Hearing examiner Sharon Rice approved the controversial relocation of the day center for the homeless to 2018 Grand Blvd., the former state Fish & Wildlife Building.
Vancouver City Council will vote Monday whether to purchase the building for $4.3 million.
Rice said her decision is subject to conditions that must be met including implementing and adhering to a litter control and maintenance plan. Also, any outdoor waiting area must be physically separated from the public right of way.
The day center is considered a human services facility and its relocation was subject to a 30-day public comment period as well as a hearing before Rice. Dozens of people showed up at the contentious Dec. 19 hearing and testified under oath, which is documented in her response.
Many people were concerned about increased criminal activity, camping and litter that would exacerbate problems in an already downtrodden area.
The property, which used to house the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, is located near where the Harney Heights, Central Park, Rose Village and Fourth Plain Village neighborhoods intersect. Some opponents worried that the day center would decrease home values and questioned why the city was spending $4.3 million on the building and another $500,000 on renovations.
Others called the project a “Trojan horse” since there may be more services in the future to further draw homeless people to the neighborhood.
The city plans to convert about 5,000 square feet of the 26,578-square-foot former state Fish and Wildlife building into a day center that would include laundry facilities, storage, showers, restrooms and other services for people experiencing homelessness.
Those in favor of the relocation said that homeless people would benefit from improved access to services.
Rice’s decision states that “some who testified stated that they had personally experienced homelessness and had become housed and employed as a result of just this type of service.
“All acknowledged that the demand for permanent shelter and broader social services greatly exceeds the capacity of the proposed relocated human services facility; however, supporters urged approval of the instant application as a step in the right direction,” the response said.
Rice concluded: “The concerns expressed by neighboring residential property and business owners were not about the on-site activities during business hours, and no one offered evidence or even put forward allegations that the operation of the day center itself as proposed would cause impacts adverse to surrounding uses.”
Rice is an attorney, not a city employee, and is seen as an impartial decision-maker. She presides over land use hearings in several jurisdictions and determines whether they comply with the law. The Grand Boulevard property is zoned community commercial, which allows for human service facilities so long as they are spaced far enough apart from one another.
The response goes on to say: “Despite the strong feelings and deep worries expressed in written and verbal comments from project opponents, the record contains no empirical data that tend to show their concerns would be realized. Their concerns are best characterized as generalized community displeasure primarily based on stereotypes rather than on professional experience. In weighing these opposing opinions, the undersigned finds the opinions of those who work with and professionally study homeless populations, including law enforcement, to be more persuasive regarding potential impacts to the neighborhood. Washington courts have held that the opposition of the community, without evidence demonstrating that the proposal fails to meet criteria for approval, cannot alone justify a local land use decision.”
Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, testified at the Dec. 19 hearing that the day center would decrease homelessness and its impact on the area. Among those who received housing assistance, 86 percent hadn’t returned to homelessness in two years.
After Rice’s decision was published, Silver said Friday that his agency is excited about the day center approval and appreciates Rice separating fact from fear.
“I think it’s a well-reasoned decision that values data and actual experience and evidence of providing homeless services rather than a gut reaction,” he said.
The city anticipates that each day about 50 people would visit the day center, open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Homeless service provider Share would staff the facility. There are six restrooms with showers and laundry proposed as part of the renovations. The city said the perimeter would be inspected daily to remove litter and ensure there is no inappropriate activity on and around the site.
Pending city council approval, the day center would move from its current location at 1600 W. 20th St.
Last year, the day center helped 146 people gain employment, 97 people find permanent housing and 466 people with transportation in addition to using the facility, according to Rice’s findings. The location inside Friends of the Carpenter’s warehouse was considered to not be viable long-term for several reasons including the size and inability to add showers or laundry facilities.
Any future uses for 2018 Grand Blvd., such as a shelter or other services, would be required to follow the city’s land use permit process. The city is considering repealing the ordinance that restricts the locations of human service facilities and replacing it with updates to zoning codes.