A century-old landmark in downtown Vancouver faces an uncertain future due to its location in the center of a public redevelopment project.
The Webber Building, a sturdy brick structure at 400 Columbia St., has a storied history — it was home to a blacksmith, and then a machine company, before it eventually became an office space.
It also sits on the Waterfront Gateway Properties, a strategic swath of city-owned land that Vancouver leaders view as key to connecting the city’s historic downtown core to its new development along the Columbia River waterfront.
John Collum, the city’s principal planner, told The Columbian that the eventual master planners for the Waterfront Gateway Properties will need to “look at how the building might fit in with a redevelopment scenario, or how it might impede a redevelopment scenario.”
The Webber Building will stick around through at least 2022, when a lease on the space expires, Collum said. But right now, it’s unknown whether the Webber Building will remain standing through the redevelopment of the property.
That uncertain future motivated local historian Pat Jollota to post on a Facebook group, “Growing Up in Vancouver, WA.”
“Times change. The building became converted to office space and is still a handsome part of Columbia Street,” Jollota wrote. “It is also the only structure of historic value in that area. It deserves to be saved. It deserves to be used.”
The post generated more than 50 comments, many from locals who shared their own memories of the building. Others wanted to know what they could do to save it.
The building has a rich, if occasionally morbid, history.
Joseph Webber and his family ran a blacksmith shop out of the building starting in 1909. When World War I started, Webber and his sons left to work for Standifer Shipyards, Jollota said.
Once the war ended, Webber returned to his blacksmith business, but with the advent of cars, blacksmiths were struggling. So he and his family converted their business to a machine company; “WEBBER MACHINE WORKS” remains emblazoned on the building’s exterior today.
In 1946, Jollota said, Webber wrote his family a note: “Getting to be a burden, Goodbye.” He sat on a workbench and shot himself in the head.
Webber’s sons continued the machinery business for several years. It’s since been converted to office space.
Jollota said in an interview with The Columbian that longtime residents still remember when the building housed a machinery company.
“It was so popular with kids, because if parts of their bike would break, they could have a duplicate part made. They’d do it for them right there,” Jollota said. “Older folks still talk about being able to go there and get parts made for various machines and such.”
Though the building is regarded as a piece of Vancouver history informally, it’s not officially listed as a historic structure; not with the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission, nor the state registry.
Brad Richardson, executive director of the Clark County Historical Museum, said he hoped to get involved with the Waterfront Gateway Properties redevelopment project in some way.
Speaking for himself and not for the CCHM, he added that he hoped that the Webber Building could stay.
“Preserving historic buildings is always something I’m very interested in, especially if they can be reused for new purposes,” Richardson said. “These historic buildings are irreplaceable in their nature.”
The gateway project
The Waterfront Gateway Properties encompass 6.4 acres owned by the city, directly south of City Hall and spanning from Grant Street to Columbia Street. In addition to the Webber Building, the land is being used for city staff parking. About a third of it is covered by vacant, grassy fields.
The land’s strategic location is in its name — it’s a gateway to The Waterfront Vancouver development from historic downtown, and is nearly equidistant between Esther Short Park and Waterfront Park.
Chad Eiken, the city’s community and economic development director, said in a September city council workshop that he hopes the property can transform into a site that Vancouver residents and tourists will “want to visit and revisit.”
In that workshop, the Vancouver City Council reviewed their goals for the area: they hope the area’s development will result in “a branded destination district that connects other key downtown activity areas. … Active, urban, inviting and mixed-use with cross-site pedestrian connectivity,” according to the project intent statement.
The city council may also decide to pass the project to the City Center Redevelopment Authority, a board that steers major development projects in downtown Vancouver. The CCRA will likely manage the planning and development of the Waterfront Gateway Properties, with the city council retaining final approval of any decisions.
Based on a tentative timeline for the property’s redevelopment, the city hopes to complete visioning workshops by the end of this year, select a master developer in the first half of 2020 and approve a master development package in the first half of 2021.
Vancouver is accepting public feedback on the Waterfront Gateway Project through an online portal until Oct. 7. Anyone who wants to comment can do so at beheardvancouver.org/waterfrontgateway.
After that deadline, Collum encouraged anyone interested in commenting on the project to email him directly at email@example.com.
This isn’t the first time the Webber Building faced an uncertain future.
In the 1990s, when the city was looking for a place to build a convention center, original plans would have required the structure’s demolition. Vancouver’s development director announced in 1998 that the city would be able to draw around it to construct what’s now the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
Six years later, the city bought the building so it would eventually have space to expand the convention center. It leased the space to Kramer Gehlen & Associates, a structural engineering firm, who remains in the building today.
Decades before the convention center saga, the building had barely survived demolition, Jollota said.
“We tore so much down in the ’60s, we had urban renewal,” Jollota said. “I call it ‘urban removal.’ They basically just tore everything down in 40 acres. Just leveled everything to the ground.”
There were a few exceptions, she added — the Webber Building, as well as the Slocum House in the southeast corner of Esther Short Park.
“It was a manufacturing era, and area, and that’s the only thing that’s left of that. The shipyard’s gone, the paper mill is gone, the other machine company is gone. And that good old solid brick building is the only one left,” Jollota said. “I’d love to see it preserved.”