The City of Vancouver is working with private investors on a $1.5 billion makeover of its downtown waterfront. Anchored by a pier that extends 90 feet into the Columbia River with a towering metal beam and cable suspensions that evoke a nautical sail, the development spans more than 30 acres on land that once belonged to a paper mill. Today, it boasts a seven-acre park that connects to restaurants, wine tasting rooms, offices and housing, including luxury condos with river views. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle joins us to talk about the waterfront development and how it aligns with the city and region’s growth.
Editor’s note: Steve and Jan Oliva are investors in the Vancouver waterfront development project. They are also funders of Think Out Loud.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Vancouver, Washington is in the middle of a multi-year, multi-billion dollar makeover. At the center of it is the still new waterfront park that opened a few years ago. New shops and restaurants came online this spring and a high profile hotel and condo is expected to open this summer. Many more residential units and retail spaces are in the works. Given all of this growth, we wanted to get a sense for the future vision for the second largest city in the Portland Metro area. So we’ve called up Ann McEnerny-Ogle, the Mayor of Vancouver. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Ann McEnerny-Ogle: Good morning, Dave.
Miller: For people who haven’t been to the waterfront in the last three years or so, can you describe what it looks like right now?
McEnerny-Ogle: [Laughing] Well, it’s absolutely gorgeous and you’ll need to find a parking spot, get out of your car and walk the waterfront. So it’s west of the I-5 Bridge and you can start most anywhere. But you’re walking along a beautiful path with the beautiful, mighty Columbia River to the south of you, a large, large sidewalk with greengrass, places to sit on retaining walls and such, lots of Gingko trees, beautiful lighting, very tall buildings on the north side of the street with hotels and condos, ice cream places, lots of wineries, a great coffee shop, some wonderful restaurants and then you can head out onto that beautiful 90 foot pier, that cable-stay pier that sits out over the Columbia River. You feel like you’re on the Titanic in the middle of the ocean out there and it’s just gorgeous. You can watch the sailboats and the sea lions go up and down the river and just enjoy nature or you can go and have a glass of wine.
Miller: Let’s take a step back. I do want to come back to the park because I’m interested in the role that it plays in the development as a whole. But before all of this, before everything you’ve just described, how much of a connection was there between downtown Vancouver and the river?
McEnerny-Ogle: Dave, unless you were on the east side of the I-5 bridge, you didn’t have a connection here. This was blocked off for over 100 years and it was a heavy industrial area blocked off by the BNSF Railroad Berm and you couldn’t get into this area. So 25 years ago when the Boise-Cascade Paper Mill closed back in the late 90′s, the city and developers started to take a look at this area with a different set of eyes, and they realized that it was an opportunity they couldn’t miss. So you think about all of the old, old lumber mills and how it was used, it was a paper mill. There were snaggly-looking trees along the river, blackberry bushes. We had to go in and really take a look at what was underneath all of that, and how it could be used. That meant working with BNSF to punch through two holes in that berm, clear the land, clear the riverbed – and there’s a half a mile of riverbed there that needed to be totally rebuilt and all of the things over 100 years that you can imagine that were dumped in the river, all of that cleaned up, that entire bed cleared out and then a total redevelopment – a plan and a lot of folks working together to make this something beautiful and welcoming.
Miller: What were some of the financial challenges there, because if I’m not mistaken, so Boise Cascade, it…it closed up shop 25 years ago, but the purchase of the property, and when the ball really started getting rolling, was right at the beginning of the Great Recession. What did that mean?
McEnerny-Ogle: [Laughing] Well, you got that right. So what it meant, a consortium of local community leaders and developers came together and they purchased the former mill site would be just before that recession, about 2007. So in 2008, you can imagine the headwinds and doubt about the future of that waterfront. But you had a Vancouver City Council that stood there and wanted to work with this cooperation, this consortium if you would. So working together with Senator Patty Murray and our Federal folks, our delegation, the Washington Legislators. We had, we had our local government, in fact, we had, oh, five different election cycles, Mayors and Councilors all through this entire process, but we also had the private donors and they were local donors. They were local developers, local business folks who wanted to make this happen. So all of these community leaders and developers got together and said, we can do this, and make it through that recession. That wasn’t easy because it took us quite a bit of time, energy and money to decontaminate an old industrial site, to move part of a railroad berm, to work with BNSF. As you know, that’s not easy to do. But it took a lot of funding from a lot of different sources cobbling together… So about $75 million dollars in public funds to make this happen and to get this kicked into gear.
Miller: What is the city going to get for those public funds, and it’s not just city money, as I understand it, but this is, this is $75 million dollars of public money. What are Vancouver residents going to get for that?
McEnerny-Ogle: About $1.5 billion worth of investment. When you think about 75 million invested with a, with a come back of about 1.5 billion, that’s not too bad. Taking an old industrial site, turning it into spaces that the public has access to the river, that’s transformative to a community. So just housing and offices and restaurants and community spaces, one thing. The investment of sales tax on all of the development that happened throughout, their property taxes throughout all of that. It could have stood empty for years and years and years, but instead, those funds are coming back to repay all of those debts that the Council’s and such went out on. But it’s also, it means that the quality of this project helped, if you would, raise the expectations of what public spaces can be. Think about all of the wonderful places that you want to go, and this shows the public what we could do together.
