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Friday, December 1, 2023
Dec. 1, 2023

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Southeast First Street median in Vancouver turns into nightmare

Cascade Park Village residents upset they can’t turn left into site

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
A newly installed barrier in front of Cascade Park Village is making life difficult for its residents and their visitors by not allowing left turns into the property. People are often breaking traffic laws to U-turn into the property, or driving the wrong way to access the entrance.
A newly installed barrier in front of Cascade Park Village is making life difficult for its residents and their visitors by not allowing left turns into the property. People are often breaking traffic laws to U-turn into the property, or driving the wrong way to access the entrance. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A new unassuming concrete divider on Southeast First Street is causing large divisions between nearby residents and the city, as the former group argues their health and safety are at stake.

The barrier is designed to reduce conflict points, or where vehicles may try to cross the same path and potentially collide, said Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver Public Works transportation and streets manager. However, it also prevents drivers from turning left into Cascade Park Village, 16500 S.E. First St., forcing a U-turn at the nearest light.

Cascade Park Village resident Catherine Barry, 63, spends her free time as the community’s informal representative, pleading with the city to course correct this portion of its Southeast First Street improvement project. Barry was left dissatisfied with the city’s response.

“It feels like we’re being told we just aren’t important enough to be bothered with,” she said.

Resident Peggy Clements said she has witnessed large trucks — including semis — attempt to do a U-turn. At times, these large vehicles become stuck and must reorient themselves as traffic becomes congested. Although longer waits caused by these events are an annoyance, Clements and other Cascade Park Village residents are more worried about the barrier’s implications on emergency response times.

“Minutes mean survival,” Barry said. “I don’t think it’s reasonable that we’re supposed to possibly witness the loss of one of our friends and neighbors because of a bad design flaw.”

Cascade Park Village is home to more than 250 residents who are at least 55 years old, making it a frequent stop for emergency responders, caregivers and medication deliveries.

Vancouver Fire Deputy Chief Nathan Leek said the fire department consults with the city to minimize impacts caused by street construction projects. He couldn’t confirm whether response times have slowed since the construction began. Regardless, Lopossa said, emergency services aren’t significantly affected by the median, as they modify routes accordingly and can mount the curb with their vehicle.

Design challenges

Southeast First Street runs roughly three miles long. It connects the busy Southeast 164th and 192nd avenues and is one of the last major east-west arterials that the city is bringing up to urban standards.

The street was originally a rural two-lane road with no sidewalks or bike lanes and few street lamps. As the surrounding area developed, it became clear that First Street’s infrastructure would need to evolve alongside it.

Cascade Village residents said much of their frustration stems from the lack of explored alternatives, such as rerouting their neighborhood’s driveway to line up with Southeast 166th Street along with a stop light. Doing so would allow residents to safely navigate the intersection, they said.

City planners originally investigated this design but pivoted to the current plan because of a pesky roadblock: a Clark Public Utilities substation. Rerouting the driveway to Southeast 166th Street would lead it through the corner of the utility’s property.

“We were willing to give up the access as long as we could have access on the east side,” said Dameon Pesanti, Clark Public Utilities media specialist.

Although the roadblock could have been circumvented, city staff concluded that the cost outweighed the benefit, as a single-family home sits east of the substation.

“The cost of doing all of that was really starting to spiral,” Lopossa said. “Anytime we look at this kind of work, we have to look at how much money we are spending versus how much of a benefit we are getting.”

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City staff showcased the current design for Southeast First Street in early 2020. Due to the pandemic, in-person events were slashed and, instead, the city mailed an information packet to those impacted by the project. Out of the roughly 250 Cascade Park Village residents, only a handful replied, Lopossa said.

Barry denied receiving a notification.

“Our assumption was folks understand what we’re doing (and) why we’re doing it,” he said. “It didn’t seem like there’s too much of an issue there, so we elected to go ahead and proceed.”

Admittedly, Lopossa said, city officials could have communicated current information by pushing it out more frequently, especially considering the community’s high turnover rate.

Barry says the city is being hypocritical about the median protocol, because left turns into a nearby business park on the other side of the street are permitted. However, this outcome was the result of negotiations between the city and the park’s owner, which required the latter to close one of its four entrances into the property.

In response Cascade Park Village residents created a petition to either remove the barrier in front of the property and add a left-turn lane or move the driveway to 166th Avenue. Barry said they plan to send the list of signatures to whoever will listen, whether it’s at the city, county or state level.

“I know that seems frustrating to the folks in Cascade Park because they say, ‘Well how come he gets a left?’ ” Lopossa continued. “That was part of the process and working with (the owner) to get one of his driveways actually removed.”

Bandage solution

Southeast First Street construction is moving forward, much to the dismay of Cascade Park Village residents who watch the process unfold from the edge of the lot’s property. But there may still be a solution to their qualms.

The city identified a secondary driveway that leads to the back of the lot, which is currently blocked by a padlocked gate. Opening this access point could allow for a simpler flow in and out of the neighborhood, providing a happy medium for residents and the city, Lopossa said.

For Cascade Park Village residents, opening the locked gate isn’t an option.

The padlocked gate is the community’s only amenity that makes it competitive with other affordable rental parks that have appealing perks, such as a pool, Barry said.

“It will lower the property values and make it harder for us to sell our homes,” she said. “We have the highest sales of anybody in this area because the lot rent is so high, and with inflation so many people are being forced out of their homes. They need every penny that they can get to survive.”

Many residents at the park own their homes but must pay rent for the land they sit on — a rate that has more than doubled, from $500 to $1,050 a month, between 2015 and 2022. Furthermore, there isn’t a state law that caps rent increases, leaving those in the retirement community feeling helpless and subjected to hiked-up prices.

For Barry, those in the quaint neighborhood are grasping at anything that may keep rent costs reasonable enough to convince people to stay — like the padlocked gate. After receiving a letter from property management on Aug. 25, residents felt even more alone in their efforts to advocate for themselves.

“When construction started, we were not made aware of what (the city’s) plan was and were just as frustrated to watch this unfold,” the letter read. “With that being said, unfortunately, we had no say in it nor can we do anything about it. All questions, concerns or complaints should go to the city.”

Deer Point Meadows Investments, the property management company that owns Cascade Park Village, did not respond to The Columbian’s multiple attempts to contact them.

“I mean, I love the waterfront, it’s beautiful,” Barry said, referencing the city’s infrastructure projects. “(But) maybe we need to focus on the people that are already here and how we help them. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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