In Our View: Rich Renewal for Barracks

Makeover links Vancouver’s storied past to rebirth for city’s historical attributes

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The ongoing metamorphosis of the Vancouver Barracks is intriguing on several levels. The changes allow Vancouver to repurpose a piece of its past rather than allowing that history to languish in disrepair; they, ideally, will create economic activity that is appropriate for the location; and they reflect vast improvements in how cities plan for the future.

The city of Vancouver is renovating four century-old buildings that were part of U.S. Army operations at what is now the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The old Artillery Barracks will be home to a wearable technology company that is relocating from California; the old Infantry Barracks has been turned into apartments, which have been rented; and other businesses are being sought for additional space that is being updated.

Along the way, the city has managed to modernize a location that is central to its history — a history that is remarkably rich. A European settlement was first established in the Vancouver area in 1825, a quarter-century before settlers set down roots in Portland. In 1849, the Vancouver Barracks were founded when the U.S. Army established its first base in the Northwest.

That history helps distinguish Vancouver from other locations throughout the Northwest. Having the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site within walking distance of downtown lends character that is unusual for a modern, bustling city, and city officials are wise to take advantage of that distinction.

The next step is to ensure that the renovated barracks can add to that character. RealWear, the technology company, plans to hire 20 people for its Vancouver office, and developers are seeking a mix of retail and office occupants for the other buildings. Discussions, for example, are underway to bring a coffee shop to what once was the Spruce Division Records Storehouse, and there is talk about using the Post Hospital as an enclave for artists.

The transformation has been laborious, with the buildings requiring much work, and it has been funded in part by a $5.1 million city bond. But the creative approach to making use of buildings in a bucolic location represents how U.S. cities are using their attributes more effectively than in the past.

Some 50 years ago, the notion of city planning typically meant street-level parking that took up entire blocks and freeways that crisscrossed the landscape. With America’s car culture and development of the interstate freeway system during the middle of the 20th century, cities spent much time and money creating ways for people to get out of town. Downtowns declined as residents moved to the suburbs and congregated at shopping malls.

None of that directly impacts the renovation of Vancouver Barracks, but it reflects the changing philosophy that is driving modern American cities. Downtowns have been revived as officials have stressed density and mixed-use construction that is attractive to both businesses and residents. Even in mid-sized cities such as Vancouver, those changes are evident, with the renovation of Esther Short Park serving as an example.

With Vancouver Barracks being listed on the National Register of Historic Places and sitting within a historic site, options were limited for repurposing the area. It’s not as though a 10-story office building could have been built there.

But in retaining the character of the site while preparing the buildings for modern use, Vancouver has embraced the city’s history while simultaneously moving it toward the future.