Once a bustling hub, Tower Mall has largely fallen silent. One by one, tenants move on, leaving behind a lone security guard roaming the halls of an enclosed shopping mall that’s now just a shell of its former self.
To be clear, there’s a surprising number of enterprises remaining at Tower Mall — 11 in the mall itself — but the facilities want for redevelopment.
For years, downtown Vancouver and much of the eastside have benefitted from investment. At the moment, the city is pushing resources toward the waterfront redevelopment. But as its opening dates draw near, the question for many is what’s next.
The Heights District, formerly known as the Tower Mall, is now on deck.
“One of the major goals is to catalyze investment in this area of the city that hasn’t had it in a long time,” said Rebecca Kennedy, Vancouver’s long range project manager.
The city purchased Tower Mall at auction last June for $5 million.
The 12-acre site includes the 186,000-square-foot enclosed mall at the intersection of East Mill Plain Boulevard and North Devine Road, which is currently anchored by Bethesda Church. The city’s purchase is just a portion of the 25-acre triangular site, which is bounded by MacArthur Boulevard on the south and west.
“What’s unique is it’s this commercial center surrounded by eight different neighborhoods,” Kennedy said. “This is an opportunity to bring together folks of different backgrounds and create a place of opportunity for a lot of our community.”
The city got involved essentially because private development was lacking. And as City Manager Eric Holmes points out, the city has had success with this sort of redevelopment in the past. He cites Esther Short Park and the surrounding area as an example.
“There are, relatively speaking, limited opportunities to do that farther from downtown, so we wanted to do that in an area of the city that really needs it,” Holmes said.
Now that the city has purchased the mall, it will embark on an 18-month planning period. Staff are determined to engage with the community and find a plan that balances city and community needs.
“It’s a difficult balance because we want to make sure the community engagement work we do is genuine,” Holmes said when asked what he would like to see at the site. “I’m hesitant to say anything beyond an urban village concept is really what we’re thinking of there.”
An urban village could host green space, housing and mixed development, but the specifics are to be determined. There aren’t many — if any — direct comparisons to an urban village in the region.
Portland’s Mississippi district could offer a preview of the future, considering the redevelopment may include apartments atop multi-use space. On a smaller scale, the former Pepsi building in Northeast Portland will also be redeveloped into an urban village, but details have not yet been confirmed.
Holmes did say the city wants to take a smart, economic-focused approach to planning. The planning team includes a market economist, which is a nontraditional addition to routine city planning efforts.
“That’s a sign of the approach we’re taking with it,” Holmes added. “We not only want to have something that ultimately improves and creates opportunity to lift up that part of the city, but we also want to be realistic about what can happen. That’s where the economist comes in.”
Ideally, Vancouver residents could walk, bike or take public transit to anything they want to access daily with travel time not exceeding 20 minutes, Kennedy said. The ideal is part of a general development goal the city is working toward. For the Heights District, this redevelopment project is key.
Mall’s current tenants plan to stay put for now
When Vancouver purchased Tower Mall last year, it inherited the existing leases of the tenants onsite.
"Our plan is to honor the leases until they end," said Rebecca Kennedy, Vancouver's long range project manager. No matter what the city decides to do, construction is still years out anyway.
For some tenants, the current Tower Mall is the perfect location. NAMI Southwest Washington, which provides mental and behavioral health services, is hoping to convince the city to let them remain there and build a new office building that would include housing for clients.
"Some of the other agencies here with us now have said they would like to stay at this location," said Peggy McCarthy, NAMI's Southwest Washington executive director. "This is a great location for us because it's on a major bus line, but it also has a lot of parking."
Tower Mall is also close to three different hospitals and within reach of the Clark County Jail.
NAMI has a little more than two years left on its lease, "so we're hoping that in this first pass the city will be able to make a decision about whether they would even consider giving us a space and how much that might be," she said.
Just in case a new lease doesn't work out, McCarthy said the organization is looking for other potential sites, but the current location is ideal to serve the 66,000 or so clients that use its services each year.
