How the growth of rapid transit is reshaping real estate across the Lower Mainland

EcoDensity, one of the most ambitious and controversial initiatives introduced by former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, has brought the question of how many people can (and should) live and work in a square foot of space to the forefront of city planning debates. On the one side are the owners of single-family homes in many neighbourhoods who don’t want to be steamrolled by rezoning that creates higher densities; on the other, the civic technocrats who believe that densification is the linchpin of sustainable design and the hallmark of good urban planning.

What’s often missed in debates about densification, however, is the key role played by transit-oriented development, which is in the spotlight these days as the province expands rapid transit lines throughout the Lower Mainland, most notably with the projected November 2009 opening of the $1.9-billion, 19-kilometre Canada Line linking Vancouver to Richmond and Vancouver International Airport. Soon after the original SkyTrain line opened in 1985, developers zeroed in on the various stationsfrom Collingwood in southeast Vancouver to those in Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey – as nexuses for densification. Residential and commercial towers rose up, punctuating the skyline with groves of highrises. A total of 7,870 homes were built within a 500-metre radius of SkyTrain stations along the original Expo Line between 1986 and 1996, with the interest of developers soon following as the SkyTrain system expanded with the Millennium Line launch in 2002.

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TransLink is now planning four so-called “transit villages” to augment those hubs, each designed (in TransLink’s words) to be “an attractive, compact, mixed-use community, centered around a transit station, enabling residents, workers and shoppers to drive less and take transit, walk and cycle more.” The locations include the Broadway-Commercial, Metrotown, Edmonds and Surrey Central stations, each selected with a view to boosting urban densities while maximizing transit use. The City of Surrey is also laying the groundwork for densification around the final three stations of the original Expo Line. A complex of four towers is planned adjacent to the Gateway SkyTrain station – including 650,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of residential units – while Mayor Dianne Watts envisions a host of civic institutions (including a library, performing arts centre and other amenities) joining the 1.7-million-square-foot Central City complex. The move to densify meshes with the thinking of Cushman & Wakefield LePage vice-president Richard Wozny, who says that with few new sources of developable land left and restrictions on the sites that are available, Metro Vancouver should be looking at intensifying the use of key transit hubs for some forms of development. “It is clear that all communities should work more closely with transit and the development [community] to create and support major nodes of development at stations,” he says. “We need more transit-oriented development than is being built.” Developers do have ambitious plans for several sites along the Canada Lineparticularly in Richmond, where city council is pursuing a new downtown area plan to capitalize on the project. But there’s a lot of room for improvement, according to Wozny. “Richmond is not sufficiently supporting high density right on the stations,” he says. Fairchild Group may have ambitious plans to link its Aberdeen Centre development with the adjacent Aberdeen station, for instance, but a large park is one of the proposals discussed by the city for a site adjacent to Lansdowne station.

Transit-oriented development is ultimately important because it facilitates the movement of staff, which is key for both companies and city planners. “You can’t just assume that if there’s transit nearby, people will use itunless there’s something along that transit route that people want to get to,” says Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian, noting that businesses are typically what people go to most. Homes, not so much. “We certainly want [residential] density around transit, but job density is a particularly important goal because a square foot of job space connects with at least four times the ridership as a square foot of residential,” Toderian says. Integration of job space is key to PCI Group’s proposed mixed-use development at Cambie Street and Southwest Marine Drive. PCI touts the projectdesigned by Vancouver architects Busby Perkins + Will to have upward of 850,000 square feet including retail space, an office tower and 500 homes (including 180 rental units)as the first major site to be built under the terms of Vancouver’s EcoDensity charter. Toderian urges caution about that claim, however, saying that the mix of uses has to be right: “No one’s disagreeing with the mix around transit stations, but we don’t have a lot of pure job space left in the city. That’s the challenge for us if we really want to be sustainable.”