The Vancouver City Council passed an ordinance Monday evening that will transform a quiet residential area at the heart of the city into an urban hub in the coming decades, concluding the first chapter of an arduous, yearslong planning process.
The Heights District Plan moved forward amid pushback from both citizens and city councilors at the remote forum Monday night. It ultimately passed 5-2, with Councilor Bart Hansen and Councilor Sarah Fox casting the dissenting votes.
Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said it was crucial to give stakeholders confidence that the long-range, multimillion dollar redevelopment plan was indeed moving forward.
“We need to set the policy and drive this, and this is the end of Stage I,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
The vote followed a public forum, in which residents of the Heights District — which encompasses 205 acres in central Vancouver, bordered roughly by Andresen Road, Mill Plain Boulevard and MacArthur Boulevard — called in and asked the city council to pump the brakes until more details surrounding the plan solidified.
Their concern focused on a proposed new zone, called Heights Mixed Use, which according to the final draft of the plan would cover 31 percent of the land within the district. The rules of the new zone, from allowable building heights to design restrictions, are still being hammered out.
Residents who spoke at the public forum worried about the implications of passing the plan before they fully understood what, exactly, the new mixed-use zone would mean for nearly a third of the district.
They implored the city council to shelve the overarching Heights District plan until details of the new zone could be reviewed publicly. Callers requested that the two pieces be passed at the same time.
Kate Fernald, co-chair of the newly-formed Heights District Neighborhood Coalition, suggested to the council that postponing the Heights District Plan until the zoning component could be completed was an easy way to foster some goodwill in the community.
“I think city government has a chance here to look really good. You get to support your citizens, and it doesn’t cost you a thing,” Fernald said. “That sends a message. The message is, council supports its constituents. Council will use its power to support reasonable exceptions when needed.”
Fox, who is employed as a city planner in Camas, had suggested launching the two ordinances concurrently at the council’s Aug. 10 meeting. She found an ally on Monday in Hansen, who also supported postponing the Heights District Plan until the details of the new mixed-use zone are made public.
It’s an unusual process to wait for more clarity on zoning before moving forward with a high-level vision plan, Fox said. But it’s not unheard of, and could assuage some concerns among longtime residents of the historic neighborhood.
“I’m not hearing in conversations with the community that there needs to be a rework of the plan,” Fox said. “They are asking about full transparency of the entire plan.”
Fox added that she was “a little confused about why we can’t move forward with this timing change.”
McEnerny-Ogle and the remaining councilors championed passing the Heights District Plan immediately, citing the extensive outreach conducted by city staff when writing draft versions of the project. They’ve been collecting community feedback for more than two years, through tabling events, online surveys and more informal conversations.
A few councilors also pointed to the changes made to draft versions directly as a result of community outreach — a previous iteration of the plan, for example, included four churches within the Heights District boundary. After feedback from residents, who worried that rezoning the churches would make them vulnerable, the city dropped the church properties from the plan.
Another revision involved parking. An early draft that called for one new parking space per new residential unit drew criticism and has since been dropped. It was replaced with a tiered approach that would require higher parking minimums in the outskirts of the district, near parcels that abut existing single-family homes.
There’s no reason for residents to think that the chance to provide actionable feedback will disappear, Councilor Linda Glover said.
“We have listened and we have made several changes,” Glover said. “I have complete confidence in our staff that they’ve set a good process in place. This is a process that is very typical in a plan, that the adoption happens before the zoning phase.”
What’s in the Heights District Plan?
The Heights District Plan has actively been in the works since 2017, when city leaders purchased a chunk of the old Tower Mall site to strategically guide the direction of the neighborhood.
That city-owned property will eventually serve as the heart of the district. The idea is to gradually transform the sleepy neighborhood — surrounded by homes originally built as housing for employees at the Kaiser Shipyards in World War II — into a vibrant, urban core that functions almost as a secondary downtown.
Planners are looking to form 20-minute neighborhoods, where residents can live, work, run errands and recreate without ever having to walk more than 20 minutes.
“This is an area of the city that had been passed over by the market forces that had transformed downtown to the west, as well as many of the corridors and the neighborhoods in many of the eastern portions of the city,” City Manager Eric Holmes said.
The full, 87-page plan is available on the city’s website. It lays out a vision for the district in detail — if it’s successful, the number of residential units in the region will increase from 232 to 1,800 over the next two decades. At least a quarter of the units will be rent-controlled, targeted at people who make less than the area’s median income.
Success targets also encompass additional jobs (from 650 to 900) and transportation (planners are aiming for a 10 percent reduction in solo car trips, as well as a 50 percent reduction in vehicle versus pedestrian and cyclist crashes.)
Planning Manager Rebecca Kennedy, who’s been spearheading the project for the last few years, called it “an opportunity for world-class placemaking.”
“Fundamentally it’s about bringing people together in a place that’s inclusive, it’s accessible, and it brings them joy,” Kennedy said.