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News / Business / Clark County Business

Crossing the Columbia River a constant in a developing Vancouver

As Vancouver has grown and changed, so has the city's waterfront

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 6, 2023, 6:02am
2 Photos
New development along the Vancouver waterfront rises behind the former Red Lion Hotel at the Quay earlier this year. The hotel is in the early stages of demolition.
New development along the Vancouver waterfront rises behind the former Red Lion Hotel at the Quay earlier this year. The hotel is in the early stages of demolition. (Mark Bowder/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When Vancouver’s city manager began his career in Clark County in the ’90s, Portland’s bedroom community to the north was perhaps best known for its strip malls, downtown cardrooms and the abandoned Lucky Lager brewery building — aptly located across from the beer can-shaped Smith Tower.

Today, Eric Holmes believes Vancouver is on the cusp of a new era, one in which Vancouver is turning into an urban city with intentional growth, greater population density and burgeoning economic opportunities. According to Holmes, the region has experienced four previous eras.

Perhaps the only constant from the first era — when Native Americans first called the land home — to now is the need to deal with the mighty Columbia River.

The solution has evolved with the region, from canoes and rafts to ferries, to the Interstate 5 Bridge and, soon, to the bridge’s replacement. The crossings and city have grown together; the ferry system was fine in 1890, but by 1905, it was clear a bridge was needed.

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When Vancouver’s city manager began his career in Clark County in the ’90s, Portland’s bedroom community to the north was perhaps best known for its…

The bridge’s replacement is both a symptom of and a catalyst for Vancouver’s growth.

“Everything is being done with the bridge replacement in mind,” said Holmes, Vancouver’s manager since 2010.

Eras of change

Vancouver’s first era, to Holmes, was also its longest. During the thousands of years before European settlers, Native Americans crisscrossed the river in canoes, trading dried fish, baskets, berries, skins and shells that served as currency, according to the Oregon Historical Society.

In Holmes’ second era, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the military outpost at Fort Vancouver came into being on the water’s edge in the 1820s. Until 1846, when the first semi-regular ferry service between Portland and Vancouver started, the only way to cross the Columbia was by canoe or log raft.

The third phase was marked by the industrialization of the early 20th century: the Interstate Bridge, rail extension, the shipyards. The city’s population more than tripled in size from 12,000 in 1920 to 41,000 in 1950.

The rapid population expansion didn’t fully take place until the 1990s, when Vancouver’s population of 46,000 ballooned over 200 percent to 143,000 as characterized by the strip malls, subdivisions and suburban sprawl to the east. But there was no real heart or center of the city.

Today, nearly 200,000 people call Vancouver home. Still, about 65,000 Clark County residents commuted to Portland for work in 2019, with about 17,000 commuting from Portland to Clark County.

Downtown

Gone are the days of Joe’s Crab Shack and the Red Lion drably welcoming people to Washington. Today, The Waterfront Vancouver development greets drivers as they summit the I-5 Bridge hump.

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Residents and visitors alike often marvel at the developing scene. It’s a point of pride. One persisting criticism, however, is the lack of connections between it and downtown due to the railroad.

The replacement is likely to change that.

Because the new structure will be elevated, Main Street, which currently dead-ends at the southbound Interstate 5 ramp, can be extended under the bridge to create another connection between uptown and the waterfront.

Mike Bomar, director of economic development for the Port of Vancouver, thinks the waterfront is a snapshot of what the rest of Vancouver is becoming.

“I don’t think the waterfront is ‘instead of’ the rest of Vancouver,” he said. “I think it’s maybe an early symptom of what we anticipate to see Vancouver becoming.”

Development in downtown and on the waterfront is planned with the replacement in mind. Take two marquee projects: Terminal 1 and the Renaissance Boardwalk.

Terminal 1, to the west, is envisioned to be Vancouver’s Pike Place Market. It will feature mixed-use buildings, office space, apartments, stores, restaurants and a public market. The Port of Vancouver is in charge of the project.

The Renaissance Boardwalk, to the east, is scheduled to be a public boardwalk with luxury housing and retail options as well as a parking complex. The project is spearheaded by Vancouver-based Kirkland Development.

Holmes and Bomar said the new structure’s proximity is a consideration as the two projects move forward.

“The alignment of the bridge, the height of the bridge, the ultimate design of it I think will happen in a way that has no diminishing effect at all on the waterfront,” Holmes said.

“We’ve intentionally phased our project and held off on some of (the projects closer to the bridge) to be able to wait until we better understand what those impacts will be,” said Bomar.

Freight

An evening stroll up Main Street from the waterfront, say perhaps from Twigs to Ice Cream Renaissance, may sound delightful — even with having to walk under the freeway — it’s a good bet that part of that night out arrived via I-5.

“I-5 is our lifeblood in terms of moving products in and out for the region,” Bomar said.

Said Bomar: A general average of $121 million a day flows over the bridge; that’s $35 billion a year.

Of the 3,000 trucks that go to and from the Port of Vancouver every day, about 1,800 — 60 percent — go over the bridge.

Freight traffic is increasing too: Between 2005 and 2019 the average weekday volumes on the I-5 Bridge increased 5 percent for general traffic and 28 percent for freight traffic. I-205 saw a 45 percent increase in freight traffic over that time.

The port is uniquely located. Being the furthest inland deep water port on the Columbia River gives it an economic advantage as it is often cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, to stay on water for as long as possible.

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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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Columbian staff writer