City leaders are working to implement a plan to transform one of central Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods into a major urban core over the coming decades.
For some of the people who already live there, however, that’s not exactly a selling point.
The area is filled with suburban streets, three schools, five churches, Park Hill Cemetery and the Vanco Golf Range. A bustling metropolis, it is not.
“I know, in talking to a lot of neighbors, you move to this neighborhood in particular because you want to be in a neighborhood with a bunch of houses, and we love the churches,” said Michelle Briede, co-chair of the Evergreen Highlands Neighborhood Association. “A lot of us go there, send our children there.”
She was addressing a full gymnasium of concerned residents at Marshall Elementary School on Feb. 4, in an emergency joint neighborhood association meeting to address the potential changes.
Briede is among the neighborhood leaders who organized an opposition campaign ahead of Tuesday, when the Vancouver Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the final adoption of the Heights District Plan.
The group scrambled to get the meeting together after an Environmental Impact Statement for the project was released to the public on Jan. 22, Briede said.
Several people spoke to express their frustration with a plan that would regard sleepy community amenities, like green spaces and church grounds, as “underutilized” space.
“I take issue with that term, ‘underused,’” said Cathie Joy Young, one of the residents who attended the neighborhood meeting.
“I lived in Portland since 1985, I moved here the summer of ’18 because it’s unaffordable, it’s completely congested, the traffic is terrible, and people are living on top of each other,” Young said. “So if you want to keep this a livable city, you’ve got to watch what you’re doing, and using that sort of language — think about what that says for livability.”
The Heights District Plan
The Heights District Plan would turn 205 acres into a mixed-use development, modeled as a kind of secondary downtown where people could live and work.
The plot is mostly bordered by MacArthur Boulevard to the south and west, East Mill Plain Boulevard to the north and Andresen Road to the east, though a few parcels of land extend beyond those borders.
At the district’s core is a 63-acre property known as Tower Mall, which the city purchased in 2017 as a strategic investment to guide the direction of the neighborhood.
The development concept for the whole region — called The Grand Loop — would provide a framework for the area’s growth over the next 20 or 30 years. It proposes high-density uses in the site’s center, with a residential neighborhood around Park Hill Cemetery and businesses along MacArthur Boulevard. The plan would preserve 2 acres of park space within the district.
The draft plan was presented to the city council almost exactly a year ago by Rebecca Kennedy, Vancouver’s long-range project manager. She said the dense district could provide an opportunity to build out some desperately needed housing, especially as the city continues to add more people in the next 20 or 30 years.
“The city is growing,” Kennedy said in the February 2019 city council meeting. “People move here every day, and we need to accommodate that growth.”
Since then, members of the community have had a chance to provide feedback on the plan, both with online service and at in-person workshops hosted by the city.
The Jan. 22 Environmental Impact Statement included proposed updates to the area’s zoning, with changes that raised some existing residents’ eyebrows.
One proposal would create a new zone designation, called Heights Mixed Use (HX). The overlay, which would be applied to about half the land within the district, would allow buildings up to 80 feet tall, or six stories. Existing neighborhood and community commercial standards cap buildings at 35 feet and 50 feet, respectively.
“The change to mixed-use would likely allow a six-story apartment building to be built across from my house on Devine where single story homes on large lots have dominated the quiet neighborhood since the ’60’s,” one resident, Rick Gales, wrote in an email to The Columbian.
The neighborhoods around the Heights District were originally developed as housing for wartime employees at the Kaiser Shipyard.
“If a six-story apartment is planned across from me, I will certainly move,” Gales wrote.
For many of the residents, rezoning the churches is a particularly prickly proposition. Under the proposed plan, the churches could stay, but any changes or renovations would have to meet the Heights’ new design parameters.
And some, like the Rev. JoAnn Schaadt-Shipley from Vancouver Heights Methodist Church, didn’t know about the plan previously. The church sits on 3.9 acres of lawn and forest, just south of MacArthur Boulevard. It’s one of the properties that juts beyond the street boundaries but remains encompassed by the district.
“The city has identified these five churches as underused,” Briede said. “The church didn’t know until we, as a board, brought it to their attention.”