Project Rating:
Project Snapshot: Vancouver's traditional downtown and its historic city park and public square are reunited through design and redevelopment, moving the city out of nearby Portland's cultural shadow.
Project History:

Vancouver, Washington is the oldest white settlement in the West, located where the Hudson Bay Company established Fort Vancouver in the 1700s. The town breathes history, yet the historic commercial core had been battered by suburban mall developments in the 1970s and 80s.

By the late 1980s, the City of Vancouver embarked on an aggressive program to bring new life to the downtown through an ambitious renewal project. The inspired decision involved seamlessly blending park, public square, improved street designs and new housing in the historic Esther Short district of downtown.

 Best Ideas:

The concept behind Vancouver's redevelopment plan was to rejuvenate historic Esther Short Park as the centerpiece of a new, mixed-use district, with the larger goal of triggering a larger downtown renaissance. Esther Short Park is the oldest public park in the West, dating to 1853. The park had fallen on hard times by the 1980s, and was better known as an unkempt haven for drug dealers and street kids.

The City boldly pushed a plan for mixed-use housing on the blocks surrounding the park, while redeveloping the park, itself, as an urban plaza. The project envisioned open space with a town square combined, drawing the larger community to the City's center year-round. The success of the park, and the ability of the investment in the area to spur larger downtown renewal, would hinge on the acceptance of new housing in the City's core. So far, the results are promising, with the first phase of housing occupied, and new housing and hotel developments underway on adjacent blocks.

Among the best ideas in the project are the excellent pedestrian connections from the new housing to the park, and the decision to locate ground-floor retail along the entire frontage of the blocks that face the park. Over time, this strategy will help foster a synergy between the park and neighboring blocks that solidifies its role as "town square"

The park, itself, is loaded with excellent streetscape features that draw pedestrians in. The design is unabashedly traditional, which fits the park's historic nature and complements downtown architecture. There are also excellent design references to the area's natural and cultural history. These range from many salmon sculptures to extensive use of native basalt columns. There is also the animated story of the salmon, as told by a tribal elder high in the new tower clock and glockenspeil.

The glockenspeil, itself, is an important feature. Like many of the park's improvements, it was funded by benefactor George Propstra, founder of a Northwest restaurant chain and local philanthropist. The glockenspeil draws park visitors to the southeast plaza of the park for it's animated shows at noon, 3:00 and 6:00 PM. The tower's chimes play hourly through the day, serving to remind those throughout the downtown of the park's presence and role as a civic center.

Other important features in the park design include generous sidewalk seating and nicely coordinated street fixtures, including traditional street lamps, trash receptacles and planters, and lush landscaping with native and seasonal species.

The park is already home to Vancouver's farmer's market, bandstand with noontime and evening summer concerts, a community theater, and a lively fountain that mimics a Cascade stream. Each of these design features and destinations blend to ensure that the park is continually visited by local residents, who stroll the sidewalks and plazas. The combined effect is an outstanding example of urban design. Future plans call for a convention center to be constructed south of the park, further raising the profile of Vancouver's new town square.

Worst Ideas: None! This project is simply a stellar example of how a mid-sized community of 90,000 residents can marshal public and private funding to revitalize its historic center.
Contact Information:
City of Vancouver
210 East 13th Street, P.O. Box 1995
Vancouver, Washington 98668-1995
(360) 696-8200

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