Miller: I think that you’re you’re talking here again partly about the park and I want to turn back to that, because I’ve visited many times and I mean, I personally think it’s an extraordinary place with the pier that juts out like the prow of the ship that you mentioned, the stones that represent all the different rivers in the Columbia Basin, the enormous paper mill machinery that was unearthed and then became huge things that people can play on, but also sort of, be in touch with history that goes back a hundred-plus years. I’m curious what role you think this park itself plays in the broader development, which is not specifically about the park, you know, whether it’s retail or condos or hotels. What role does the park play?
McEnerny-Ogle: I think the park as a whole is another gathering place. It’s, well, last September, the September 11th Observance that we usually do here in the City of Vancouver, we held down there in that park, and we had thousands of people join us with the fly-over, the Air Force, all of the ships and our fire boat on the water. It’s a gathering place. It’s a place for concerts, for the children to play, as you talked about with the Columbia headwaters water feature. It’s a new gathering place for us to come together, relax, enjoy nature, but also gather for those ceremonies, for those cultural festivals, for those remembrances. An opportunity if you would, to join together. We love our parks. This Esther Short Park is filled with concerts and festivals and events. This is another gathering place as we can, you know, the front room, if you would, to sit together and enjoy each other’s company, but also to remember and to celebrate.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about major developments in Vancouver with the city’s Mayor, Anne McEnerny-Ogle. I should note that Steve and Jan Oliver are among the investors in the Vancouver Waterfront Development Project. They are also funders of Think Out Loud. Mayor McEnerny-Ogle, homelessness and housing affordability are obviously huge issues on both sides of the Columbia right now. How do you think about affordability in the context of this new development?
McEnerny-Ogle: Affordability is…that’s a tough word. This is market rate, this is a private development. We invested in the roads, the water, sewer, infrastructure as we would in any part of the city. But this is a private development, and you have 21 blocks that private developers purchased and they’re developing that. We have affordable housing elsewhere as we are developing throughout our city for all of the housing pieces and the homeless pieces that we’re working on. And we use the funds from this development to improve other parts of the city just for that reason.
Miller: Do you have the sense that… I guess the reason I ask is I was wondering if you have either data or just a sense that making a place, a city like Vancouver, more attractive to visitors or potential new residents, is going to necessarily mean that overall housing prices are just going to get higher. In other words, I don’t know how you’d make a city more exciting, more vibrant, more visible or exciting for people to want to live in, without making rental rates or home prices higher.
McEnerny-Ogle: I don’t know either, Dave. As as this is coming on, we do have tourism and recreation and hotels going in there and we use those funds for all of our housing projects with Vancouver Housing Authority, for example. So we do have a housing problem. We do have a homeless problem and we’re working on those, but we’re using the funds from Tourism and all of these other opportunities to pay for that solution. So, it’s a balancing act. It’s not an easy one, but we’re trying our best to balance that problem.
Miller: As you look forward, say 10 or 20 years into the future, a timeframe that is not unreasonable, given how, how long the time frame of this development has already been, how sort of forward looking it’s already been. Do you envision a different relationship between Portland and Vancouver because of the way Vancouver is changing?
McEnerny-Ogle: Well, it’s an evolving relationship, Dave. I think …as there’s lots of individuals, so we’re building the I-5 bridge. We are a Region and people come to us for different reasons. We go to Portland for different reasons. We may come for your Portland Art Museum, you may come over for our Vancouver Symphony. It’s a Region that we travel between for jobs, for economic development, for tourism. You have, if you have opportunities that we don’t have and we’re starting to develop opportunities that folks in Tigard, Tualatin, Beaverton, Gresham are coming over to enjoy. It’s an economical-transportation Region that is ever-evolving. And so we share the same problems that Portland and the Metropolitan Region have. When you have a forest fire, we’re sucking that air, we’re sharing the same water. Our water comes from the aquifers under the Columbia River, we share that. So we are a Region, but we’re also working together so that whether it’s housing or economic development or transportation, we’re all taking a look at how it impacts each other. So the relationship does evolve. We may have more jobs over here in the future. So as we look at the opportunity, people will be working from home, and home may be Clark County, so they don’t need to drive into Portland’s or head over to Intel in Beaverton. Things are changing, life is changing and the waterfront and the development of the city is just one of those pieces.
Miller: Anne McEnerny-Ogle. Thank you very much.
McEnerny-Ogle: You bet. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Miller: Anne McEnerny-Ogle is the Mayor of Vancouver. Tomorrow on the show, the leadership of Blue Mountain Community College in Eastern Oregon says they need to close Academic programs and lay off faculty because of a major budget shortfall. The faculty union says the cuts are unnecessary and the result of poor decision making. We’re going to hear from both sides. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
Announcer: Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliver, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Ray and Marilyn Johnson and the Susan Hammer Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
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