In Our View: Downtown Hope, Caution

Vancouver development is wrapped in optimism, but when will it be enough?

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The landscape provides fertile ground for clich?s, calling to mind tropes such as “if you build it, they will come” and “how much is too much?” And while there is reason for caution as Vancouver prepares for transformative growth near downtown, an examination of the local economy also provides cause for optimism.

The Port of Vancouver is rejuvenating its Terminal 1 property, which rests along the Columbia River in the shadow of the Interstate 5 Bridge, and the Waterfront Vancouver project is taking shape along the riverfront between Terminal 1 and the port’s main property. Along with restaurants and residences and retail outlets, each project is scheduled to include a hotel. When added to another planned hotel near the existing Hilton Vancouver Washington a few blocks from the waterfront, the concern is whether developers are biting off more than the local economy can chew when it comes to adding rooms.

“I think Vancouver has really transitioned over the last 5-10 years,” Julianna Marler, CEO of the Port of Vancouver, recently told The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “I think we’re going to be the place to be. We’ll have the amenities on this side of the river, so I think it’s going to be great. So I think we’ll be able to support those hotels.”

The fact that companies are willing to invest in the area serves as a vote of confidence. Developers and business operators do not make money by building for the sake of building and hoping that customers will show up. No, they make money by providing supply to meet demand. “If you build it, they will come” only works in the movies, and the eagerness of builders suggests that Vancouver is underserved.

A recent story in The Columbian also was encouraging as it quantified that there is room for growth in Vancouver’s hospitality industry. Clark County has seen strong expansion in the number of restaurants and in the restaurant workforce over the past decade, and about one in three jobs created in the past 12 months came in the broadly defined leisure and hospitality sector. Even after that growth, the sector comprises a smaller percentage of the economy than it does throughout the metropolitan area and throughout the nation. “They’re not a huge part of our economy,” regional labor economist Scott Bailey said.

No two local economies are identical, but the numbers suggest that Vancouver can, indeed, support additional expansion in the hotel and restaurant industries. More important, the waterfront is being reclaimed for residents, a tactic that will alter the atmosphere of the city’s core. Many metropolitan areas across the country have undergone similar makeovers in recent years, transforming riverfronts from the industrial centers of the past into vibrant residential and retail centers that benefit locals and attract visitors.

In this regard, Vancouver will create amenities that help it stand out in the metro area. While the west side of Portland takes advantage of the Willamette River through a popular waterfront park, the east bank of the river through the heart of town is limited to an interstate freeway. When completed, Vancouver’s waterfront will be more inviting than the one found in Portland.

In a variety of ways, Vancouver has effectively positioned itself for growth in and near its downtown core — growth that will revamp the very nature of the city. The remaining question is, however, how much is too much?