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Sept. 24, 2021

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In Our View: City changing waterfront rules in middle of game

The Columbian
Published:

Discussions about a proposed development along Vancouver’s waterfront contain valid arguments on both sides. But holding up the project because of sustainability requirements not yet in place would amount to changing the rules in the middle of the game.

On Monday, councilors decided to briefly postpone a decision regarding the project just east of the Interstate 5 Bridge. Kirkland Development has proposed invigorating the property — currently inhabited by Who Song & Larry’s restaurant, a recently closed Joe’s Crab Shack and a long-closed public pier — with 140,000 square feet of apartments, restaurant and retail space, a public boardwalk and underground parking.

The council will revisit the issue July 12.

Benefits of the project are clear, primarily connecting portions of the Waterfront Renaissance Trail, which is used by bicyclists, runners and walkers along the Columbia River. As The Columbian wrote editorially in March: “Embracing and celebrating our connection to the Great River of the West with expansive amenities is sure to be envied by other communities along the Columbia River, creating spaces that will be enjoyed for generations.”

As part of the deal, Kirkland Development would replace an aging pier that has been closed since 2007. Dean Kirkland noted that it is an amenity “that the city’s supposed to maintain. It’s sat there decrepit. We want to clean it up. We want to do something huge for the city of Vancouver.”

As part of a deal, Kirkland Development would later receive an eight-year exemption on a portion of the project’s property taxes.

The question, as detailed during Monday’s virtual city council meeting, centers around sustainability goals. The current agreement calls for the project to meet Silver certification under guidelines set by LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Silver is the third-highest of four certification options from the U.S. Green Building Council, behind Platinum and Gold.

“I remain underwhelmed at the sustainability objectives of this project,” Councilor Erik Paulsen said.

Meeting Gold LEED standards could include items such as more efficient water and energy systems, or increased use of sustainable materials — items that increase upfront costs.

A recent Oberlin College study of more than 4,000 office buildings in 10 U.S. cities found that LEED-certified buildings reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent compared with non-certified buildings.

Critics have seized on that to claim that LEED certification is not worth the cost to developers. But those critics ignore another conclusion from the study: “Only LEED offices certified at the gold level demonstrated statistically significant savings in source energy and greenhouse gas emissions as compared with non-LEED offices.” For example, Gold-certified offices reduce on-site energy use by 12 percent compared with non-certified buildings.

That should help inform city officials as they draft a new environmental policy, including ambitious standards for new development. Councilor Ty Stober said, “We are at an awkward time right now. We haven’t clearly defined what our new standards are.”

For now, city guidelines do not require the Gold standard. The Waterfront Vancouver development to the west of I-5 calls for at least the Silver standard, as does the preliminary agreement for the Kirkland Development to the east. Changing the rules at this point would foster mistrust of the city council and could scuttle a project that will enhance the city.

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