A long-planned makeover of the Columbia Food Park is finally underway, which will transform the 4,500-square-foot courtyard at 108 E. Seventh St. into a community hub with space for up to four food vendors. The project is slated for completion in late January.
The remodel will bring some key features including public restrooms and a kitchen space, but the man behind the project, Alex Mickle, said his goal is to take advantage of the existing design of the site.
“What’s great about this space is it exists in the center of the city and it’s really interesting as a space — there’s a ton of brickwork — and it’s entirely unused,” he said. “We’re not taking a parking lot.”
The concrete-and-brick courtyard was built as a waiting area for a now-shuttered C-Tran transit center, and the space cycled through a few other tenants over the years before Mickle and his business partner, Kylan Johnson, began renting the space in late 2016 with an eye toward a food park.
The goal is to create a hub for downtown Vancouver’s food culture. The local restaurant industry has been growing rapidly along with the rest of Vancouver, Mickle said, but the city largely lacks the kind of street vendor and food cart establishments often found across the river in Portland.
“If you think about Vancouver, we don’t have anything really like that at all,” he said. “When people come to Vancouver and I take them to Portland (for street food), I feel like I’m cheating on my hometown a little.”
The project broke ground two weeks ago when a bulldozer was brought in to begin demolishing parts of a small former ticket office on the west side of the courtyard, which will be repurposed as a taproom.
The remodel will also convert a small restroom behind the ticket office into a public restroom and add a commercial kitchen area with a serving window opening out onto the courtyard. The kitchen’s tenant is already lined up, Mickle said: a startup called Slow Fox Chili.
A rear corner of the courtyard will be upgraded with a covered seating area and heaters, and Mickle said he also hopes to add a fire pit at a circular hub in one of the pathways.
The finished courtyard will retain much of its existing multilevel plaza design, which naturally lends itself to outdoor seating with a series of pathways lined by brick platforms that enclose landscaping areas.
One new feature is already in place: a large mural was recently added to the courtyard’s eastern wall, depicting two chefs at work.
The park already has two food cart tenants near the front entrance: breakfast burrito hot spot Mack Shack and gourmet pretzel vendor Anchor End. Mack Shack owner AndraLea Mack began operating at the site in August 2017, and Anchor End joined the park earlier this month.
Mickle said he plans to bring in two shipping containers that can be converted into full kitchen spaces for Mack Shack and Anchor End, but for the moment they’ll continue to operate as cart vendors under the protective roof at the entrance to the park.
The food park is a personal project for Mickle, whose day job is at DiscoverOrg. He and Johnson began developing the park in 2017, but progress has been slow on a number of fronts, including funding. An initial Kickstarter campaign failed to meet its fundraising goal, and Mickle said he’s been funding the project out of pocket since then, at a likely cost of around $70,000.
Johnson is also the founder of the downtown co-working space CoLab, and he eventually took more of a backseat role in the food park project to focus on the shared office space.
Mickle became the food park’s primary developer and continued to work to secure the necessary permits from the city and convince the park’s current and future vendors to join him in taking the leap. The vendor lineup will make or break the park, he said, so he had to make sure it was filled out in advance.
“You need to find those people, and that takes a long time,” he said.
Getting the construction scheduled was another major hurdle. Mickle said in July that the funding, permits and contractors were all secured and the project could get underway in August, but the groundbreaking ended up getting pushed all the way back to this month.
With so many big construction projects out for bidding in Vancouver right now, Mickle said it was difficult to find a contractor willing to fit the comparatively small food park job into the schedule.
He eventually reached a development deal with Ridgefield-based Carlson Quality Construction, and he said it was the developer’s own enthusiasm for the food park idea that allowed the project to find a place in the schedule.
“Hopefully it takes off,” said Carlson Construction owner Jim Carlson. “This is going to be a nice little spot.”
Carlson estimates that the project will be completed in late January, and Mickle said he intends to hold a grand opening as soon as the park is ready. But he was quick to stress that the park is already up and running, with Mack Shack and Anchor End open and serving customers every day, and customers shouldn’t let the construction dissuade them from checking it out.
“The success of a space like this is (dependent) on engagement from the community,” he said. “We want them to talk to us.”