Pandemic response highlights ‘unusual’ Vancouver State of the City address

Rather than a live speech, Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and the city released a produced video version

VANCOUVER — Sitting in front of a camera, reading from a prompter, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle reflected on a “most unusual year,” during her State of the City Address for 2021.

It came a year after the pandemic was first fully unfolding. A plan to initially have McEnerny-Ogle address an empty room at City Hall was canceled at the last minute.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle delivers her State of the City address recapping 2020. Photo courtesy City of Vancouver
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle delivers her State of the City address recapping 2020. Photo courtesy City of Vancouver

This year, the address marked a possible further shift in the way such things are done, with a professionally produced video featuring footage illustrating the mayor’s points, interview segments, and a wider audience through Clark-Vancouver Television and the city’s social media channels, including YouTube and Facebook.

“In an environment of uncertainty, the city remains strong,” the mayor said. “We are resilient and moving forward toward reopening.”

The bulk of the 30-minute speech focused on the city’s efforts to address the pandemic, including adjusting to allow many city employees to work from home, taking measures to protect those who had to go to work, and even temporarily furloughing many non-essential staff for a time.

Parks and Recreation employees were chief among them, as the city shut down parks and closed community centers at the height of the pandemic. Many of them returned earlier this year when the city and Clark County Public Health opened the Tower Mall no barrier testing site, which has since expanded to include a community vaccination clinic four days a week.

“We had to reimagine operations as we focus on adapting and evolving with a priority on continuing to serve our residents, while protecting the health of our employees and the community,” said McEnerny-Ogle.

Outside of city operations, there was a pivot to helping businesses impacted by the pandemic remain afloat through closures and a loss of business. The city waived its business license surcharge for 2020, and helped to distribute over $1 million in grants to small businesses along with Clark County, “with a focus on women and minority-owned ventures,” added the mayor.

The city also launched the Street Eats initiative last Summer in partnership with the Vancouver Downtown Association, which allowed restaurants to expand seating outdoors while indoor dining was prohibited or greatly restricted. That pilot program has now been extended another three years, “to provide restaurants further opportunity to get back on their feet and attract business, and to provide residents the safety of outdoor dining.”

Development recovering rapidly

McEnerny-Ogle noted that commercial permits dropped by 30 percent in 2020 as the pandemic slowed the growth of new businesses, but permit applications for new single family homes rose 70 percent, and 5,500 multifamily residential permits issued last year nearly equaled 2019.

“At the beginning of the pandemic development activity initially dropped significantly,” said the mayor. “But as restrictions were eased, activity resumed fairly quickly and is now back to pre pandemic levels.”

The city is also well underway on several significant development projects, including a six-story multi-use building on Block 10 downtown, which was sold by the city last year.

On the east side of the city, a 179-acre mixed use development is set to begin on the former HP campus which will be known as the Vancouver Innovation Center, and a 100-acre redevelopment on the former Fisher’s Quarry will bring a mix of commercial, office, light industrial, and residential uses to the area. 

The Vancouver Clinic recently opened a new clinic at the Columbia Palisades development on the former rock quarry at 192nd Ave and SR-14, which is also slated to see 600,000 square feet of commercial space. A multifamily condominium is also under development at the site.

The city council also approved final development plans for The Heights District last August, including the Tower Mall site, which is expected to eventually bring a major redevelopment to around 200 acres in the central part of the city. Over the next 20 years the city expects to see a mix of housing, employment, retail, and parks come to that area.

Also this past year, the city finalized plans for a new affordable housing development along Fourth Plain known as the Fourth Plains Commons, which will include a community center and food entrepreneur incubator on the ground level.

“This partnership with the Vancouver Housing Authority, and Fourth Plain Forward will be a tremendous asset and catalyst for the Fourth Plain area.,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

Progress also continues at a rapid pace for the downtown Waterfront area, including two new hotels, condominiums, apartments, restaurants and wineries. Vancouver is also working to finalize a developer agreement with Kirkland Properties for a mixed-use development on waterfront property east of the Interstate Bridge.

Equity under the microscope

Outside of the pandemic, 2020 may be most noted for its focus on racial injustice. 

In the wake of the in-custody death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is now the subject of an ongoing murder trial, protests and riots broke out across the United States.

Following that outcry, and several officer-involved shooting incidents in Clark County involving black men, Vancouver City Council moved to put racial injustice and equity front and center.

That included a policy statement from city council members pledging a commitment to acknowledging systemic racism, and a focus on equity and inclusion. The city also held a series of listening sessions to hear from members of the community about their own experiences with racism.

“These opportunities helped inform our next steps as we move forward to address the systemic inequities in our community,” said McEnerny-Ogle. 

A focus on policing reforms had already begun following a series of officer-involved shootings in 2019, resulting in a list of 84 recommendations from the Police Executive Review Forum (PERF). McEnerny-Ogle said the top 10 recommendations have already been implemented, including the creation of a community task force on policing and the addition of more full-time mental health professionals to assist officers with crisis calls in the field. 

The city is also working to implement a police camera program which would include body worn cameras, as well as video recording inside patrol cars and on the dashboard.

City Attorney Jonathan Young has also begun a review of how certain laws might impact minorities disproportionately. That resulted in a diversion program for people charged with Driving While Suspended in the 3rd Degree.

The city also recently announced the hiring of a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Director, who will arrive in April.

Homelessness less of a focus

In her speech, McEnerny-Ogle touched on homelessness, but signaled the city’s view that tackling the crisis will increasingly be handled at the county level, though with Vancouver as a close ally.

“By participating with the county in a Joint Executive Group on Homelessness, the city is pleased to be a significant supporting partner in finding solutions to this critical issue,” said the mayor.

That included a $2.5 million investment towards a new non-congregate shelter at the former Howard Johnson hotel site near Vancouver Mall, which will be run by Catholic Charities of Western Washington.

The shift was accentuated recently after the city announced it was entering negotiations with Fort Vancouver Regional Library to sell a building on Grand Boulevard which previously housed a day shelter and was viewed as a potential one-stop-shop for homeless services in central Vancouver.

The full 2020 City Report is available online at this link.

City Council sets priorities

Also announced on Monday was a framework of priorities for Vancouver City Council the remainder of this year and through 2022.

Those included revisiting the Stronger Vancouver initiative, which was put on a shelf early in the pandemic due to concerns over funding. It included potential funding options for new parks, increased fire and police services, and investment in transportation infrastructure.

Several elements of Stronger Vancouver were carried forward through 2020, including the completion of the new DuBois Park, and upgrades at several others, in addition to an expansion of Water Station 1, which included a four million gallon holding tank.

The city also replaced thousands of street lights with more energy efficient LED lights, saving $500,000 that will be used to pay for their installation and pay for more energy upgrades.

McEnerny-Ogle said policing reforms, transportation, housing and homelessness, the Heights District plan implementation, and supporting efforts to replace the aging Interstate Bridge will all be among the upcoming council’s top priorities.

“The values and priorities that the council shaped together is our roadmap for decision making over the next biennium,” said McEnerny-Ogle. “Our commitment to lead with courage and ensure that the values of inclusivity and resiliency guide our actions underscores our focus to grow a strong vibrant community for all.”

The guiding values were agreed upon during a recent Council retreat, and will also focus on climate action and community safety. 
The full report can be found here.