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Vancouver City Council marches forward with Heights District Plan

A plan to revamp a historic central Vancouver neighborhood continues, even as the COVID-19 outbreak has postponed some other long-range planning projects.

If the process continues as scheduled, the Heights District Plan — which would transform one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods into a high-density urban core — is on track for city council adoption on Aug. 17.

Centered around the former Tower Mall shopping center, the project has been in the works since April 2018. At Monday’s city council meeting, Vancouver leaders expressed excitement that the end of the planning process was near.

“The center of the city can really be a place that becomes the center of who we are, our heart as a city,” Councilor Ty Stober said.

Fellow Councilor Erik Paulsen added that there’s a “tremendous amount of excitement that we’re nearing some meaningful milestones here as the summer progresses in terms of some key decisions,” calling the Heights District a “marquee development.”

Monday’s workshop on the project was the second in a series of three. The final informational workshop is set for July 27, followed by a first reading on Aug. 3 and a public hearing scheduled before adoption on Aug. 17.

What’s in the plan?

The Heights District encompasses 205 acres, roughly bordered by Andresen Road to the east, Mill Plain Boulevard to the north and MacArthur Boulevard to the south (the western edge comes to a point where Mill Plain and MacArthur meet). A handful of properties jut beyond those borders, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School campus.

At the core of the district lies the Tower Mall site, a 63-acre plot purchased by the city in 2017.

City leaders are aiming to create a dense mixed-use development where residents can live, work and recreate.

Building out the district likely will take decades. The city’s design proposes high-density uses in the site’s center, with a residential neighborhood around Park Hill Cemetery and businesses along MacArthur Boulevard, along with 2 acres of park space.

City staff have a few levers they can use when working with private developers to achieve that vision, according to Rebecca Kennedy, the city’s planning manager. They could expand the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which offers tax breaks to apartment developers if they meet certain affordability metrics or build certain community amenities. And the city has additional leverage over the acreage it actually owns, she added.

If executed, the plan would add 1,340 residential units to the district. Of those, 60 to 75 percent would be market-rate housing. The remaining units would be billed as affordable, or available to households who make at or below the median income.

Of those, 250 units would be targeted toward households making 60 percent or less than Vancouver’s median income.

“Without a numeric target, we will not get there,” Kennedy said, adding that the specific number would “address concerns that it does not become an area only within reach to people who have higher incomes.”

It’s a contrast to The Waterfront Vancouver development, she said. While the multibillion-dollar revamp of the downtown riverfront property includes a public park, its apartments and condominiums are out of financial reach for many.

The Heights District overlaps with some of Vancouver’s most racially and economically integrated neighborhoods. That traces back to its roots as wartime housing built for workers at the Kaiser Shipyards.

“The range of affordability is meant to reflect the income levels of the surrounding neighborhoods, and make the area inclusive for anyone who wants to live there,” Kennedy said.

Doubts linger

Councilor Bart Hansen worried that the city’s plan could end up gentrifying the district, pricing out long-term residents.

“Rarely do we get the opportunity to put something like this, completely surrounded by neighborhoods, in the heart of the city, and I am very supportive of this project. I do want to relay some concerns as well, though,” Hansen said. “As new developments come online and value is created, property values can also increase, which has a potential over time to displace people who may be on fixed incomes and are less able to afford the rent or the mortgage that they currently have.”

Hansen isn’t the only one to express worries. In February, a coalition of residents formed a joint neighborhood association to voice concern over how the development could change the character of their quiet community.

A flyer being circulated by the Northcrest Neighborhood Association indicates that the group continues to solicit feedback on the plan, asking residents to comment on rezoning that would allow buildings up to six stories tall, as well as a proposed parking ratio that would require just one parking spot per new housing unit.

The association is meeting remotely on July 29 to discuss the issue.

The Heights District Plan is moving forward despite COVID-19, which pushed other long-range planning projects back as staff turned their attention to more urgent projects.

One casualty of the coronavirus crunch was a push to redevelop a stretch of Grand and Evergreen boulevards, which fizzled in May when city councilors were forced to let a six-month moratorium expire.


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