What could downtown's future look like?
Downtown residential development by the numbers:
• 3,300 waterfront residential units have been proposed for a former industrial site.
• 120 affordable apartment units are slated for development on the vacant site between West 15th Street, Mill Plain Boulevard and Columbia Street.
• Prestige Plaza, a 96-unit development, was recently completed on Mill Plain Boulevard between C and D streets.
• The Vancouver Housing Authority proposed a 30-unit apartment building for chronically homeless people on a mostly vacant property on West 13th Street across from Share House, a men's shelter.
• A six-story apartment complex is envisioned for the parking lot of the recently sold Esther Short Building, 610 Esther St.
Vancouver has made strides in revitalizing its city center. Each year, there are more downtown events, and more residents and retailers are expected in the years to come.
But lately, increasing along with the popularity of downtown is something less desirable: crime rates.
The number of crimes in downtown’s Esther Short neighborhood, home to summer concerts, beer festivals and the Vancouver Farmers Market, has increased almost 21 percent during the past five years, according to data compiled by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
Year after year, Esther Short tops the list of Clark County neighborhoods with the highest per capita crime rates. In 2013, it had the county’s highest reported rates of assault, vandalism, robbery, theft and drug-related incidents, according to the latest data available from the sheriff’s office. The number of vehicle break-ins has more than doubled in the neighborhood during the past five years.
Part of the problem may be that the Esther Short neighborhood has significantly more visitors than residents. Roughly 1,400 people live within the 0.77 square miles that make up the neighborhood, which includes the picturesque Esther Short Park.
Other Clark County neighborhoods with high per capita crime rates in 2013 share some similarities with Esther Short. They are destinations in Vancouver where people travel to work, shop or play. Many also have a small number of residents when compared with other neighborhoods in the county.
Vancouver’s Columbia Way neighborhood, with a population of about 600, attracts visitors with its waterfront restaurants, Marine Park and Waterfront Park, where the Waterfront Renaissance Trail starts. It had the third-highest per capita crime rate in 2013.
Fifth on the list is the Marrion neighborhood, which includes a Wal-Mart store that received more police service calls than any other location in the county last year. About 3,000 people live in Marrion, which is just west of Interstate 205.
The crime numbers don’t reveal who’s to blame for crimes in a given area, but Esther Short residents and business owners attach many of downtown’s troubles to transients.
Gerald Bartlett, who lives across from Esther Short Park, said he’s observed people using planters as toilets at night and sleeping in the pavilion in the center of the park. If such nuisances aren’t curbed, then people won’t want to live downtown and businesses won’t want to set up shop there, Bartlett said.
“That’s the beginning of the end. That’s urban blight,” he said.
Vancouver police Cpl. Neil Martin said the transient population is the No. 1 complaint he gets from people in Esther Short. How Martin approaches park nuisance problems depends on the person he’s dealing with. Someone living on the street, he said, may need social services rather than police enforcement.
“The biggest thing for me is educating the property managers,” Martin said.
There is no blanket loitering statute in the neighborhood, so if someone complains that a person should be removed from a property, Martin has to wait and get permission from the property manager. At 2 a.m., he said, that isn’t practical.
Besides, telling people who are homeless to remove their encampment and move along means they will just move a few blocks away. This constant displacement, he said “doesn’t address the underlying issue of homelessness.”
One solution proposed by the Vancouver Housing Authority is a 10,000-square-foot, 30-unit complex for the chronically homeless in downtown Vancouver. Those who are homeless for a long time often face multiple challenges such as physical and mental health issues and substance abuse problems.
Andy Silver, the director of the Council for the Homeless, said he’s studied areas around the country where business districts benefited from contributing to those types of “housing-first” models.
“It’s sort of a win-win for everybody,” he said.
In the last couple of weeks, there’s been a concentrated effort to address Esther Short Park nuisances, said nearby resident Dan Mitchell. He can see most of the park from his condo balcony and walks through it to get to his downtown office. He recently noticed more people drinking, smoking, urinating, vomiting and littering in the park. After sending an email to Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and creating a Facebook page (Keep Esther Short Park Clean), police officers did sweeps of the park.
Officers gave offenders trash bags to clean up the messes they made in the park and issued trespassing citations before escorting them out of the park.
Mitchell said the park is for everybody and that it’s improved a lot since he began working downtown 12 years ago. This week, he said, Esther Short Park stakeholders are meeting to discuss ways to continue curbing crime in the park and identify resources for people who are homeless. The Vancouver Police Department is also planning a larger enforcement effort for the downtown area that would involve other city agencies, such as the public works and parks departments.
Silver said the source of complaints downtown aren’t always the homeless. People with a roof over their head like to hang out downtown and cause trouble, he said.
On March 13, violence erupted in the neighborhood in front of Q Nightclub. Around 12:45 a.m. that morning, a neighbor reported a man shooting into a large crowd that had formed in the street outside the club. Police officers shot and wounded the alleged gunman after he refused to put down his weapon.
“We’re not without challenges,” said Ginger Metcalf, who lives at Heritage Place across from Esther Short Park.
A 24-hour district
Lee Rafferty, of the Vancouver Downtown Association, said revitalizing downtown is a hot discussion topic among community leaders.
She favors a retail-first approach to increase foot traffic and get more “eyes on the street.” This means situating shops and restaurants in ground-floor units, and putting offices on the second floor. When money becomes available, she plans to put in more street lighting, such as lights around trees and lining the tops of buildings.
Another goal with Esther Short is to make it an 18- to 24-hour district, where people are coming and going almost all hours of the day.
“What makes people unsafe in districts is a lack of other people,” said Michele Reeves, a Portland-based consultant and expert on downtown revitalization. “If I see other people, I feel safer.”
In prior urban development projects, Reeves said she has accomplished that by putting in businesses with staggered open hours, such as early-morning breakfast joints and late-night bars. The presence of more people promotes walking and a feeling of security.
“That’s how I like to tenant my way out of crime,” Reeves said.