Site selected for fire headquarters

Camas-Washougal fire chief unveils plans to build 2-story station on ‘City Hall Annex’ property in downtown Camas

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A rendering shows a design idea for the future Camas-Washougal Fire Department headquarters station in downtown Camas. (Illustration courtesy of the city of Camas)

The Camas City Council has cleared the way for a new Camas-Washougal Fire Department (CWFD) headquarters station to be built in downtown Camas.

CWFD Fire Chief Cliff Free described the new fire headquarters’ site selection process to Council members and other City leaders Friday, Jan. 26, during the first day of the Council’s two-day planning workshop.

“I was hoping to come to you and say, ‘We have three options. Help us pick the best option,’ but now we have one option,” Free said.

The fire chief explained that the process to find an optimal site for the new fire headquarters, which will replace CWFD Fire Station 41 located next to Camas City Hall, began with eight possible sites that would have allowed the fire department to quickly serve Camas’ downtown and its immediate surrounding neighborhoods.

In August 2023, the Camas City Council approved a $148,000 contract with Battle Ground-based Johansson Wing Architects to conduct “the initial efforts to find a suitable site for a new CWFD Station 41 and conduct community outreach as well as preliminary site and station design and eventual bond support services.”

The consultants scrutinized the eight sites and found five — including one that had “a challenging configuration” — could accommodate the entire CWFD headquarters program and staff. The consultants also considered possible traffic impacts, the topography of the site, environmental factors, land-use designations, whether the site could accommodate drive-thru bays for fire engines, land ownership challenges and possible site-acquisition and development costs.

In the end, the Johansson Wing Architects consultants came up with three preferred sites for the new fire station and CWFD headquarters.

Unfortunately, Free said, all three of those sites were eventually struck from consideration due to a variety of reasons, including private property owners who either did not want to sell their land or wanted more money for the site than the City was able to pay.

When the fire chief and consultants went back to the original list of possible sites, they realized “Site E,” a city-owned site currently occupied by the Camas City Hall Annex building and parking lot on the site of the former Bank of America building — which the City purchased for $1.6 million in December 2018 to use as an annex to Camas City Hall — could work with some tweaking.

Consultants had discounted the “annex” site, located at 528 N.E. Fourth Ave., due to its inability to accommodate the entire CWFD headquarters program and drive-thru vehicle bays, but realized the site could work if City officials were willing to vacate, or close off, a portion of Northeast Everett Street between Third and Fourth avenues.

“We went back to the list and said, ‘What can we do to make it work for us?’” Free told Council members. “If we vacate the north half of Everett Street, we could create the space we need.”

Closing the north half of Everett Street, or the portion closest to Northeast Fourth Avenue, would still give private property owners access to Everett Street from Northeast Third Avenue and could create a small public “pocket park” along Northeast Fourth Avenue.

Fire engines and other CWFD vehicles could directly access Northeast Third Avenue and avoid driving along the smaller, more crowded Northeast Fourth Avenue, and the building would be a two-story facility with crew accommodations on the second floor and operations, administrative offices and a public meeting room on the first floor.

“We wanted to look at how we could enhance Fourth (Avenue),” Free said, showing Council members a rendering of how the new fire headquarters might look from the corner of Northeast Fourth Avenue and Northeast Everett Street, south of the current Camas City Hall.

“This is just a conceptual design,” Free explained. “The finish, colors … they can all be different.”

Free said he and his team realize that particular corner of downtown Camas, which sits on the “civic end” of the downtown neighborhood near Camas City Hall and the Camas Public Library, often is utilized during public events and the Camas Farmer’s Market, and said the addition of a small, “pocket” park near the corner of Northeast Fourth Avenue and Northeast Everett, could help enhance that public access and add to the more “public” face of the fire station off Northeast Fourth Avenue. The City also would want to maintain the trees along Fourth Avenue, Free said.

The downtown “Camas annex” site has several pros, Free told Council members, including the fact that it is central to the Fire Station 41 target area, has “a clear egress path to Northeast Third Avenue,” is close to the CWFD Fire Marshal Office, is already owned by the city of Camas and could help the City develop a municipal center complex concept in Camas’ downtown.

The site’s “cons,” Free said, are the loss of the City employee parking lot off Northeast Third Avenue and the street vacation, which would eliminate four public parking spaces along Northeast Everett Street.

Another positive, the fire chief said, was that the new CWFD headquarters could have a community room for City and public uses located in the heart of downtown.

“We are looking for (City employee) parking mitigations,” Free said.

Council members — with the exception of Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen, who was absent from the Friday planning workshop — agreed that they liked the preliminary site plans and would approve the partial street vacation along Northeast Everett Street to help accommodate the new fire station.

“I like it,” Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu said. “I like that we own it … and the vacated traffic is probably (safer) with the engines coming out (onto Third Avenue instead of Fourth Avenue).”

Councilman Tim Hein said he thought the fire station would be a good use for the City-owned downtown parcel.

“We can get rid of the (City Hall annex building) and make something useful,” Hein said.

Councilman John Nohr, who works as a fire chief in north Clark County, said he liked the idea of the new fire station-headquarters having a more welcoming, public-facing side along Northeast Fourth Avenue, where the public could have more interactions with firefighters and be able to easily access public information while shopping, dining or celebrating in the city’s historic downtown.

“It offers easy access for community events. I like that aspect,” Councilmember Bonnie Carter said.

Camas Police Chief Tina Jones added that she also liked the plan to vacate the north half of Everett Street between Third and Fourth avenues.

“It increases safety,” Jones said.

The fire chief told The Post-Record that building the new fire station headquarters is a top priority. A 2021 consultants’ report showed Fire Station 41 does not meet the guidelines for “an essential facility,” would not withstand a major earthquake and should have been replaced by 2024.

“We need this (to be built) as soon as possible,” Free said.

The chief added that the 2021 report’s projected cost estimate of $12 million to $14 million for the downtown fire station headquarters is “grossly low (due to the rising cost) of materials and construction over the past three years.”

After getting head nods of approval from Council members Friday, Free said consultants would start the 20% design process and get a better understanding of what it will cost to construct the new fire station headquarters.

“This will be a building that serves this area’s emergency (fire and medical) needs for the next 50 years,” Free said. “This station is designed to (provide) our emergency service response for downtown Camas … and we are trying to do this as cost-effectively as we can.” Voters will ultimately decide the fate of the CWFD headquarters station.

Free told Council officials in July 2023, that replacing Station 41 will require at least 51% voter approval of a bond measure.

Going out for a 20-year construction bond, added Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn, will “allow future residents to share in the costs.”

“The bond is really the only mechanism for the City to build capital facilities,” Quinn told Council members Friday.

Free said he hopes Council members will place the bond before voters during the Aug. 6, 2024 Primary Election, and that he plans to host an open house within the next few weeks to help explain the concept to the public and answer questions.

If voters approve the fire station headquarters bond in August, Free said, construction would likely start in the spring or summer of 2025, and be completed in 2026.