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Feb. 6, 2023

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Site plan for Vancouver’s Providence Academy moves forward intact

City official shrugs off criticism by preservation group

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Concept renderings show the planned "Aegis Phase II" portion of the project to rehabilitate the Providence Academy building and redevelop part of the campus. The planned "Aegis Phase I" buildings are also visible in some of the renderings. Both phases will add mixed-use apartment buildings to the site.
Concept renderings show the planned "Aegis Phase II" portion of the project to rehabilitate the Providence Academy building and redevelop part of the campus. The planned "Aegis Phase I" buildings are also visible in some of the renderings. Both phases will add mixed-use apartment buildings to the site. (The Historic Trust and Marathon Acquisition & Development) Photo Gallery

A plan to construct apartment and retail buildings on Vancouver’s Providence Academy site will move forward as proposed despite a letter from a local historic commission condemning the development.

In early December, members of the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission wrote to city leaders to denounce the proposal, claiming that meager protections had compromised the site and that the entire process had sidelined preservation in favor of development.

In response, Vancouver Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken wrote that he agreed that the Academy was historically significant, but said he must “respectfully disagree” with the group’s concern around the project’s approval process.

“I think most of the commissioners would agree that the field of historic preservation is not an exact science, as it involves a certain amount of informed judgment and allows for interpretations and exceptions,” Eiken wrote.

Original complaints

The preservation commission’s concerns about the proposed mixed-use development near Providence Academy — called the Aegis — focused foremost on its scale.

Once completed, the Aegis is expected to include 140 apartments across two buildings and about 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, as well as a 5,000-square-foot public plaza. The two buildings are slated for the parking lot on the west side of the property, bordering C Street and stretching from East Evergreen Boulevard to East 12th Street.

The new buildings would be larger than the Providence Academy, turning the historic structure “into a secondary building on its own site,” the commission’s letter states.

The commission also claims the scale of the buildings violates a rule in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which dictates that new development “shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.”

The letter additionally complained that the proposed development violates the Vancouver Municipal Code because it would block the view of the Providence Academy building from C Street.

“Providence Academy is a valuable, irreplaceable historic resource that requires focused preservation intent and practice,” the group wrote. “It is the position of the commission that the compromises and priorities behind the proposed development are not appropriate for Providence Academy.”

City’s response

In his letter, Eiken pointed out that the historic commission had reviewed the first phase of Aegis’ design and consulted on its draft before the city council approved the project in August 2018.

During that review process, Eiken wrote, the commissioners argued for a wide range of ideas but ultimately agreed on very little, and only put forward one formal motion: to adjust the size of planters in the plaza.

“I refer to these comments merely to illustrate the broad spectrum of perspectives from the HPC members and certain degree of subjectivity involved,” Eiken wrote. “Despite concerns raised, no other changes to the project design were recommended by the HPC formal vote.”

Eiken went on to address the commission’s concerns about the size of the proposed Aegis development.

“While there is no question the proposed buildings will be large in appearance, especially along C Street, staff found that there would be benefits from the proposed buildings, including will activating (sic) the site and complementing (but not copying) materials and design features of the main Academy Building,” Eiken wrote.

The removal of another non-historic building on the south end of the campus — the former El Presidente Mexican restaurant — opened up a better view of Providence Academy from Evergreen Boulevard, Eiken added. The old restaurant was demolished in March, in preparation for Phase I of the Aegis construction, slated to start this spring.

“Taking these various factors into consideration, staff determined that, on balance, the proposed building is compatible with the main Academy Building and the applicable requirements are met,” Eiken wrote.

However, he did agree with the historic group that the city’s municipal code needed upgrading to improve and clarify preservation requirements. Those changes would require a robust public feedback process and take place in 2020, with implementation in 2021.

Sean Denniston, vice chair of the preservation commission, said that the group would issue a formal response to Eiken’s letter at its Jan. 8 meeting.

About the Academy

Providence Academy is approximately 147 years old, and is one of the oldest major brick buildings on the West Coast.

It traces its roots to the 1850s, when Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Providence opened and operated a one-room schoolhouse at Fort Vancouver. They later solicited donations and built the House of Providence School, now Providence Academy, which operated as an educational institution until 1966.

That was when a prominent Vancouver family, the Hiddens, purchased the Academy. The family rented the building as commercial space for the next several decades.

The Historic Trust bought the campus from the Hiddens in 2015. The Providence Academy needed major structural upgrades, including a new roof, heating and cooling systems, and restoration of the chapel.

To help fund the renovations, projected to total $15 million, The Historic Trust sold a chunk of the land directly to the west of the building. The 3.85 acres are now owned by Marathon Acquisition and Development, the Portland-based developer working with city leaders to build Aegis. In a presentation to the city council, a Marathon representative pitched the project as a mixed-use campus where “modern-day uses” would “merge with history.”

Columbian staff writer