The promise comes as the city changes course on Block 10 development
VANCOUVER — Before officially voting to end negotiations with Gramor Development in pursuit of a grocery store for Block 10, Vancouver City Council members spent time discussing the obvious need for an oasis in the food desert that is downtown Vancouver.
At the request of Councilor Laurie Lebowsky, a resolution to open discussions with Holland Partners for an 11-story office building at Block 10 was pulled from the consent agenda for discussion. Her purpose, Lebowsky said, was to talk about potential ways the city could incentivize healthy grocers to move into the city. Those ideas could include waving up-front costs, such as permitting fees, impact fees, or development charges.
“If this program is effective in the city center, we may want to consider doing something similar in other parts of the city,” said Lebowsky.
Such a move would be similar to the one Ridgefield adopted to bring Rosauers grocery into that city.
“But it’s a very broad ordinance so if we were to do something similar in Vancouver we’d really want to narrow the scope so it’s not applicable to everything,” said Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken, adding that waving all of those fees could amount to “tens of thousands of dollars.”
Eiken said there is another tool the city could potentially wield.
“I think one are where we might do some research is on parking. What we’ve heard is that grocery stores need a lot of parking and typically the customers that are going to grocery stores don’t want to pay for parking,” he told the council. “So that was one thing that was raised in the discussions. Perhaps there may be some use of public funds to pay for some parking somehow.”
The conversation comes as the council voted to end a year-long process with Gramor trying to land a grocer at the long-vacant Block 10. The decision came after conversations with multiple brick-and-mortar grocers failed to land a tenant. Fear over the future of the business in the wake of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, in addition to a lack of housing downtown and difficulty finding parking, were cited as the main reasons for a lack of suitors.
Instead, the city will enter negotiations with Holland Partner Group to build a new 11-story office building that will act as the property developer’s new headquarters. Holland also has plans for a seven-story development to include 116 units of workforce housing.
“I remain committed to finding a grocery store option that will address the food desert in downtown Vancouver,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen. “And by no means is my support for moving forward with this development an indication of a lessening of that commitment.”
Mayor Pro Tem Bart Hansen said it’s his view that focusing on growing the number of residential units downtown will be the key to eventually finding a grocer willing to move into the city.
“I think that if you continue to develop and get that density up there you’re going to get what you’re looking for,” said Hansen. “I recently had a back and forth with some folks online about how we’re not doing enough for affordable housing and this is just one more way we’re helping out developers. You know … prior to 2010 we had zero units going in for affordable housing, and from 2010 to 2017 we had 496 units go in. So we went from ‘we’re doing nothing’ to ‘we’re not doing enough.’ That’s success.”
Outgoing Councilor Bill Turlay said it’s his opinion the council doesn’t need to make special exceptions to get a grocer to come downtown, and that in a few years the food desert problem may be solved by easy and affordable food delivery services.
“I think the marketplace will find its own niche and provide food to the residents of downtown Vancouver,” said Turlay.
Paulsen, though, countered that having healthy food options within walking distance can add to the affordability of housing in a downtown area.
“And so for us to think in those terms and be artful in how we use the tools at our disposal to attract a grocery amenity to the downtown area and possibly other similar deserts,” said Paulsen, “I think, could be a good an innovative use of some of the tools we wouldn’t traditionally use in that way.”
On the parking situation, Councilor Ty Stober said it’s his understanding that many Whole Foods locations within cities provide validated parking, though he didn’t know if those were local government subsidies or an investment paid for by Amazon.
Eiken said staff would examine what options might be available to help lure a grocer into downtown, as well as continuing to look for potential properties that could suit them, and return to council at a later date with a recommendation.