Wal-Mart in Orchards?

Retailer hopes to open store by end of next year, real estate broker says

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Just as Wal-Mart prepares to open its second Neighborhood Market in Vancouver and its third Clark County Supercenter in Battle Ground, the giant retailer appears to be moving forward with plans for a long-mothballed project in Orchards.

But first, developers are proposing revisions to the retail project, once called Eastgate Plaza. It once was part of a larger commercial site called the Birtcher Business Center, planned as a mixed use of industrial, office and flex space in a 218-acre pasture on the south side of Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard between 137th and 152nd avenues.

Once the revisions are made, Wal-Mart hopes to open the store by the end of next year, said Deborah Ewing, a vice president and managing broker with Eric Fuller & Associates Inc. commercial real estate firm.

"They plan on being open by third quarter 2015," she said. The plan fits right in with Wal-Mart's dramatic Clark County expansion. Its newest Neighborhood Market, a smaller concept focused on grocery sales, is set to open May 1 at Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards, less than one year after the area's first Neighborhood Market opened near Westfield Vancouver mall. A 154,000-square-foot Supercenter is under construction in Battle Ground and earmarked for a late spring opening.

The company would not confirm or deny plans to start construction on the Orchards-area site.

Ewing isn't surprised the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer appears to be going forward, given an abundance of moderate income-level households in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed Orchards site.

"It (the retail site) is ready to go, it's off state Highway 500 and the demographics are there," said Ewing, a retail expert who at one time marketed the site for its former developers. When plans for the store were put on hold, she regularly received calls from area residents who were eager to patronize the Wal-Mart.

"People were upset because the project wasn't built," she said.

But the real estate market has changed dramatically since developers signed an agreement in 2003, said Chad Eiken, Vancouver's director of community and economic development, who said the city is considering changes proposed by the project's new developers. Two new companies now own the parcels adjacent to the 22.5-acre Wal-Mart site. The adjoining sites include a 10.8-acre tract owned by Portland-based Weston Investment Co. and an 11.8-acre parcel owned by a Vancouver-based limited liability corporation called 438 LLC.

A spokesman for that company said the retail site has been renamed Evergreen Crossing. The LLC is affiliated with the developers of Chuck's Produce and Street Market, a family corporation affiliated with Vancouver-based Harvest Developments LLC, which also owns the former Evergreen Airport, a 59-acre commercial tract on Mill Plain Boulevard.

Chuck's Produce is owned by Bart Colson, a partner in Vancouver-based Hawthorn Retirement Group, a family-owned business that operates a string of more than 40 senior living facilities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. The family also owns and operates a Salem, Ore.-based commercial construction firm, Colson & Colson General Contractors. The company purchased the property next to the Wal-Mart site for $1.2 million in September.

"We committed to looking over their ideas and giving them feedback," Eiken said, adding that changes to the development agreement would require a majority vote by the city council. "We should know more in a few weeks," he said.

Weston Investment Co.'s role in the project is unclear. The company is a real estate holding company headed by Joe Weston. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The original Eastgate Plaza and Wal-Mart never got off the ground, due to the recession and a host of other factors. But some nearby development has since sprouted on the eastern side of Birtcher Business Center, which now includes a training center for the Army Reserve and Washington Army National Guard and the Sifton Fire Station 4. Some of the streets have also been put in place, including a stretch of Northeast 147th Avenue heading south to connect with Northeast 63rd Street and a portion of the east-west route, 59th Street.

Real estate brokers are still marketing the 146-acre Birtcher Business Center site for sale as "one of the largest development-ready parcels in the metropolitan area." Property records show its owner as the Frances Keller Trust, based in Vancouver.

Real estate inquiries come in regularly for the site, according to Mark Childs, a broker with Portland-based Capacity Commercial, a real estate firm marketing the tract.

In 2011, the city approved changes to the original agreement that allowed Birtcher's developers to hold off on constructing an east-west route for 59th Street along the site's southern border to Northeast 162nd Avenue. In 2008, developers won approval from the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers to build the section through a wetlands on the edge of Burnt Bridge Creek.

Eiken said additional development changes proposed are still in the early stages. Eastgate Plaza's site plan originally called for a Wal-Mart, Home Depot and OfficeMax stores with expansive parking areas. Those plans will likely be revised.

"Now we're trying to figure out what has changed since the original development agreement was adopted in 2003," Eiken said. "It's 11 years later and we need to look at whether parking standards or landscaping standards have changed."

In the meantime, much of the Birtcher site has been left to weeds and real estate signs since developers withdrew their plans with the recession. California-based Birtcher Development Group announced in 1998 that it was negotiating to buy the entire site and develop 1.8 million square feet of office and light industrial space. But the project couldn't start construction without an interested tenant's commitment.

The developers added the retail component in 2003. In 2004, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. paid $9.9 million for its 22.5-acre tract on the west side of the property. The retailer envisioned its Supercenter as the anchor of Eastgate Plaza, which was originally proposed by Bellevue-based Alexandria Investment Co. Then the Eastgate Plaza property, except for the Wal-Mart site, was purchased in 2007 for $14.3 million by former Seattle real-estate magnate and convicted criminal Michael R. Mastro. Mastro and his wife, Linda, have been living in France as fugitives since a federal grand jury indicted them in 2011 on 43 counts of bankruptcy fraud and money laundering, one of Washington's largest bankruptcy cases.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to reflect a correction. The site is located on the south side of Fourth Plain, roughly between 137th and 152nd avenues.