Consultant: Savvy plan, vibrant buildings will boost downtown

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter

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By taking a savvy approach to signing up new tenants and focusing on sprucing up buildings and streetscapes, Vancouver’s downtown property owners will make further progress in developing a lively mix of businesses and pedestrians in the city’s core, a Portland consultant said Thursday.

“Your sidewalks are a stage, a place to tell the story of your community,” Michele Reeves, of Civilis Consultants, told more than 60 attendees of a three-hour downtown summit held by Vancouver’s Downtown Association. And a key path toward telling a story of city center vibrancy, Reeves said, is for property owners to find tenants of long-term investment value, including restaurants, brewpubs and specialty stores, “that activate the sidewalk.”

Reeves’ remarks, bracketed by PowerPoint slides and case studies, were part of a larger discussion aimed at highlighting the downtown area’s progress, underscoring next steps and gathering feedback from the audience. An energetic Reeves peppered her talk with humor (pawn shops “don’t have to look like jail”), moderated a panel discussion and conducted sessions in which attendees jotted down what they like about downtown and rated their top hopes and dreams for it.

Reeves said she plans to distill the written comments into an analysis she’ll share with participants as part of an ongoing effort to advance downtown’s revitalization. Attendees of Thursday’s summit, held inside the Brickstone Ballroom of the Biggs Insurance Services building at Evergreen Boulevard and Main Street, included downtown property owners, real estate brokers, design professionals and Vancouver city officials. Coffee and pastries beckoned the early-morning participants. During breakout sessions to assess downtown’s present state and possible future, an agreeable cacophony of conversations filled the third-floor ballroom.

In an announcement toward the end of the event, Teresa Brum, Vancouver’s economic development manager, said the city plans to launch an “adaptive reuse” program this year and is seeking a downtown partner to help make it happen. In urban planning, adaptive reuse refers to the process by which an old building is transformed for a new purpose. It can involve rejuvenating a brownfield site, for example. It’s also seen as a way to conserve land and curb sprawl.

’18-hour district’

During her presentation, Reeves, who’s previously helped downtown boosters identify best practices, called attention to helpful local programs. One of them, involving Vancouver’s Downtown Association and the city of Vancouver, offers to help businesses and property owners make facade improvements. Another is the city’s pre-lease program. It’s a free service in which city staffers meet with business owners before a lease or purchase deal is inked to go over permitting, zoning and building safety information.

Reeves also pointed to the city center’s progress. Its successes include:

• A well-groomed and affable Block 10 (the city-owned lot bounded by Columbia and Washington streets between Eighth and Ninth streets), with more pedestrian traffic. Four years ago, Reeves said, she saw no pedestrians in the area. What’s happening now, she added, is a kind of “street dialogue” that comes with increased foot traffic.

• Renovated commercial buildings, new residential spaces, more eye-catching public art and inviting storefronts (with big, clumsy awnings removed), and murals. “It has a huge impact, visually,” Reeves said.

To build on those successes, Reeves said, downtown stakeholders may use a combination of smart property-management techniques and affordable building upgrades.

There are two ways property owners hunt for tenants, Reeves said: from a point of view of short-term cash flow or long-term value. Lawyers and accountants pay their bills, representing a source of low-risk, short-term cash flow, Reeves said. But their ground-floor offices, which tend to face inward, don’t encourage sidewalk activity.

By contrast, she said, tenants such as coffee shops, bakeries, brewpubs, retailers, eyeglass shops and fabric stores represent long-term investment value. That’s because they create destinations for people, promote a lively public realm and help build a business district’s identity.

You don’t want an eight-hour district, Reeves said, “you want an 18-hour district.” But upgrading buildings is just as important as landing tenants of long-term value, she said, and it doesn’t have to be hugely expensive. The goal is to breathe new life into interior and exterior spaces with color, thoughtful architectural details, windows and lighting.

Snapping a building to attention with new color is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to “change people’s perception of downtown,” Reeves said.

Over time, she said, central business districts experience three stages of growth: emerging, transition and mature. When you’re at the mature stage, she said, you have density, strong foot traffic, a sophisticated retail scene and national tenants looking to move in.

At that point, people come to downtown because it’s a destination, not because its home to, say, an individual restaurant. “That’s how you know you’ve started to make it,” Reeves said.