‘The end of phase one:’ Heights District redevelopment plan moves forward despite objections

Two city council members favored waiting for the rezoning plan to be completed before adoption of the development plan

VANCOUVER — After more than two years in development, members of the Vancouver City Council on Monday approved a redevelopment plan for The Heights District, which is expected to bring a new urban hub to the center of the city over the next two decades.

The 5-2 vote came after more than an hour of public testimony and discussion by councilors about the timing of the plan.

The Heights District redevelopment area is shown here from above. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department
The Heights District redevelopment area is shown here from above. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department

Councilors Sarah Fox and Bart Hansen pushed for adoption of the redevelopment plan concurrently with the new Heights Mixed Use (HX) development zone, a somewhat unusual approach, but not unheard of.

Fox, who works as a city planner in Camas, said, it could help to reassure neighbors.

“They are asking for full transparency of the entire plan, a plan that we can’t even adopt right now because we’re going to have another moratorium in place until the zone is finalized,” said Fox. “So I’m also a little confused about why we can’t move forward with this timing change.”

Councilor Bart Hansen agreed, noting the recent community survey that showed residents increasingly feel as though city leadership aren’t listening to them.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that would deny that the neighborhoods around the Navigation Center were significantly harmed,” said Hansen. “This is a chance to show a nugget of respect and that you’re willing to listen to the neighbors.”

But other council members disagreed, pointing to the 18-month process of the plan, which included dozens of public meetings, open houses, and numerous concessions to address the concerns of neighbors.

“The adoption of this plan is the end of phase one and the beginning of phase two,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen before voting yes. “This plan has in it the vision for what we want to have happen in this Heights area. That vision guides the work that will be done to create the zoning, which is the next phase.”

It has been more than three years since the city purchased the former Tower Mall site along Fourth Plain Blvd, between MacArthur Blvd to the west, and Andresen Road to the east. The 63-acre site is part of the larger 205-acre Heights District subarea. It is bounded on the south by the Dubois Park and Evergreen Highlands neighborhoods, with Vancouver Heights and Northwood to the east, Harney Heights to the northwest, and Northcrest to the north.

A map of The Heights redevelopment area. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department
A map of The Heights redevelopment area. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department

The city envisions the 63-acre redevelopment area eventually being home to a mixed use development including 1,340 residential units, 204,000 square feet of commercial space, and 163,000 square feet of institutional space, including a new water facility. A quarter of the residential units would need to be available to people living below the median income level.

It’s a concept known as 20 minute neighborhoods, which are designed to cater to people looking to live and work near the same space, and includes a mix of housing, retail, restaurants, and public parks.

“Fundamentally, it’s about bringing people together in a place that is inclusive, that’s accessible, that brings them joy and adds to the quality of life in our city,” said Rebecca Kennedy, the city planner who has spearheaded the redevelopment planning effort.

While there has been little argument that the former Tower Mall site is underutilized and in need of a facelift, neighborhood groups have increasingly raised concerns about overcrowding, and spillover into well-established neighborhoods as the area builds out.

City planners have responded by removing four churches from the future HX zoning area, lowering the maximum height of buildings adjacent to existing neighborhoods to no more than 31 feet at the peak, and adopting a tiered approach to parking which would require more spaces per residential unit the closer they are to existing homes. They also reduced the previous plan for residential development from 1,800 units, to the current 1,340.

“I think that is reflective of the amount of public engagements that we have done throughout the process and the engagement that the public has put into this plan,” said Kennedy on Monday. “And I really want to say ‘thank you’ to all the stakeholders who have participated.”

A map of The Heights redevelopment area. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department
A map of The Heights redevelopment area. Photo courtesy Vancouver Community and Economic Development Department

Neighbors have called the public engagement process a “good one,” and lauded the city for their willingness to listen and incorporate changes, but they also fear the redevelopment plan may be wishful thinking.

“You focus on sharing, but today’s children are living with isolation and fear,” said Janice Ritter who lives in the Dubois Park neighborhood. “These are the people that will be living here 20 years from now.”

Others argued the city had little to lose by waiting for final approval of the development plan and, in fact, stood to gain trust from the public.

“I think city government has a chance here to look really good,” said Kate Fernald, co-chair of the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition. “You get to support your citizens, and it doesn’t cost you a thing.”

But Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said the development plan needs to be in place to provide clarity for potential developers, and to guide the zoning process.

“We need to set the policy and drive this,” she said, “and this is the end of Stage One.”

In a letter sent to the City Council following the vote, members of the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition urged City Manager Eric Holmes to “proceed expeditiously” to address their concerns.

“Next fall – 2021 – there is a City Council election. Others have been watching Council decisions on related neighborhood issues, including removal of Columbia Street parking and siting of the ‘Navigation Center,’” the group wrote. “We are ‘the neighborhoods’ and we want to see ‘HX Zone’ completed and our other concerns addressed before ballots are cast.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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