Vancouver will move forward with its plan to replace a 70-year-old operations center facility, a move aimed at improving the city’s capacity to respond to emergencies.
The city council took a step toward constructing the new facility during its workshop Monday evening with a discussion that helped nail down the charter, parameters and timeline for the project. The conversation is still taking place at a high planning level; groundbreaking on the facility is years away.
“This is the largest single project we’ve ever undertaken,” said Brian Carlson, Vancouver’s deputy city manager and former longtime director of its Public Works department. “It’s so exciting for me, personally, to see the level of engagement that the council has had on this project over the years.”
The operations center serves as a hub that allows the Public Works department to respond to a crisis. During a major event or natural disaster, such as an earthquake or wildfire, it acts as a staging area for staff to respond to crises related to the streets, water, sewer, traffic signals and utilities around the city.
The current facility, located at 4711 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., was originally constructed for Clark Public Utilities in 1951 and purchased by Vancouver seven years later.
At the time, the city’s population was less than a quarter of what it is now. The building is now outdated, unable to meet the needs of Vancouver’s new population, and based on a recent seismic study, unable to survive even a moderate earthquake.
“Our vision is building a more accessible, sustainable, resilient operations center to serve the current and future city of Vancouver,” Facilities Capital Projects Manager Jean Singer said.
In 2019, Vancouver purchased a 35-acre site located at Northeast 94th Avenue and Padden Parkway. It’s within Vancouver’s urban growth boundary and water utility district but outside city limits.
The eventual operations center campus at the new site will be designed with future city growth in mind.
“What are the campus requirements for this facility for the next 50 years?” Jennifer Belknap Williamson, Vancouver’s new Public Works director, asked the city council on Monday. “We have developed an assumption of what staffing and maintenance needs will be, based on full service to a reasonable future city limit.”
Details surrounding the new facility are still pretty undefined. While the project is several years in the making — staff started to outline a potential framework in 2017 — the city council isn’t on track to even approve a contract until at least the end of 2021.
A few councilors bristled at the vague nature of the project charter’s current draft.
Councilor Sarah Fox pointed out that the listed values meant to guide the planning process — umbrella terms such as “environmental sustainability” and “inclusion” — don’t tell her much about the actual plans for the facility.
“It feels so general,” Fox said. “What’s the point of the charter when it’s not really adding anything more specific?”
Belknap Williamson explained that those specifics will come into sharper focus as the city moves closer to selecting a project contractor. At this point, she’s prioritizing flexibility in the planning process.
That philosophy applies to funding for the process, too. There’s not yet a concrete plan to pay for the facility, though one option on the table would see the city take out a bond on the project and pay for it with a combination of contributions from the general fund and the utilities fund.
Councilor Laurie Lebowsky suggested the city look at allocating its money from the American Rescue Plan toward the project. Vancouver received a whopping $32.6 million from the federal government to go toward post-pandemic resilience, a lump sum that came with few restrictions on how to spend it.
“There are opportunities with the federal funding we brought in,” Belknap Williamson said.
The Vancouver City Council is on track to approve an official project charter this summer, with plans to send out a request for proposals in September or October. The city plans to authorize a design contract in December.