Buying power

Fourth Plain study finding that affordable housing, jobs will bring commercial development to corridor

As evidenced by the Vancouver Housing Authority’s recent Kyocera land acquisition, the ongoing traffic safety push and a renewed interest in the district’s international “flavor,” the central Fourth Plain corridor has become a serious urban renewal target.

Underpinning this activity is an ongoing $193,000 city-commissioned study to assess the market and identify geographic and economic turning points for the area. The hinge, it seems, is housing.

The city is nearing the end of the visioning process for the 1,133-acre area around Fourth Plain Boulevard. The corridor study area is bound on the west by St Johns Boulevard, on the east by Burton Road and on the south by a combination of 18th Street, 19th Street and Burton Road. State Route 500 bounds the study area to the north. The end goal is to identify entryways to revitalization.

The study area contains approximately 2,220 tax lots. A number of national companies are long-time property owners in the corridor, including Fred Meyer and Kyocera. Major public entities are Clark College, the Vancouver Housing Authority and the Vancouver School District. The study is being managed by Portland-based David Evans and Associates.

Stakeholders in the business community interviewed include real estate broker Eric Fuller, developer Lance Killian, VHA CEO Kurt Creager and Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce president John McKibbin.

Stakeholders said the area “needs a fundamental change and increase in income” for development to pick up, said David Knowles, consultant project manager with David Evans and Associates, at a recent public meeting. The median income for the area was a full forty percent below the Vancouver average at $27,940 in 2004, versus $46,190. There is some evidence an “underground economy” exists in the area made up of non-licensed home-based businesses such as auto repair, sewing and tailoring, which may raise actual income numbers.

According to a report from the city, stakeholders generally think of this area as a business incubator and that any plan should include creating a “different type of live/work development to support people operating small trade oriented businesses.” Stakeholders, as a group, also reported the area would benefit from zoning and code changes that would develop the area in a unique way, targeting public investments and create design consistency.

The group also echoed Councilwoman Pat Jollota’s plan to emphasize the international character of the corridor.

The population of the study area is on average much younger than the rest of the city, less formally educated and less likely to speak native English. In addition, the renter-to-homeowner ratio is opposite the city’s average at 70 percent renters to 30 percent owners.

In essence, the population does not make an ideal customer base, and with retail at 38 square feet per person, (almost twice the national average) retailers have to reach further outside the corridor for customers. Total retail spending in the corridor was at $12,003 per household in 2004, which was 41 percent less than the $20,000 spent per household citywide. Grocery spending is 37 percent less. Nevertheless, the corridor houses a Fred Meyer, an Albertsons and a proposed WinCo relocation, plus many smaller grocers and retailers.

Don Forrest, Fred Meyer site acquisition manager and study oversight committee member, would agree that housing is key, however, he said, jobs will pave the way.

“I felt (the study) needed to concentrate on employment in the area,” he said.

The Fourth Plain store, built in 1967 with a “neighborhood” concept, is – at 90,000 square feet – a much smaller footprint that the typical Fred Meyer.

“Economically, the store’s a challenge for us, said Forrest. “It contributes to the bottom line but barely right now.” There are plans right now neither to close the store nor update it, although Forrest said the “vision” would be to replace the store with more typical architecture for current developments, adding to the efficiency of the site in general.

Eric Hovee, consulting economist and VHA board member, said “there is a real strong desire to maintain the employment focus” of the proposed mixed use Kyocera site. However, he said, the “major conclusion” from the developer’s group that was convened to help with the Fourth Plain study that housing and home ownership in the corridor will draw development.

On the Kyocera property, the VHA is looking into New Markets Tax Credits as one way to bring down the cost of new construction or remodeling, but such financing wouldn’t be limited to the property.

John Girod, president of Vancouver-based Quail Construction, took part in an early discussion, and he reiterated that housing is cornerstone to economic development.

“Until you’ve got people in here that take a permanent position instead of transient living, until you can create homeownership programs – which you can do in that corridor,” economic development will not take off, he said. “You’ve got to have people there with disposable incomes. Anytime someone is an owner they are going to treat things much differently.”

Girod said housing could take the shape of single family dwellings or condos, but that affordability is the bottom line. Or, he said, developers could attract buyers from outside the area, and not depend so much on converting the current residents to homebuyers.

But, Girod said, for the most part housing development is going be left to government agencies because they have more backing for urban infill projects. “There is not much land there to do private deals, it’s all infill stuff. The guys around here – they are not going to tackle that.”

A final meeting with the oversight committee is planned for March, and tentative work sessions with the city’s planning commission and city council will follow. Formal hearings on the plan are tentatively scheduled for late April and May.