn.

It hasn't always been that way. In the early 1900s, the site was home to Preston Bicycle Shop, and W.E. Carter Wholesale Grocery, and B.P. Youmans Hardware, along with other businesses. Somewhere along the way, the block became part of the Lucky Lager Brewery complex, serving as a parking lot for beer trucks and employees from 1975 until the brewery shut down in 1985. In 1993, the city purchased the former brewery complex, including Block 10, for $2.3 million.

Serving as a parking lot for many years, and then as an empty space for many more, is a rather undignified fate for a noble downtown block. So earlier this year, Vancouver's Downtown Association completed work on prettying up Block 10 and re-christening it as Heritage Square. Investing $15,000 and many hours of labor, the group added raised flower beds, decorative flags, bicycle racks, and a little landscaping.

Now, city officials hope, the area is ready for the next step in its evolution. But there's no telling what that step might be.

A May study by the Leland Group, which specializes in investment banking, found that the market for office space in downtown Vancouver remains weak. The study suggested that the city's best bet might be multifamily housing, such as four floors of housing above parking or retail space.

All of which reflects something that downtown areas always struggle with — striking a balance between residential, retail, and office space. While a certain number of retail outlets are desirable, many retailers won't locate to an area that doesn't have adequate population density. For example, downtown areas in many cities — including Vancouver — are bereft of grocery stores and gas stations.

Because of that, the Vancouver City Council is open to ideas. If any developers respond to the "request for interest" with a creative plan for Heritage Square, with an offer-they-can't-refuse type of proposal, the city can put out a more detailed "request for qualifications" in order to move the process along. Then there would be public hearings and negotiations and council votes and property assessments and, undoubtedly, plenty of public debate.

So, for now, the site formerly known as Block 10 will have to be patient. Its day is coming, and that's good news. But it's going to be awhile before that day arrives.