Arbutus agreement leaves little room for development

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Image by: City of Vancouver
A rendering of what the city has in mind

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The city agrees to buy the rail corridor for $55 million

The decade-long saga over the Arbutus Street rail corridor came to a close on Monday, as the City of Vancouver agreed to buy the lands from Canadian Pacific for $55 million. "After a lot of patience, and commitment on both sides, we have an agreement that will benefit all residents," said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson at a press conference. “It is now public land."

As part of the agreement, the city will pay $55 million—what Robertson called a “fair market valuation”—for a nine-kilometre-long  strip, 42 acres in total, which stretches from False Creek down to the Fraser River. The city and CP had previously lobbed figures as high as $400 million and as low as $20 million in the protracted negotiations over the fate of the unused rail line, which go back to 2004. After what was, at times, an acrimonious dispute, the city and the railway operator began to make headway in the fall, said Robertson, just as CP stated that it intended to use the line to store unused cars. At that time, “we saw a change of heart from both parties,” said Robertson.

In the short term, the city plans to turn the line into a pedestrian and bike corridor. The city will remove the rails, ties and signal boxes within a year as it sets out to create a "New York-style High Line" pathway, akin to the seawall. The city plans to invest $25 to $30 million to “bring it up to greenway standards,” said Robertson.

Farther afield, the city is launching a community planning process that will end in 2020 to decide the long-term future of the route. "Right now there is no development envisioned,” said Robertson. “The plan is for a transportation corridor."

As part of the agreement, the city would compensate CP if the land increased in value, say, if it were rezoned to high-density residential. While a 2007 report to council outlined a few options for development along the corridor—multi-story mixed-use in Kerrisdale, and coach-house-style residences along stretches in Marpole and Shaughnessy—its authors found little public appetite. That will push the city, and future councils, to keep the route zoned as it is, or open to a potential light rail streetcar line, as called for in its 2040 transportation plan.

“That takes away some of the incentive to rezone,” explains former city councillor Gordon Price on his blog Price Tags, and ties future councils (long-term planning won’t be complete until well after the 2018 election) to keeping it a transportation route“Will the City ensure that there is no constraint on future councils to develop a transit corridor sometime in the future?  If not, that’s a very nice piece of additonal green space for some of the highest valued real estate in Canada—as well as a good addition to the City’s greenway network."

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