An estimated 15,000 people turned out Saturday for the grand debut of Vancouver Waterfront Park. The 7.3-acre park was bustling with visitors checking out the new digs connecting downtown to the Columbia riverfront.
“For years and years, we were just a bedroom community of Portland,” said Eva Halter, who was among about 70 people volunteering at Saturday’s event. “Now we’re a destination. It makes me proud.”
It certainly felt like a tourist destination Saturday as people snapped photos, shot videos and captured footage via drones (both authorized and unauthorized).
Julie Hannon, Parks and Recreation director, called the park opening a historic event. Work on the waterfront began more than a decade ago, but the idea to connect the community to the waterfront is more than 150 years old.
Esther Short — one of the city’s founders and the namesake of Esther Short Park — donated land just east of where officials gave speeches Saturday at Columbia Way and Grant Street. Short wanted to see the land used for economic development and public waterfront access.
“In the ensuing century and a half, we lost track of that vision from Esther Short,” said City Manager Eric Holmes. “Bit by bit, the economic milestones of history — the railroad, the mill, the interstate and the port — incrementally separated the community from the river.”
That vision of making the waterfront publicly accessible was revived with the planning of The Waterfront Vancouver, what Holmes called a vibrant, urban waterfront setting with a world-class park.
“It’s a place where couples will become engaged, where families will celebrate milestones, a place where grandparents will go with their grandchildren, a place to tell strangers about when we meet them on planes and in faraway places, and a place to lure our friends here from out of town,” Holmes said. “While those benefits don’t show up well in a spreadsheet or in a tax roll, they are perhaps the most enduring of all.”
Vancouver Waterfront Park is not quite complete. There’s still grass that needs to grow and plants waiting to be planted on the west end, and a water feature is under construction on the east end that will have a topographical map of the Columbia River watershed and water play area. But, visitors have free run of the park’s meandering pathways and can check out the suspended cable-stayed Grant Street Pier.
On Saturday, street performers enthralled passersby, musicians played on the lawn, and iQ Credit Union gave out about 3,000 sand buckets and shovels, which were promptly put to use by children digging around in the park’s sandy play area. Some children lugged the toys down to the sandy riverfront on the east end of the park where the beach was most accessible.
“I keep pinching myself. It actually feels surreal to be standing here with this open access to our river,” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said before the large crowd that gathered at Grant and Columbia.
She said she’s particularly looking forward to the opening of Maryhill Winery, which hails from Goldendale and plans to open a tasting room next to Twigs Bistro & Martini Bar. Twigs and the WildFin American Grill are both open and were bustling with customers Saturday.
The congresswoman and others noted that the waterfront development is not just a focal point for recreation and tourism but spurs economic development in Vancouver, an area that’s experienced economic highs and lows.
“Isn’t today an especially wonderful day to be a Vancouverite?” said State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver. “This Vancouver waterfront development project is a treasure that I’m sure that we soon won’t be able to imagine ourselves without.”
She noted that the waterfront joins other community-defining projects, such as Officers Row and the renovation of Esther Short Park.
“Here, we have a river that goes from the headwaters of Canada all the way to the Pacific. And now, we get to enjoy a little path of it as it flows through the city of Vancouver. What a treat for all of us,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “All I have left to say — it’s a little confusing sometimes — is Vancouver, British Columbia, who?”
Vancouver, B.C., is actually the home base for PWL Partnership, the landscape architecture firm that designed the waterfront park. Barry Cain of Gramor Development thanked the company for its work. While he said a park was never required for him to develop the waterfront, Cain said one was essential to entice people to visit the river.
“We and the city shared a vision from the beginning: We wanted this to be a world-class waterfront and we wanted it to be a top-five destination for the Vancouver-Portland area,” Cain said. “It’s definitely world-class. There’s no doubt about that. As for being a top-five destination, I can’t for the life of me think of four others that would be above this. I really can’t. I think we did the top.”
Cain began choking up as he thanked his parents, Don and Jean Cain, for their support and announced that The Waterfront Vancouver’s two completed restaurant buildings housing WildFin and Twigs are going to be renamed after them. The couple said it was big surprise for them.
“It’s so nice to be here at a time when the city of Vancouver is ready to put its best foot forward and show its real face because it hasn’t been able to do that for over a century,” Barry Cain said. “I think Vancouver’s well set up for the future now.”