This is a delicate subject matter. The entire West Coast of the US and even Vancouver BC are facing a homeless crisis with thousands of people living without proper shelter. The City of Vancouver started a program called Safe Stay in which they have two locations with effectively tiny homes to house the homeless. They are looking to build a third location somewhere on the west side of town which basically means Downtown at this point. The Lynch Family Estate owns a full city block bounded by Evergreen Blvd on the south, Esther Street on the west, Daniels on the east and 11th on the north. They have offered it up as a location. I mentioned this a while back when the notion first came up, but now it seems to be gaining real traction.
The Lynch Family Estate is trying to do something good for the community, at least that it what it seems. But this idea is bad for Vancouver for more than one reason. I intend to outline that here.
The first is highest and best use. That property lies just two blocks north of the heart of Downtown, Esther Short Park. It lies in a building zone that allows for buildings to rise 100 feet off the street and with proper setback and design up to 200 feet tall. The Stay Safe community is low density housing on a high density block. It runs counter to the zoning and the vision plan for Downtown. It is a drain on the city resources located on a spot that could provide a massive economic boom to both the government sector and the private sector if a high density project were built instead. The Stay Safe model thus far has been at least mostly successful, of course some negative issues have come up, but I would label the program successful. This property is not ideal and is likely to be the most contested of the three locations thus far.
So far it seems the city has managed to put people in these communities that are transitionally homeless rather than drug addicted and mentally ill people that are perpetually homeless and often dangerous. I like that notion, if in fact that is how they intend to continue running these. Taking people that are homeless due to temporary circumstance and are motivated to become self sufficient is a good thing and so far these communities have decent track record of helping residents become permanently sheltered and independent. I am not writing this article to condemn the program, on the contrary in fact, but this location is a problem. Billions of dollars have been poured into the Downtown area over the last two decades, and billions is not an exaggeration. Quite literally tens of millions have been invested by local, state, and federal governments along with the billions in private money. This has helped make Downtown Vancouver a destination again after decades of decay in the city center. This safe stay community is not only low density effectively placing 20-40 people on an acre when a high density housing project could easily put 300 people in that space, but they are in fact extremely unattractive developments. When private developers submit plans to build a residential or commercial project in the Downtown area they are subjected to serious scrutiny over the design elements and attractiveness of the facility they wish to build. They are often forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions to make it meet the city standards for design and impact on the area around it. Yet this safe stay community that would never pass that scrutiny is being advocated for by these same people who scrutinize private development.
I mentioned before and I’ll mention it again there are other city owned parcels nearby that would make better candidates for this facility but for some reason our council is hell bent on lowering property values in the city center and irritating business owners that are the life blood of tax revenue for the city.
One benefit of this safe stay community is that the city regulations that has made these possible has a provision that street camping is prohibited within 1000 feet of these communities. Although I like that idea, in Downtown Vancouver it is not a big enough distance. The map I have here shows a circle that is 1000 feet from each of the four corners of the lot in question (1170 feet from the center of the lot). You can see that large portions of Downtown including the Waterfront are outside of that radius. Several areas that are consistently problematic for tent campers are outside that radius as well, such as the Mill Plain / I-5 area, The BNSF railway berm area, and the area west of the Courthouse.
One of the key reasons so much private money has poured into Vancouver is that our Downtown and Waterfront area has been much cleaner and nicer than what Portland has become. If we become overrun with homeless like Portland, we will certainly lose that edge and could easily slip into decline just like the Rose City did right before our very eyes in the space of less than a decade. So if it happens to be that the City insists on having this facility on the proposed block, here are some ideas that might make it more palatable for all parties.
- Do not use chain link fencing to enclose the community as has been done on the others. Enclose the community with proper wood or vinyl fencing tall enough to hide portable toilets and dumpsters. Allow some local artists to paint positive murals on the fence.
- Increase the ‘no camping’ radius to include the entire Esther Short neighborhood perhaps 2000 feet. This gives the city an opportunity to keep the entire Downtown area free of disgusting tent communities filled with garbage and human waste.
- Regulate derelict vehicles in the area with vigorous enforcement.
I mentioned a few weeks back that the better use for this block would be a high density true low income apartment project with five wood framed floors and 140 units roughly 300-600 SF between $500-$800 a month rent. Income restricted and truly affordable for people working in the service sector. It is doable especially if the land is donated and the city softens the development costs. This type of project could act as a means to keep people from falling into homelessness in the first place.
The city will have to have public hearings on this measure, so if you are concerned about the project whether you are opposed or in favor, be sure to give city officials appropriate input.
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