Barry Cain rolls out some paper renderings on the hood of his Porsche Cayenne SUV on the newly renamed Waterfront Way in downtown Vancouver.
"We had a lot of things to do to get to this point. We had to get the train trestle completely rebuilt," says Cain, the president of Gramor Development.
He points to an old photo which shows the railroad, that divides the waterfront from downtown proper, the Boise Cascade paper plant, and the train trestles under which streets such as Esther and Grant connected the two zones.
"You can see how the roads didn't really go under. You could kind of sneak under. But it didn't really incorporate into the rest of the town. So we needed to have it do what it can for the city, which is be its waterfront."
For $45 million, the trestles were rebuilt and the roads beneath them lowered, to increase the clearance. (Columbia Waterfront LLC paid $8 million. The rest was from the state, federal and city grants.)
This is just one part of what Gramor Development calls a $1.5 billion Waterfront development. It totals 20-blocks over 32-acres. $1.5 billion is the value of the estimated entire project once all the blocks are complete.
The initial cost for the 29 acres occupied by Boise Cascade was $19 million.
The development of downtown Vancouver is hindered by other factors: locals prefer a suburban life and would rather have their downtown experience in Portland. So it's not as if the city was knocking on the door of the waterfront trying to expand across the tracks.
Cain says both he and Vancouver's elected officials have long known that the two zones need connecting, but that they would be different. The waterfront needs to be more glamorous than downtown, more picture postcard, at least at first while it is establishing its identity. That's why the fancy restaurants, the park and some condos are the first tings being built The office blocks will come later, and after that, taller office buildings are envisioned, keeping the panoramic river view.
Vancouver makes a lot more sense on the ground than it does flying by on the freeway from Portland. Cast a glance to the west side of the I-5 bridge and you now see the black, steel skeleton of two buildings which already have restaurant tenants lined up. There are deep bathtub holes for two more. And jutting out into the river, a triangular pier which echoes the sharp corners of the restaurant structures.
From top hats to tacos
Cain gives a potted history of the area. How it was the first white settlement and was developed by the Hudson Bay Company as the fur trade flourished, mainly to send pelts back for making top hats in European capitals.
In the late 1800s it was a dock, then the shore — much of what is visible today — received about 20 feet of infill. Then came the paper plant and the roads and railroads.
"As this became more industrial, and they built roads so people could live further and further away, they started doing just that."
It was a mill, then Boise Cascade bought it in 1962. From the 1960s to the late 1990s it was an industrial zone, not exactly of interest to leisurely strolls or having fun on the water.
"The original buildings started having second and third choice tenants and downtown started deteriorating. While that paper plant was here it was hard to do much else."
Gramor persuaded Boise Cascade to tear all the paper plant buildings down before they bought the site. "We didn't want to deal with that. And it helped the whole town. It was ugly, it was ugly as hell. BNSF had a rail spur running through the middle of it."
The goal is to make this part of Vancouver an economic engine again. "The economy's going to be based on housing and services and offices and being the place where everybody in Clark County can get to the river."
He hired landscape architect PWR of Canada after seeing their work in Vancouver B.C.. The waterfront park concept is trails for pedestrians and biking, with a water feature that explains the Columbia River but is shallow enough for kids to play in.
Then there's the lighting designers out of Seattle, Fisher Marantz Stone. Pretty much every American will have seen their work — not just the bright, white illumination of the Washington Monument, but the two vertical shafts of light that represented the twin towers in New York City after they were knocked down on Sept. 11, 2001.
So this is a place where people will also be welcome at night? Right now, visitors to the waterfront are only exercisers, passengers for the American Empress sternwheelers which go to the Snake River, and men who park and stare at their phones or the river.
The development includes several blocks of offices and housing, as well as a couple of hotels. The first is called Indigo, an upscale hotel with a condo tower attached. Indigo is owned by International Hotels, which also owns Holiday Inn.
The timeline for completing the build out is eight to 10 years. Does Cain fear a recession, like the one that put Portland's South Waterfront on ice for the best part of a decade?
"We've been working on it for 12 years and it's going to be another eight to 10, so we're going to be in different economic times," he says. "There'll be times when it's going faster and slower. But we'll have the first phase done in a year. You'll be able to come down here and the park will be finished, the restaurants will be open, we'll have residential and office buildings that are open. And we'll have a first phase, people can come and feel it's complete."
He stresses the difference from Portland's South Waterfront. "You can be down there and not even know it's on the river. Here it's all based on the water. All these restaurants are based on water views."
Cain has a partnership that bought the land and had the infrastructure put in. And he has Gramor Development, which is developing certain buildings. "I'm wearing two hats. One as the manager of a partnership who bought all the land and is doing the subdivision. Another is as an entity is that is building buildings."
Gramor Development will find tenants and manage the buildings.
"Sometimes we sell them, but the goal is to keep them long term."
The right brands for the job
We walk across the site with Shana Alles, Director of Leasing at Gramor Development. She works with a broker on the project to stock the shops and offices with the right brands. Alles cites downtown Vancouver changing, with the arrival of "funky restaurants," and adds, there has been nothing like this, for, ever. There's 100,000 people that cross the two bridges every day, and if they could work and live down here they'd get a 9 or 10 percent raise (by paying no state income tax) and wouldn't have to spend two hours of their day in the car."
Wouldn't they pay sales tax in Washington?