"We've even talked to Vancouver Housing (Authority) and they would be a partner with us," McCarthy said of their plan to build a multiuse space. Offering housing as well as its medical services would be a first for any NAMI in the United States, she added.
Bethesda Church currently anchors the mall. It moved into an old supermarket space just three years ago. Ben Straup, senior leader, said they are still working with the city to find a mutually beneficial lease situation.
"We are not sure how this will impact Bethesda at this time. We may or may not advocate to remain onsite," Straup said. "It's really too early to tell. We do love our city and are praying for transitional favor for all parties involved in this redevelopment."
Other tenants, such as Community Services Northwest, are already working on building a new facility. In the meantime, Community Services Northwest has asked the city to lease an additional 1,461 square feet of Tower Mall to accommodate new staffing while its facility is built.
— Katy Sword
Once a plan is in place, and land use is sorted, “all of a sudden you’ve got these eight neighborhoods (where)people can walk and bike and go the places they need to go to,” Kennedy said.
Tower Mall’s heyday
Tower Mall opened in 1971 in an era when two-car families enjoyed the novelty of visiting large, climate-controlled shopping centers where everything they needed was within easy reach of a free parking space. The mall, named for the large water tower across the street, cost $4 million to build. Its original anchor tenants were Safeway and Valu-Mart, a discount general merchandise store. Smaller shops offered clothing, jewelry, housewares, pet supplies, kettle corn and Hallmark greeting cards.
In its first several months, store after store opened until the mall served almost every need. But that bustle was short-lived. Just five years after opening, rumors of a new regional mega-mall, Vancouver Mall, started to spread. That same year two of Tower Mall’s owners tried to sell but were unable to do so until 1979. The mall received a facelift that year under new ownership, but its days as a major shopping center were numbered.
As merchants retreated, social services agencies took their place. Clark College was a major tenant for several years. But as traffic faded, the site became a candidate for redevelopment.
Now, as the city considers its options, a community advisory group will meet monthly with city staff and the consultant team.
“They will provide detailed feedback, they’ll weigh in on key elements of the plan and provide guidance,” Kennedy said.
But there’s still a list of must-haves the city has in mind.
The site needs to have open space and housing — either affordable or mixed-income — and address mobility challenges.
“We also want to integrate transit,” she said. “The next Bus Rapid Transit line is coming down Mill Plain (Boulevard); we want to make sure that’s integrated with this project.”
The city also has an idea of what won’t be on site: a homeless shelter.
“The level of investment would have to be made to make it suitable for that use is astronomical,” Kennedy said. “Well maybe not astronomical, but high.”
The city’s vision is to create a place where the community will once again gather to shop, eat, explore and maybe even live. Neighbors could walk or bike to the site filled with local enterprises. Melissa Layman, co-owner of the River Maiden coffee shop, said she’s optimistic about the process and affirmed what the city believes: it’s time for the Heights District to not only benefit from the booming economy, but add to it.
River Maiden is one of several businesses onsite with a unique perspective. The coffee shop recently relocated to an empty building in the Tower Mall parking lot this year after losing its original space just south of the mall. While River Maiden’s new building is part of the redevelopment area, its space isn’t owned by the city. Layman said she fully intends to stay there.
“We’re just kind of on the side of what’s going on,” Layman said. “So we’re excited to see the progress.”
Layman also lives in the Vancouver Heights neighborhood, and has for nearly two decades.
“Being in the area as long as we have, we get a lot of independent business around us and they’re definitely nervous about what’s going to happen here,” she said. “Same with the residents around us.”
But Layman approves of the steps Vancouver is taking to include the local community in planning.
Vancouver is hosting an open house June 23 to gather input from the community. The open house runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the McLoughlin Middle School cafeteria, 5802 MacArthur Blvd.
Learn more about the plan at cityofvancouver.us/ced/page/heights-district-plan.
“I just think they’re really at people’s disposal,” she said.
Layman added that with all the development downtown and on the eastside, it’s time for central Vancouver to benefit.
Kennedy agrees. She views the Heights District as the next-generation waterfront.
“When it’s all done it will look really attractive and be a place everybody wants to go,” Kennedy said.