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Dec. 4, 2020

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Past, future collide at Providence Academy

Vancouver residents fear new buildings’ effect on historic site

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
2 Photos
Mixed-use buildings are proposed to replace Providence Academy’s parking lot along C Street, pictured in January. Some are concerned the buildings, which will house apartments and retail space, will block or diminish the 19th century building nearby.
Mixed-use buildings are proposed to replace Providence Academy’s parking lot along C Street, pictured in January. Some are concerned the buildings, which will house apartments and retail space, will block or diminish the 19th century building nearby. Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Photo Gallery

What would Mother Joseph say? What does city code say?

Those are questions many asked when they first saw renderings of two five-story apartments, with shops on the ground floor, near Providence Academy.

“(Mother Joseph) was an architect, a teacher and a nun. What would she have done 100-plus years ago?” said lifelong Vancouver resident Nancy Denny. “Would she think this is a good idea?”

Past and future are colliding at the 19th century building. The Historic Trust, the nonprofit that manages the former academy and orphanage, has agreed to sell nearby land to become home to a pair of mixed-use buildings.

Some view the renderings and worry the buildings will clash with Providence Academy’s historic character, like its red brick. Officials with the trust, on the other hand, try to temper those concerns. The renderings may change, they say.

“I’ve had great dialogue with people as it relates to this, trying to put people at ease to these unknowns, but the reality is, this in such an early stage,” said Mike True, president and CEO of The Historic Trust.

“There’s a lot of process that will engage the city, engage the public and outside influences to make sure this is a development that is compatible with the academy,” he added.

A late December pre-application filed with the city of Vancouver shows developer Marathon Acquisition & Development, based in Wilsonville, Ore., aims to build about 90,000 square feet of apartments and roughly 7,800 square feet of commercial space. The buildings will stand on the east side of C Street between East Evergreen Boulevard and East 12th Street.

Design specifications in the pre-application — the only designs suggested so far — say the buildings’ exterior finishes “include masonry and fiber cement panels. Aluminum storefronts for commercial uses and vinyl windows for residential uses.”

Obstruction worries

Denny and others worry the new buildings will not only clash with the style, but also that they might obstruct the view of the building.

“You’ve got a beautiful historic building there,” said Roger Morley, a retired municipal planner living in the Lincoln neighborhood. “They’re coming and putting in a five-story blank wall.”

These are the kinds of concerns that the pre-application process is meant to raise in the first place, said city planner Keith Jones. Builders hear about the many codes a project faces before officially getting started.

“They can take that into consideration, refine their design and submit a final application after that,” he said. He added that codes prevent totally blank, concrete walls and require “view corridors” that prevent any new development from completely obscuring Providence Academy.

Representatives for Marathon Acquisition & Development could not be reached for comment.

Besides the usual planning gauntlet, building close to Providence Academy puts the mixed-use project under special scrutiny.

A Heritage Overlay District on the property keeps people from, among other things, building on the historic structure’s south lawn or hanging up large signs. It requires new construction to be “in similar materials and texture to that of the main Academy building.”

That last sentence is a sticking point for those who want to ensure the new five-story buildings are compatible.

“They have to change,” Morley said. “We’re not going to let them get away with not respecting the character of the site.”

Whether designs meet that criteria will be decided by the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission, which reviews designs and construction on sites on the local register of historic places.

Jones said the new buildings will likely need to add some design elements of Providence Academy, but argued making a carbon copy could make all three buildings look worse.

“The idea is to make the academy building stand out,” he said. “If you were to build one that looks like the academy, that’s probably not the best solution to make (Providence Academy) be what it is.”

Mike Williams, a board member of The Historic Trust, said he couldn’t speak for Marathon but said Providence Academy is an asset that they don’t want to see marginalized, either. The nonprofit recently spent $1.8 million renovating the academy.

“There’s a lot of excitement around it,” he said. “The developer is going to do nothing but complement that, not obscure or obstruct that.”

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