Experts say 'storytelling' key to Town Center development
From return on investment projections to construction trends to parking ratios, Wilsonville's recently released Development Feasibility Analysis provided quantitative insight into how the City could realize its vision for recreating Town Center.
As a complement to the analysis, during the Town Center Economic Summit Panel at Regal Cinemas in Wilsonville Thursday, Oct. 11, the City brought a panel of experts to provide a qualitative look into what it takes to build an attractive mixed-use hub that sparks a flood of investment.
The experts included property developers Fred Bruning and Chris Zahas, City of Vancouver Long Range Planning Manager Rebecca Kennedy and City of Milwaukie Development Manager Leila Aman, and Greater Portland Inc. Vice President of Regional Competitiveness Lloyd Purdy.
In identifying the best ways to attract development, the experts said "storytelling," "authenticity" and "placemaking" were particularly important.
For example, Kennedy said that while Vancouver was previously seen as a bedroom community for Portland, the City and developers viewed its heritage as a "river city" as its selling point. So they built a waterfront redevelopment and park along the Columbia River and recently celebrated its grand opening.
"It's unified city staff and leadership, it has transcended political cycles and it has been something that the community has driven to really move forward and reclaim that identity," Kennedy said.
In Milwaukie, Aman said the City's investments in the arts community has boosted the appeal of its downtown. Now, she said coffee shops and restaurants are blanketed with local art. She also said tenant improvement grants and a light rail going through Milwaukie have helped.
"The city has provided resources to bring arts into our community and it has really brought together this holistic look at ways we can promote both artists locally and how the businesses have interacted with the artists," Aman said. "There's unique ways to create a buzz in downtown."
So what story should Wilsonville tell?
Wilsonville Planning Manager Miranda Bateschell and other city staff have asked the Wilsonville community that exact question. Bateschell said community members advised incorporating the city's agricultural history and connection to the natural environment into Town Center.
"It's shown up in terms of the community wanting to have urban forestry, more stormwater features, building materials that are more naturally based," Bateschell said. "They've gravitated toward buildings that are wood, stone, glass. That's been a pretty prominent and common theme throughout the planning process."
Bruning said creating a place where people want to go even if they aren't shopping is key. He said in some of his developments, people gather at music-playing water fountains.
"An authentic street is a place you want to walk seven times a week, not just once," Bruning said. "You want to be able to walk that street and be surprised every 50 to 100 feet. What you want to be surprised by is beautiful landscaping, seating areas that might have fireplaces or water elements so you can sit and chat with your friends."
Wilsonville is currently developing its Town Center Plan and working on ways to fund attractive public amenities such as adding bike and pedestrian networks and green spaces.
However, as the Development Feasibility Analysis shows, creating a thriving center is tricky and could take time. Much of Town Center is fully built-out and the prospect for purchasing and then redeveloping land wouldn't be economically feasible to developers, according to the analysis. However, it indicates that public subsidies to developers and reducing parking requirements could help make the prospect more enticing. The City projects more expensive development to take place in 10-20 years.
For Wilsonville, Bateschell said working with existing business owners, so that they can afford rent increases and weather the changing landscape, is important.
"I'm intrigued by programs (such as relocation assistance and tenant protection programs) put in place so that businesses currently in Town Center get to succeed through the planning effort," she said.
Kennedy and Bateschell agreed that, due to the high costs of structured parking, utilizing on-street parking early on in the redevelopment process is practical.
Kennedy and Aman also recommended shared parking, where employees, visitors and residents are alloted parking spots depending on the time of day. Also, Bruning said ride sharing stations can reduce the need for parking.
Bruning declared that Wilsonville is a more attractive place to live than both Hillsboro and Gresham and that, through the Town Center Plan, the City could create an environment where an influx of residents, employers and visitors flock.
"Wouldn't you rather be able to be (live) closer to here, work in Wilsonville and not get in your car and stagnate on (I-5)," he said.