A post-Olympics vision for southeast False Creek begins to take shape

Despite headline-grabbing financing woes, the chances of the Vancouver Olympic Village not reaching completion are slim. Were construction of the southeast False Creek project to halt, it would be both a major embarrassment and a logistical nightmare for VANOC, the IOC and all levels of government. Indeed, the larger question now is what the project’s legacy will be, both for the City of Vancouver and its citizens.

The Millennium Group agreed in April 2006 to pay the city $193 million for the 2.6-hectare former industrial site, which at $225 a buildable square foot was the highest price ever commanded by a Vancouver property. But subsequent news has virtually cancelled the glow of that sale. Construction costs have increased to $875 million (and counting), while the citywhich retains control over the site until the project is built, as per its leasing arrangement with VANOChas become the project’s de facto financier. Residents, meanwhile, worry what it all might mean for property taxes.

The city’s director of planning Brent Toderian politely avoids talking about the financial side of the project when asked. Instead he mentions the value of the experience to city planners. Already, he notes, staff have been incorporating lessons learned in planning the sustainable features of southeast False Creekneighbourhood energy utilities, provisions for urban agriculture and othersinto the planning of neighbourhoods such as East Fraserlands, Arbutus Centre, Oakridge and the contentious Little Mountain site. “Usually the shadow cast by models like this goes beyond the adjacent land,” he says. While the village project is slated to deliver 1,100 homesa community intended to anchor a 32-hectare district of between 12,000 and 16,000 peopleToderian says the impact of the project will be felt in communities across the city. “It’s not just about how [southeast False Creek] affects the adjacent lands; it’s about how it affects the entire city and even the regional thinking about how to do density well.”

After all, the Olympic Village is about more than just homes. It sits at the heart of a neighbourhood that will ultimately include 10 hectares of green space, a community centre and at least 30,000 square feet of commercial space. Buildings will be built to achieve Silver certification under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard, with some projects developed to the higher Gold and Platinum levels.

Operated by VANOC between November 2009 and March 2010, the property reverts to the city in April 2010, after which Millennium prepares the individual condo units for delivery to its buyers. Construction on adjacent parcels will continue through 2018. The complex nature of the Olympic Village’s development plans, the competing community concerns and the international expectations for the site, combined with the short time frame slotted for development, played no small role in its financing issues. According to the City of Vancouver’s director of real estate Michael Flanigana veteran of the process that saw the city select Westbank Projects Corp. to redevelop the former Woodward’s sitethe Olympic Village was a unique challenge from the beginning. “With Woodward’s, the city still had a significant financial stake, but there was no fixed delivery date nor was there a ground lease in play. So those are complicating factors particularly on southeast False Creek,” he says. The city’s interest virtually required the city to backstop loans to Millennium because Millennium didn’t yet own the property on which the village was risingand as such didn’t have the collateral needed to secure the monies it was being advanced.

Only the city could provide that security.

For Toderian, the planning that went into southeast False Creeknot the premium Millennium (or taxpayers) will pay for balancing the site’s competing interestswill be the village’s lasting public legacy. Wide-ranging public consultations helped whet the appetites of aspiring planners for the public design process, while the models the Olympic Village gives for district energy, green design, green roofs, urban agriculture and passive solar design promise to draw students from across North America. “In a world where, increasingly, international ‘starchitects’ are selling a new package of urbanism, I think the Olympic Village’s best legacy is as a pattern for neighbourhood building,” Toderian says. “[It] shows that good, old-fashioned urbanisma well-connected neighbourhood pattern, good density, good design, good scale and massingis a critically important model for the world.”