Development of Vancouver’s Heights District promises to be transformational, creating a dynamic residential-retail- recreation hub in a long-overlooked section of the city.
In forming a proposal that could take 20 years to be fully realized, city officials have embraced a long-term approach. They have envisioned a project that will prepare the city for a future that is attractive to both residents and employers, with planning manager Rebecca Kennedy saying it is “an opportunity for world-class placemaking.”
Along the way, officials also have listened to the concerns of local residents. Since initial plans were presented, planners have increased parking quotas, imposed landscaping and setback requirements, eliminated plots of land from the proposal, and allowed for more public feedback.
But as Columbian reporter Calley Hair recently wrote, a fundamental problem remains for neighborhood residents: “They didn’t sign up for this.”
Indeed, they did not, and any large development is bound to generate opposition. But being heard does not always mean getting what you desire, and leaders must make difficult decisions about what is best for the future of Vancouver.
The thought of increased density and traffic would be anathema for residents in any neighborhood. As leaders of the Northcrest Neighborhood Association recently wrote to the city council: “What we see is an urban development in the middle of a quiet suburban neighborhood. It is one thing to buy a home in the city; quite another to have a city built next to your home.”
The fallacy is that there is nothing suburban about the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed development. Driving east on Mill Plain Boulevard, the city extends for another 150 blocks — about seven miles; the Heights District is much closer to downtown Vancouver than it is to the eastern city limits. Meanwhile, the area is roughly equidistant from the city limits to the north and the Columbia River to the south.
Heights residents are not in danger of having a city built next to their homes; geographically, they are in the middle of one, where change and development are inevitable.
Vancouver officials in 2017 bought the former Tower Mall location and began formulating plans for the area — a triangular region bordered by Mill Plain, Andresen Road and MacArthur Boulevard. The goal is to create a “20-minute neighborhood,” defined by the city as having “access to a mix of services and amenities (such as stores, restaurants, parks, schools, transit stations) accessible within a 20-minute walk.”
Under a proposal adopted by the city council in August, the number of houses and apartments in the region would increase — over two decades — from 232 to 1,800. New businesses would be expected to generate 650 jobs. As the proposal reads: “The Heights District represents an opportunity to create a new vibrant mixed-use urban neighborhood that is strategically located in the heart of Vancouver. … The District is well-positioned for redevelopment as an up-and-coming neighborhood center.”
Up-and-coming likely has not been mentioned for the area since the Tower Mall opened as the city’s retail hub in 1970. As Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said: “This is an area of the city that had been passed over by the market forces that had transformed downtown to the west, as well as many of the corridors and the neighborhoods in many of the eastern portions of the city.”
City leaders have an opportunity to remedy that oversight, creating a hub that will contribute to a thriving city.