Remaking Main

Vancouver Main Street project aims to improve traffic flow and spur economic development in corridor

Downtown Vancouver’s Main Street is a far cry from the retail hub it once was. As in city centers across America, the department stores, shops and theaters that once thrived along the north-south stretch between fifth and 15th streets were long-ago displaced to shopping malls and lifestyle centers on the outskirts of the city.

It’s no coincidence Main Street bears the name it does. The street bisects the downtown core nearly through the center between Interstate 5 to the east and industrial development to the west. Streets running perpendicular to Main receive east and west designations when they cross its path.

The central meaning of Main
According to Vancouver Deputy Manager of Transportation Services Bill Whitcomb, a "witness tree" at the south end of Main served as a marker when the city was initially platted.

"By its very name, (Main Street) indicates it has a central meaning in the community," said Whitcomb.

And before I-5 was laid, travelers entered and exited the Interstate Bridge using Main Street, which resulted in a large volume of traffic entering the city through the corridor.

"For years it was the retail spine of the community," said Whitcomb.

Recent development and revitalization in the city’s core has attracted more people to live, work and shop downtown, but Main Street has yet to take off. Efforts are underway by the city, as well as business and property owners, to bring Main Street into the fold.

"People are coming back to cities now," said Whitcomb. "The opportunity is becoming greater for more vibrant retail in city centers."

The streetscape scenario
A steering committee comprised of city staff, Vancouver engineering and planning firm Harper Houf Peterson Righellis, and downtown property and business owners is currently meeting to discuss design options. Main and Broadway will be converted to two-way traffic as part of the project. The steering committee is seeking feedback and input on elements that will make Main Street retail- and pedestrian-friendly, draw more traffic and people onto Main Street, connect it to the rest of downtown and create opportunities for new economic development.

A steering committee comprised of city staff, Vancouver engineering and planning firm Harper Houf Peterson Righellis, and downtown property and business owners is currently meeting to discuss design options. Main and Broadway will be converted to two-way traffic as part of the project. The steering committee is seeking feedback and input on elements that will make Main Street retail- and pedestrian-friendly, draw more traffic and people onto Main Street, connect it to the rest of downtown and create opportunities for new economic development.

Likely elements include widening the sidewalks and adding decorative features such as brick pavers, benches, lighting and trees. Utility lines would also be moved underground.

Celinda Rupert has operated her full-service salon retreat Iduhair and Co. at the south end of Main Street for six years. In that time, she has seen tremendous growth in downtown. But Main Street is a part of the overall picture, she said, and it has seen serious neglect.

"The area is dead and decaying south of 15th," said Rupert.

Main Street: The missing link?
Improving Main may be the missing link to bridge ongoing development efforts in other pockets of the city. Development continues around Esther Short Park, most recently with The Columbian newspaper breaking ground on its facility just south of the park. On the opposite side of I-5, plans to bring more visitors to the Historic Reserve site are ongoing. And Main Street north of the project area in the uptown district already accommodates two-way traffic, has seen some recent development and is home to a collection of vibrant shops.

"We are trying to start to bring those pieces together," said Whitcomb.

Part of the design process is to identify logical connections and access points. Evergreen Boulevard and Sixth and Eight streets are emerging as access points to and from Main Street and other parts of downtown, he said.

Whitcomb notes there are "changeups in the character of Main as you move north." Focusing in on Fifth to 15th streets is not intended to preclude a natural progression. In fact, it may open up opportunities for future development in uptown, said Karen Ciocia of environmental and public involvement firm Normandeau Associates. Normandeau is managing the public involvement component of the project.

Three public involvement meetings will take place during the design process.

Ciocia said the project is very well received.

"People want to see Main regain its footing as the historic retail part of downtown," she said.

A focus on economic development
Existing business owners hope the improvements bring more customers, and with a number of spaces currently vacant, property owners hope for more tenants. Success of the project may rely on property owners stepping up to the plate, as well.

"Property owners need to take ownership and be responsible for façades and tenants," said Rupert. "Make it a package deal."

Dean Irvin is a Main Street property owner and chairman of the steering committee. He has been involved in trying to convert Main to two-way traffic since the mid ‘90s. While the project will solve many street-level problems, such as parking and infrastructure upgrades, he said it is "directed toward economic development."

The Main Street project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade. Now, said Rupert, the project has the promised funds and enough pull to see it through.

The project is expected to cost nearly $10 million, including design and construction. Improving Main Street is one of several transportation projects the city has identified to be funded in part by a recent three-part imitative to boost revenue. Last summer, the city council increased the sales tax from 7.7 percent to 7.9 percent, and the city is attempting to raise about $3 million annually from the business community. Finally, voters could be asked to increase property taxes this fall, which would primarily go to maintaining police and fire services.

Several attempts to implement a fee to businesses have failed, leaving some of the funding in question. Rupert, who is also president of the Vancouver Downtown Association, said the VDA is working with the city to find a fair and equitable funding mechanism to bring in more revenue from the businesses.

Mitigating construction disruption
Whitcomb said the city is reassessing its funding and moving ahead with the project.

Design is expected to last through the summer and be completed early in 2007. Construction could begin as early as March 2007 and be completed by November that year.

With the construction period slated to last nine months, making Main Street accessible during that time will be a challenge.

Whitcomb said the city’s engineering department is involved in the design process to identify and mitigate disruptions before construction begins.

Parking is a major issue of concern for businesses, said Ciocia, and is at the forefront of the planning process.

"We will be working with businesses to develop an appropriate plan so businesses can be open and stay open and we can still get people there," she said.

Whitcomb and Irvin are on a door-to-door campaign to educate Main Street occupants about the project and solicit feedback. Irvin said the steering committee is interested in learning how to accommodate businesses on an individual basis when their storefronts are ripped up.

"We do not want to lose businesses during the construction period," he said.

Rupert expects there will be people who will be angry and frustrated. Despite the challenges, focusing on the outcome will make the construction period easier, she said.

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