Life, growth looking up on Vancouver’s east side

After nearly 20 years since annexation, east Vancouver is thriving

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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The roundabout is dotted with young families filling baskets with fruits and flowers as music warns the air. The nearby park is shaded by tall buildings as strangers and neighbors pass each other, the same as they do every week.

It’s a familiar Vancouver scene, except it’s 12 miles from where you’re thinking.

“Historically we’ve been the ugly stepsister in the equation, with most of the effort put into downtown,” said Tim Schiller, past president of the East Vancouver Business Association. “That has really changed over the past five to 10 years.”

The young farmers market at the Columbia Tech Center is just one sign that east Vancouver is coming into its own and standing on its own.

Nearly 20 years after the city started annexing land between Interstate 205 and Camas — doubling Vancouver’s population — growth has been fast and deliberate. New residents and businesses have flocked to the east side of town, and with plenty of land left to develop, there’s no slowing down now.

“We have the opportunity to plan it and plan for that growth into the future to keep it livable,” Schiller said.

As that growth shapes the identity of east Vancouver and the city as a whole, some still see the east side as a separate province, while others are preaching unity.

“We used to put ourselves apart,” Schiller said. “Now we’re moving toward more of one Vancouver. It’s not them against us.”

Establishing identity

Certainly east Vancouver looks and feels different from the rest of the city — it’s newer, the roads are wider, and the master-planned suburban sprawl is more pronounced than Vancouver at large.

One could even make the argument that east Vancouver could very well be its own city. It has an H-shaped commercial sector made up of 164th and 192nd streets and Mill Plain Boulevard — sort of a downtown. It has its own school district, Evergreen, its own interstate bridge to Oregon and its own increasingly large collection of employers.

“We hardly ever go downtown — this is its own little community,” said Gregg Lackey, a local chiropractor who, with his daughter, was visiting the Tech Center farmers market across the street from his home on a recent Thursday evening.

But if there is a divide between the east and the rest of town, much of it is geographic.

As far as demographics go, Vancouver’s eastern half closely mirrors the city as a whole. The average age is about the same, around 36, and the city’s eastern ZIP codes are likewise 79 percent white. However, the median yearly income is $7,500 more out east, and just slightly more people own homes.

“Like many cities, Vancouver is like a gem — many different facets that contribute to the brilliance of the whole,” said City Manager Eric Holmes. “The city has over the last 20 years and will continue to seek ways to improve connections and cohesion among these facets in a way that strengthens the city as a whole.”

Eastside boosters say young families are increasingly choosing east Vancouver, in part because that’s where new homes and jobs have been created. The surge in employment is in part due to the efforts of the Columbia Tech Center and its owner, PacTrust.

“East Vancouver complements the rest of Vancouver — downtown, central and east Vancouver each have their own look and feel,” said PacTrust asset manager Andrew Jones. “That new development gives it a different character than, say, central and downtown.”

Like states in the union, Vancouver is out of many, one.

Growth and change

Last year, there was no Banfield Pet Hospital headquarters in east Vancouver. Two years ago, there was no farmers market. Five years ago, there was no PeaceHealth headquarters. Twenty years ago, there were fewer subdivisions, retailers, offices — a busy stretch of Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard today was then adjacent to a still-working airport.

It’s been a busy couple of decades.

“With more and larger undeveloped parcels, the east side complements the downtown core and makes property easier and less expensive to develop than in the downtown and helps Vancouver provide a wide range of development opportunities,” wrote the city’s Economic Development Division manager, Teresa Brum.

Some of the area’s largest and best-known employers now call east Vancouver home, be it PeaceHealth, Evergreen Public Schools, Nautilus, Kuni Automotive and long-standing HP Inc.

That was no accident.

“With 482 acres — we added 52 acres earlier this year — with that much land, obviously our development has an impact on east Vancouver,” said Jones at PacTrust.

Just 95 acres remain to develop in the Columbia Tech Center, and Jones said “We’d like to keep doing what we’re doing, providing a mix of office, retail and residential in a nice environment.”

There are certainly pockets outside the Tech Center left to fill, such as at the former Evergreen Airport and the 553-acre Section 30, which today still comprises a working rock mine, English Pit.

“Envisioned as one of Vancouver’s largest 21st century urban employment centers, Section 30 will attract emerging technology and provide for growth in family wage jobs,” according to the city’s plan for the site. “Unique urban neighborhoods where people live and shop are neatly interwoven with enterprising workplaces.”

That sounds a lot like the Tech Center, which the city would obviously like to see replicated where it can.

Still, not every business is a perfect fit for that kind of development.

“When businesses approach the city we work closely with Columbia River Economic Development Council and start with a list of what they are looking for (e.g., existing building or build-to-suit, available land for expansion, acres of parking, downtown amenities such as food carts, etc.), and then identify several parcels that might fit their needs,” Brum said.

As for attracting people to the east side, Schiller said the schools and amenities that have grown up in the area seem to do the trick.

“That’s one of the first things people look at, where am I going to live … more than where am I going to work,” said the East Vancouver Business Association board member. “People want to locate here primarily for their kids.”

Developing vision

Those kids will grow up as east Vancouver reaches maturity. In the next 20 years, no doubt there will be increased density in jobs, residents and the traffic that comes with it.

“It’s going to be more congested,” Schiller said. “If we don’t focus on infrastructure, I think we’re going to end up with a lot of people landlocked, so to speak.”

Further growth also won’t come without controversy. A planned 84-acre development in a former quarry along 192nd Avenue and Highway 14 has some neighbors up in arms over potentially blocked views.

“There are a bunch of us that care a whole lot,” wrote hilltop resident Bob Silva in an email. “And, yes, the loss of view will devalue our properties significantly.”

City planner Jon Wagner said a few people have written and called about the Columbia Palisades project, a mix of homes, office space, apartments and retail, but for the most part the planning is going smoothly.

The project will go before the City Council at a Sept. 12 workshop and a public hearing Sept. 26, he said. Construction could start as soon as next spring, if the city finds it lines up with its comprehensive plan, the same for east Vancouver as it is for the rest: “To have an exceptionally vibrant, safe, welcoming and prosperous city,” Brum wrote.

On a recent sun-soaked Thursday evening, that goal seemed to be the theme at a roundabout built specifically to accommodate a farmers market.

“We’re really excited to be here as it develops,” market manager Erin Timmerman said. “We planted our flag last year and next year expect it to expand.”

Nestled between an apartment building, hotel, park and the under-construction Hopworks Urban Brewery, there is the feel of a city center, a place to pull the spread-out east Vancouver community together, if only for one evening a week. For Schiller and other eastern residents, the emphasis on “local” is just beginning.

“As we get more amenities on this side of the river, I think we have less and less need to go over to Portland.”