Project at Burgerville site called gateway to downtown

Work starts on $16 million apartment complex where iconic burger stand once stood

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

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A pivotal development project launched this week could mark the dawn of a new age for downtown Vancouver.

Ground work for Prestige Plaza -- a $16 million apartment complex to be built on the site where Burgerville operated a hamburger stand for nearly a half century -- also could add sophistication to a corridor that boosters are calling the new gateway into downtown as the prospect of light rail comes closer to reality.

The 92-unit project signals the potential for what downtown can be, according to its Vancouver developer, Elie Kassab, who plans to transform an entire downtown block bordered by Mill Plain, D, 13th and C streets. As the two-building project rises two blocks west of Interstate 5, it's proof of a veteran downtown developer's determination to create a denser, more walkable and economically viable city center.

Kassab spent the past two years showing his site plan to banks and investors in order to get the financing to move forward. But he ran into resistance from bankers throughout 2012, due to the uncertain global economy, Finally, he received a construction loan in late December from a private group of local investors.

"It suggests that they believe in our city," he said, adding that he could not reveal the investors' names.

Although some downtown advocates will always view Kassab's project with suspicion for displacing the iconic Burgerville, some experts say Prestige Plaza will bring much-needed residential units to the city. The longtime walk-up on the south side of Mill Plain was often mistaken as the first outlet in what today is a 38-restaurant chain started by the late George Propstra. (It actually was the chain's second location.) Leaders of the Vancouver-based company have said they expect to open a new downtown location.

"A lot of people did mention Burgerville" in a survey last year asking downtown stakeholders what the area needs, said Michele Reeves, of Portland-based Civilis Consultants.

However, a variety of housing can be key to an enlivened downtown core, said Reeves, who was hired by Vancouver's Downtown Association to lend expert opinion on downtown revitalization. Reeves, who has served as consultant to Vancouver's Downtown Association, predicted several types of renters would be interested in Kassab's project.

"Places for entry-level Gen Xers and places for dual income baby boomers are really important," she said.

Prestige Plaza's dual four-story buildings will consist of studio, one- and two-bedroom units that rent for between $700 and $1,300 per month, Kassab said. It sits in an area ripe for redevelopment, away from the construction-related challenges that will face the lower downtown area during bridge construction.

The Vancouver City Council voted in 2011 to limit the property tax assessment on the land beneath Kassab's project through a city property tax abatement program that will add up to about $1 million in savings over the first 12 years of the project.

The two-building complex will include three ground-floor retail spaces fronting Mill Plain and live-work apartments facing 13th Street. It also will include 70 parking spaces tucked in between the two buildings.

"It's a walkable site," he said, mentioning Prestige Plaza's proximity within 20 blocks of downtown workplaces, such as Clark County's public service center, Vancouver City Hall and Clark College.

"The proximity to major employers means the place will be full all the time," said Kassab, whose project is situated about three blocks away from a proposed light-rail line through the downtown core.

But his argument wasn't convincing to bankers from New York and Texas.

Whenever he showed the project to potential investors from out of town, "their question was always, 'Why Vancouver? Why not Portland?'" Kassab said.

His local investors saw the demand, said Kassab, a downtown developer who also developed Vancouver's 46-unit Lewis & Clark Plaza apartments at Sixth Street and Broadway.

He said the low-income complex has a waiting list of potential renters, as do many of the market-rate apartments over storefronts and in high-rises in the downtown core.

"People, young and old, really like the lifestyle of being close to restaurants shopping and activities and not having to drive," said Linda Glover, executive director of Gifts for Our Community, the nonprofit that operates Divine Consign, a downtown home furnishings store.

Reeves said more companies are attracted to downtowns that are densely populated and include a variety of multi-family living developments.

"Because people want to be able to bike or walk to work and walk to a variety of amenities where they are living," she said.

She cited Carmel, Ind., -- a suburb of Indianapolis -- as and example in that it was recently named the country's top place to live by Fortune Magazine. Reeves said Carmel officials exchanged downtown traffic lights for roundabouts and added between 3,000 and 4,000 apartments to the city center in an attempt to attract companies looking to relocate their headquarters to places that attract young urban workers.

That workforce also likes the flexibility of renting, Reeves said.

"They don't want to spend all day in a car commuting, and they don't want to spend all day doing yardwork," she said.