A year after the Olympics, life is starting to appear on the business landscape of Southeast False Creek – slowly .
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a free tasting of fortified wines has lured the thirsty and curious into Legacy Liquor Store, the cavernous new 8,600-square-foot private store in the heart of Olympic Village, now officially known as the Village on False Creek. Couples with monstrous strollers, the young and bearded of Mount Pleasant, and seniors in track suits and dark glasses crowd the granite-topped bar in back, sipping a mid-priced reserve from Jerez.
“I always think of this one as butter tarts in a glass,” says 31-year-old Legacy general manager Darryl Lamb, uncorking a bottle behind the bar. “With a little crème brûlée, flan, even Fig Newtons, it’s magic.” A line has formed, curling back through elaborate displays of craft beer and a maze of well-stocked wine racks. Between pours, Lamb explains that the healthy turnout today is hardly unusual: “The amount of walk-in traffic since we opened in November has been unbelievable. We’re already months and months ahead of our sales projections.”
In the throes of receivership, against a backdrop of lawsuits from jilted condo buyers and lingering controversies about concessions to developers and taxpayer-shouldered losses, the Olympic Village development and the surrounding Southeast False Creek neighbourhood (stretching from the Cambie Bridge to Main Street, and from False Creek to West Second Avenue) are quietly getting on with the business of business. Proximity to downtown, ample mass transit and an ambitious residential plan all seem to augur well for the area’s commercial future. “Developers are creating a lot of density and a lot of residential activity,” says Tsur Somerville, director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “The fact that there are no readily accessible amenities there right now creates an excellent environment for retailers to go into.”
Rosy retail forecasts are currently tempered, however, by a simple metric: in and around Olympic Village, there are still few residents. The Southeast False Creek neighbourhood is projected to house 12,000 Vancouverites in 6,200 residential units by 2020, putting it roughly on par with current-day Oakridge or West Point Grey. For now, however, the area remains a post-industrial mash-up of vacant lots and rusting mills, eerily empty new mid-rises and construction sites. Just 1,300 people currently reside in Southeast False Creek, according to city estimates. And even after an aggressive round of fire sales, at the time of writing 48 per cent of available Village condos were still unsold, according to a media representative of Rennie Marketing Systems. A far greater percentage remain unoccupied.
Back outside of Legacy, the Village’s signature community plaza – buttressed by mid-rises and open to False Creek – is nearly empty on a sunny afternoon. Two young children make a game of climbing Myfanwy MacLeod’s outsized sparrow sculptures, using the tail feathers as slides. The restored Salt Building, a bright red reminder of False Creek’s industrial past, remains shuttered, signs stubbornly promising a restaurant that has yet to materialize. And more than a year after athletes vacated the Village with their haul of Olympic gold, silver and bronze, shop windows flanking the plaza are still papered over, the unfinished walls and girders inside shrouded from public view.
But the tipping point may be nearing. “Whenever you’re building a development like this in time for the Olympics, you’re doing it in an order that’s a little different from what the market would suggest,” says Brent Toderian, director of planning for the City of Vancouver. Toderian has addressed Olympic Village concerns before, and when he speaks it’s with the passion of a father defending a sadly misunderstood child: “There’s a great long-term vision here that just requires a little patience.” Despite appearances of hasty execution, he explains, Southeast False Creek’s master plan has in fact been in the works since 1991, when city councillors first issued a mandate for the new neighbourhood to be built as a “model of sustainability, incorporating forward-thinking infrastructure, strategic energy reduction, high-performance buildings and high transit access.”