"Yes. But you think about 10 hours a week of your life in the car…This opens up a lot of opportunities for corporate headquarters and satellite offices, all that's going to be here for their employees."
Cain expects some of the people who live high up, in big houses with views of the river, will be interested in moving here. "We've had 1,100 people put their names down on our website in the last year saying they're interested in condos. Eighty percent are from here (Clark County.)" He reckons the rest to be Oregonians and Californians, many of them looking for investment properties.
Again, he comes back to the leisurely aspect of waterfront living. This is the best waterfront property in the Vancouver-Portland area. It's south facing. When you want to relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine, nowhere else has that. It's all facing the wrong way.
"Plus there's not another cable stay pier in the world."
Plus, it's in the direct flight path of planes to Portland International Airport. Every few minutes conversation is interrupted by the dull ache of jet engines. Sometimes everything stops as U.S. Air Force fighter jets scream through the sky. No doubt, like South Waterfront, there will be nesting eagles to make residents feel close to nature.
The river itself is a marvel, its surface roiled by bizarre currents and heavily trafficked by barges and big ships. There's no predicting what people want, but they seem to want post-industrial nature with all modern conveniences.
Plus, food carts.
Alles points out that the fish restaurant, WildFin American Grill, with have a window selling fish tacos and fish and chips to go.
We walk down to the Grant Street Pier. Right now the forms for the concrete pour are being installed. They sit on columns which go down 80 feet to the river bed. But the columns will be removed once the cables are installed, and the 90-foot pier will hang above the water.
Wind off the river
Ghost Runners Brewery has also signed on to open a restaurant and brewery in the restaurant buildings next to the pier.
Cain has a spring in his step as Dennis Schmidt, a foreman from the general contractor Robertson & Olson allows us up on the second floor of the steel structure, where river views are impressive. You can see clear to the low, wooden houses of Hayden Island and wonder what will become of them.
The concrete has been poured, except for one section where the slab will be extra thick to support the brewing tanks on the second floor. Steel supports must be welded in to support the picture windows because of the strong wind that comes off the Columbia.
"Holy moly," says Alles, as she sees the river from 50 feet up for the first time. "This is a spectacular location, it needs to be fitted out right with the right tenants."
She picks the brands by researching online, talking to people around the country about what's hot, and also asking locally. She used to represent tenants in Seattle.
Could it be like Bainbridge Island near Vancouver B.C., or Alki Beach in Seattle? "I suppose you could say it's a combination. Or like Lake Union in Seattle or Paul Allen's project in the Inner Bay. You're basically creating a destination piece, where you combine it with great shopping, you can stay in a hotel, bring your kids down to the park, and then you can live here.
Do people on the east coast know about Vancouver, Washington? She hesitates. "A little bit. Even people from Portland quite imagine what this could be like."
Gramor is known for mixed-use developments, often anchored by supermarkets, such as 205 Place,Happy Valley Crossroads, Kruse Village and Lake View Village. But this is Cain's big one. This project has been longer in the making and has the ability to be a game changer for a small city, as well as a picture postcard for a place lacking much identity.
Thousands of people per day
They have master plan approval for 3,300 residential units. That could be 7,000 people. He estimates another 7,000 people could be coming in to work. Then there are the day visitors. That could total more than 15,000 people milling about on any day.
"The City of Vancouver likes that," he says smiling. "They've always been united, and fully supportive. This is making the city what it should be. It's getting rid of something (the paper plant) that has been holding Vancouver back. And it'll give people a reason to come over the river."
Gramor worked out a quiet zone with the city where the trains won't blast their horns as much as they used to.
The paper plant cleanup was not too onerous. Boise Cascade just had to deal with some "isolated spots."
He has a clear view. Seniors and Millennials want the same thing: downsized living with nature and walkable urban amenities.
"People used to ask, 'What's wrong with Vancouver?' It's a simple answer: get rid of the paper plant. It's ugly and stinky."
Does any influx of wealth to Vancouver depend on people abandoning Portland?
"For the most part it's people relocating from Vancouver. People who live in Clark county who want to have urban living but it hasn't been available. There will be Oregonians and Californians who come and buy condos because they like the tax situation in Washington. There'll definitely be that. But most people will be people from Clark County."
Back at his Cayenne, Cain rolls up his renderings and stashes them and the hard hats in the trunk. He's still trying to sum up the essence of the development. To say something that will make people — perhaps Portlanders — give it a chance as they pass it on the I-5 bridge.
How does it compare to the Zidell development in South Waterfront? "It's hard to compare. We have a lot more waterfront. They're connected to OHSU. But we're connected to downtown Vancouver. You don't walk from downtown Portland to South Waterfront. We're in Vancouver at exactly the right time, because of the paper plant going away, and because of some negative things that have been happening in the Portland area."
Those Portland negatives?
"You've got people putting up tents everywhere which is degrading the whole town. I don't know anyone who sees that who doesn't think that. And the fact that they're doing nothing about the traffic issues, that's a huge negative. I live in Lake Oswego and sometimes it takes me an hour to get six miles to downtown."
He goes on.
"It's amazing how bad it's getting. They're real tight with the Urban Growth Boundary, they're making it more expensive to develop, which is making housing more and more expensive. They're more conservative in Vancouver, and they don't have the state income tax. A lot of places in Portland are getting overbuilt, which doesn't seem to be happening here. There's a lot of people in downtown Portland who should be over here but who didn't like what they saw. Well that's going to change now."