Vancouver, Wash. Waterfront: Photographed by Shannon Korta

The Waterfront Renaissance

2019-06-03 | 3 min. read

An exciting thing has been happening to waterfronts in the last generation. After decades of being centers of shipping and manufacturing in cities, they’ve become gathering places—spruced-up areas where people can go on urban hikes and drink cocktails as they watch the sunset.

Vancouver, Wash. was one of the latest cities to receive such a development. At its grand opening last September, the Vancouver Waterfront Park was home to just a pair of restaurants (a hotel, an office building and several residential buildings are still under construction) as well as the waterfront’s pièce de résistance, the Grant Street Pier. The pier resembles one of the sailing vessels that used to transport trade goods along the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver, from the walkway, which cantilevers over the water like the bow of a ship, to the towering white mast that supports the structure with cables.

Vancouver, Wash. Waterfront: Photographed by Shannon Korta

When public artist Larry Kirkland became involved with the pier’s construction about three years ago, he had one of those vessels in mind—specifically, the Columbia Rediviva, from which the river took its name. (The Columbia appears in an engraving on one of the pier’s abutments.) But there was also a practical reason for his idea: PWL Partnership, the Canadian architectural firm that was also involved in the project, initially envisioned a pier that was held up by concrete columns, which would have been set into a sensitive salmon habitat. Instead, Kirkland proposed the pier could be held up by a mast—an idea that won over Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes and Gramor Development President Barry Cain.

“[PWL’s design] would have worked, but it would not have had the drama and the iconic kind of design that it does now,” Kirkland said. “It’s so surprising to go out there and be suspended out over the water.”

Kirkland’s design has struck a chord with locals and travelers alike. An estimated 15,000 people came to the waterfront’s grand opening, and it still draws hundreds of visitors a day.

“It’s a very fitting tribute to the city,” said Gretchen Jacka of Vancouver. “It fits with the history of what this area was as well as what the future is.”

Vancouver’s recent history suggests that it has a bright future ahead of it. Within the last generation, Vancouver has transitioned from a suburb of Portland, Ore. to a desirable place to live in its own right. The city’s population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000 and has continued growing steadily (albeit much less quickly) ever since. As part of the so-called “Silicon Forest,” Vancouver has experienced something of a tech boom, attracting smaller startups as well as campuses from larger companies. It’s also emerged as a hipster city, with enough artisan coffee shops and craft breweries to rival even Portland.

But it was neither coffee nor beer that brought John and Jean Wiegant of Gresham, Ore. to Vancouver for his 80th birthday. Instead, he celebrated his birthday with a walk along the waterfront—his “third or fourth” visit, he said—with his wife, Jean, and their daughter and granddaughter.

“I think it’s spectacular,” Jean Wiegant said. “The pier and this whole waterfront, they’ve just done such a nice job of making this a beautiful, usable, welcoming public space.”

Vancouver, Wash. Waterfront: Photographed by Shannon Korta

The transformation of waterfronts from industrial centers into public spaces began in the mid-20th century. As trucking replaced shipping in the transportation of goods—and as manufacturing moved out of cities—waterfronts fell into disuse, leaving behind polluted waterways and derelict structures.

“Over the years we’ve begun to clean up those industries and those waterfronts have been reclaimed as civic spaces—environmentally cleaned up and turned into amenities for the public,” Kirkland said. “It has increased tourism, it’s increased civic pride.”

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, if not the beginning of the waterfront redevelopment trend, is often regarded as a prime example of what it can be. After years of abandonment, the remnants of Inner Harbor’s port were torn down and replaced with parks and plazas in the late 1950s. Over the next two decades, the surrounding area—most notably the Fell’s Point neighborhood—was also restored, helping revitalize the city.

Vancouver, Wash. Waterfront: Photographed by Shannon Korta

Since 1981 (the same year the National Aquarium opened in Inner Harbor), the Waterfront Center in Washington, D.C. has monitored the spread of waterfront redevelopment projects across the country and around the world. In 1987, the organization began bestowing “Excellence on the Waterfront” awards in recognition of projects and plans it deems exceptional. Past winners include the Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston, Texas and the Senator Joseph Finnegan Park in Boston, Mass., as well as two recipients in the Pacific Northwest: the Confluence Project, consisting of several art installations along the Columbia River, and the Willamette Falls Legacy Project in Oregon City, Ore. (which has won twice in its planning stages).

Dick Rigby, co-director of the Waterfront Center, spoke to the importance of cleaning up and developing waterfronts in ways that reflect “our natural values as well as good design.” He also called them “a measure of the health of a city,” noting that nearly every American city is built along a body of water, be it a river or a lake or an ocean.

“Everybody’s got an ownership stake in the water,” Rigby said.

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