Handling of a plan to renovate the Providence Academy site has drawn condemnation from the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission, which said insufficient protections for the 19th-century school have compromised “the most significant historic building in Vancouver.”
In a letter sent to the Vancouver City Council on Dec. 5, commission Chair Alex Gall and Vice Chair Sean Denniston, writing on behalf of the entire commission, criticize the council for moving forward with a proposal to create a mixed-use residential and retail development, called the Aegis, right next to the 146-year-old academy.
According to Gall and Denniston, the plan violates sound preservation principles and fails to follow protections outlined in Vancouver Municipal Code.
“The result is a plan where preservation has consistently taken a back seat to development,” they wrote.
The letter calls on city leaders to implement better protections, including placing the site on the Clark County Heritage Register and implementing a comprehensive preservation plan.
“Providence Academy is a valuable, irreplaceable historic resource that requires focused preservation intent and practice. We recognize the importance of revitalizing the downtown core of Vancouver. We also understand that preservation can require compromise and prioritization, especially for sites and structures whose original use is no longer viable,” Gall and Denniston wrote.
“However, it is the position of the commission that the compromises and priorities behind the proposed development are not appropriate for Providence Academy,” they wrote.
History of the site
Providence Academy’s roots trace back to the 1850s, when Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Providence opened a one-room schoolhouse and hospital at Fort Vancouver. They collected funds over the next 15 years to build the new House of Providence school, dedicated in September 1873 and celebrated as the largest brick building north of San Francisco.
In 1966, Providence Academy graduated its final class. The Hidden family purchased the Academy site three years later, keeping it afloat by renting it out as commercial space before The Historic Trust purchased the property in 2015 for $5 million.
To help cover $15 million worth of ongoing renovations at the Academy — including a new roof, a heating and cooling system, and restoration of the ballroom and chapel — The Historic Trust sold a strategic chunk of the land. The 3.85 acres on the western edge of the site, currently occupied by a parking lot adjacent to C Street, is now owned by Portland-based apartment developer Marathon Acquisition and Development.
In a 2018 presentation to the Vancouver City Council, Marathon described the proposed Aegis development as a “mixed-use urban campus” where “modern-day uses merge with history.”
The developer is aiming to build 140 apartments in two buildings, including about 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and a 5,000-square-foot outdoor public plaza. The new buildings would help “invigorate” the Academy, the company wrote in its presentation, which The Historic Trust is hoping to restore into a public museum and event center.
“In designing Aegis and the site, it was critically important that Aegis does not distract from the Academy. Rather, Aegis will give the historic site new life while preserving the Academy and embracing its architecture, spirit, and history,” a representative for the company told the city council.
Criticism of the plan
In their letter, members of the commission take issue with multiple parts of the proposed redevelopment of the site.
First, they wrote the project would violate a rule in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, a document that guides preservation of nationally protected historic sites. The document stipulates that new development “shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.”
The five-story and six-story Aegis buildings would be larger than the Providence Academy, turning the historic structure “into a secondary building on its own site,” the letter states.
The letter writers also voiced concern that the new apartment buildings would create a visual barrier around the Academy, effectively blocking it off from the rest of downtown. That’s in violation of the Vancouver Municipal Code, Gall and Denniston said, which states that new construction “shall be so located and designed as to preserve views of the main Academy building from East Evergreen Boulevard between the freeway and C Street.”
Additionally, the letter claimed that the Environmental Impact Study preceding the proposed development was insufficient, as it failed to fully recognize the historic nature of the property.
Along with members of the Vancouver City Council, the letter was also directed toward City Manager Eric Holmes, Director of Community and Economic Development Chad Eiken, CEO of the Historic Trust David Pearson and Allyson Brooks, a state historic preservation officer with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Pearson did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Eiken told The Columbian that city leaders planned to issue a formal response to the commission’s letter by the end of the week.