Panel shares vision, update on waterfront

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Backers of a plan to transform Vancouver's former industrial waterfront into a place to live, work and play said Thursday they're making progress on multiple fronts, including negotiating the construction of restaurants, advancing key road improvements and planning a public park studded with attractions.

"I just can't wait to get going," Barry Cain, developer of the $1.3 billion, 32-acre project, said to more than 110 attendees of a morning panel discussion held by Vancouver's Downtown Association at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

Cain was joined on the panel by Teresa Brum, the city of Vancouver's economic development division manager, Julie Hannon, the city's parks and recreation director, and Jane Jacobsen, a consultant on the waterfront project.

When the panel took questions, one person asked about the potential impacts on waterfront plans of the proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil-by-rail transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The oil terminal, capable of handling 380,000 barrels of crude per day, would be built less than 2 miles west of the waterfront development, which is next to port and BNSF Railway tracks.

Cain, who opposes the oil transfer operation and has said it imperils his waterfront effort, didn't respond to the question. Hannon replied that backers are moving the waterfront venture forward. The Vancouver City Council, she said, has been "very clear" about its position — an apparent reference to the council's resolution, approved last month on a 5-2 vote, opposing not only the Tesoro-Savage plan but any proposal that would result in an increase of North Dakota's Bakken crude oil being hauled through Clark County.

Negotiations underway

Most of Thursday's panel discussion, dubbed "Connecting to Our Waterfront and Our Future," focused on updates of the waterfront project's various elements.

Cain, president of Tualatin, Ore.-based Gramor Development, is lead spokesman for Columbia Waterfront LLC, which includes Gramor and four local investors who want to conduct a residential/commercial redevelopment of the former Boise Cascade mill site, west of the Interstate 5 Bridge.

He said the development group expects to launch construction on restaurant buildings next year, noting negotiations are underway with two "really good" restaurants. Also, he said, the group is finalizing a purchase agreement with a hotel company.

Meanwhile, he said, the group is taking exploratory looks at a condominium building and at an office building. All of those elements are part of a larger development plan. It calls for up to 3,300 residential units zoned for apartments, condos and senior housing; about 1 million square feet of commercial office space; 250,000 square feet of commercial retail space, including restaurants and specialty shops; and a 200-room hotel.

Cain, who has overseen more than 55 major commercial real estate projects in the Portland metro region, said the waterfront project will energize the entire downtown area and re-connect the city to the Columbia River.

There's nothing like it in the Portland area, he said. "Everyone is going to want to be here."

'A big deal'

The 22-block urban redevelopment plan also calls for 10 acres of waterfront parks and trails.

Hannon, the city's parks and recreation director, said the waterfront site's park and trail improvements will become the "crown jewel" of Vancouver's entire parks system. It will include pedestrian and bike paths, space for concerts, interactive water features, signs evoking the history and culture of the area, and a fishing dock, Hannon said. "It's going to be the whole package right there on the river."

Jacobsen, a consultant to the city and Gramor who's leading efforts to raise funds to build the park, said the park isn't just for people who will move into a waterfront condo or apartment. "This park is for everyone," she said.

Brum, the city's economic development division manager, said the waterfront project presents an "unprecedented opportunity" to reopen a riverfront area that was once closed off to the community. She said the city is now working on the extension of Columbia Way to the waterfront site, which is part of a $45 million access project. That access project includes two new railroad bridges at Esther and Grant streets, the extension of those streets, the closure of railroad crossings at Jefferson and Eighth streets and related utility work. Construction on the Columbia Way piece could begin this fall. Cain said it's a crucial piece, enabling people to drive right into the site and allowing the development group to "be able to build buildings."

"That's a big deal," he said.