Starting in 2024, the 10 southernmost blocks of Main Street in downtown Vancouver are going to be torn up and rebuilt into a better-looking and better-feeling corridor.
Some businesses and restaurants in the targeted area, from West Fifth to West 15th streets, are concerned about revenue loss, access issues and parklets during the years-long construction. The city plans to have the project wrapped up before 2026, when the next Interstate 5 bridge could begin construction.
Much of the design still depends on public input. City officials will begin a public outreach effort on Sept. 27 to hear ideas on how to best shape the design and transportation function of a reimagined Main Street; cost estimates will follow.
The project has been 25 years in the making, as city officials have attempted to gather federal money to support the Main Street redevelopment. But only when the COVID-19 pandemic struck was the city finally able to tap into federal help.
“The waterfront has had a lot of private (and) public investment,” Vancouver’s Downtown Association Executive Director Michael Walker said. “Downtown is next in the ring for that kind of strategic investment — especially when you consider it being in the heart of Vancouver.”
Downtown Vancouver was once viewed only as a place to visit for work. Before the early 1990s, Main Street at times was so empty that a bowling ball rolling down the street might not hit anything — not even a car.
Since then, downtown has transformed into a boon for businesses and residential developments, significantly growing its popularity. But the infrastructure for its primary artery hasn’t been in tune with the shift, which is observable in its eroding and crumbling sidewalks.
Main Street’s face-lift has been in the works since 1993, just four years after Vancouver’s Downtown Association was created in 1989. The project was divided into two phases: one focused on its northern stretch, or Uptown Village, and the other focused on its southern portion.
Uptown Village was successfully funded and constructed in 1996, yet the city couldn’t find money for the southern downtown half for 25 years. There were multiple attempts to employ funding strategies for the southern portion in 2003, 2006, 2014 and 2019, which all fell flat — until the pandemic happened.
A portion of lower Main Street’s funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal initiative that allocated additional money to local governments to encourage economic growth and stability during the pandemic. Vancouver’s Main Street program was chosen as an ARPA beneficiary due to its projected long-term community benefit, because the stretch is concentrated with small businesses.
The city of Vancouver will tap into the federal resource and dedicate about $10 million of ARPA funding to the corridor project, according to Teresa Brum, city deputy director of economic development.
The final budget won’t be determined until after a design phase is completed in 2024, but the city anticipates using multiple sources to fund the project, such as Vancouver’s transportation, utility and Multifamily Tax Exemption Public Benefit funds.
The preliminary work — including assessments, design processes and public outreach — is estimated to cost around $2.5 million.
Elements Restaurant is one of a few eateries on Main Street operating a parklet, under a city-sponsored program allowing businesses to take up parking spaces for outdoor seating.
While Miguel Sosa — chef and owner at Elements, 907 Main St. — is happy the city will be beautified, he’s concerned about possible impacts from the construction, including a loss of business and removal of his custom-made parklet with additional seating for customers.
“That will affect me a lot, really, and every business on Main Street,” Sosa said.
Elements isn’t even in the worst position on the street. It’s not open for lunch — during the day, when construction will be loudest — and it has a back entrance, which many Main Street businesses do not. Still, the roadwork will impact accessibility to the restaurant.
Walker, of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, said a major goal during the project is to have no net loss of business.
One way to offset the burden of construction on businesses is giving out discount coupons to encourage customers to continue shopping there.
The contractor for the Main Street project, MacKay Sposito, has a history of giving coupons, including for the grand opening of The Vine on Fourth Plain, and it received a positive response.
Communication is a top priority for MacKay Sposito. Another idea is to include a 24-hour hotline and hold office hours downtown to let businesses, employees and building owners give real-time feedback.
“Where folks can get frustrated is if something unexpected happens,” said Jason Irving, project manager for MacKay Sposito. “That’s what we want to avoid. We want to make sure that we’re communicating with folks as much as possible.”
One of Sosa’s biggest concerns is what will happen to his parklet. The outdoor seating has been a huge advantage for the business; people regularly ask to sit outside.
“I do think the parklets should be part of the city somehow,” Sosa told The Columbian.
Still, he hopes businesses are given a lot of notice and details about what will be happening and information on how the city plans to alleviate business challenges during construction.
The folks at Joe Brown’s Cafe, 817 Main St., are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ll wait until we get the details, and then we’ll have more of an idea of how we feel,” said Karen Carlton, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Lewis Carlton. Joe Brown’s also operates a parklet outside the business.
Alex Luna — who owns Kindred Homestead Supply, 606 Main St. — is eager to learn more about the project. She’s heard about the prospect of larger sidewalks, implying less parking but possibly more opportunities for sidewalk sales.
“Overall, I’m nervous about the effects the project will have on my business,” Luna said in an email to The Columbian. “Parking is already a deterrent for folks, and there isn’t much on my block that attracts walk-ins at the moment. But the other side of the project seems very exciting.
“Ultimately, I just hope to hold on and have it done as quickly as possible,” she said.
The project will not result in Main Street looking completely different. There are no significant details about the look of the new design, but the upgrades include old infrastructure like pipes, sidewalks, roads and curbs, said Irving, the project manager for MacKay Sposito.
The project is in the early design and public outreach phase, which will continue through early 2023.
Monthly virtual forums, including one from 1 to 2 p.m. Sept. 27, will be dedicated to discussing the Main Street initiative. They will be open to the public and conducted through Microsoft Teams. For more information and future updates, visit the Downtown Stakeholders Forum on beheardvancouver.com.
MacKay Sposito’s public involvement team is working on the outreach schedule, and more information will be available in October.
Construction is expected to start in late 2023 to early 2024 and end in late 2024 to early 2025.
Irving said his crew is coordinating with the Interstate Bridge Replacement team, with the goal of construction on Main Street being wrapped up by the time bridge construction starts.
Although there will still be one traffic lane in each direction, there will be no dedicated bike lanes on Main Street because side streets already have them in place.
“I don’t expect a radically different function and how the transportation works down there,” Irving said.
Because the project is in its early design and outreach phase, details have yet to be finalized, and they can change depending on feedback from community members. Renderings are also not available yet; they will be developed as part of the public outreach and design process.
Walker said he envisions Main Street as a vibrant district with new street lamps, larger sidewalks and public art installations. Ideally, it would become less car-dependent, because everything people need to check off all their to-dos can be found in a central location.
Linda Glover — downtown association board member, owner of Divine Consign and former member of Vancouver City Council — said the core goal of the project is to create a safer environment for residents and shoppers.
“In this day and age where people already are feeling a sense of insecurity about venturing out into the world,” Glover said, “(the street improvements) really will add to that layer that’s probably subliminal but show that it’s well taken care of and safe to walk on.”
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