A peek behind the curtain of Vancouver’s largest construction project in the former Oakridge Centre

The $4.5-billion Oakridge project by Vancouver developers Westbank and QuadReal will end with 14 towers.

The Oakridge project in Vancouver

Credit: Westbank

The $4.5-billion project by Vancouver developers Westbank and QuadReal will end with 14 towers

Walking or driving by the corner of Cambie Street and 41st Avenue—the former site of the Oakridge shopping centre—you just know that whatever is going on behind the chain-link fencing and the shipping-container hoarding must be chaos.

Seriously: look skyward and there is a disorienting dance of a dozen tower cranes, all hoisting and swinging independently and somehow not banging into one another. At street level, an army of flag people are waving with equal gusto, warning off cars and cyclists and ushering through a ceaseless parade of cement trucks. In the morning, nearly 1,000 workers file in from the Canada Line or from vehicles dispersed across the neighbourhood. And when they all leave in the evening, the whole, burgeoning form looks like it has accumulated another layer of concrete and steel.

This is the largest construction project in Metro Vancouver, likely the largest in Western Canada. When it’s done, there will be 14 towers, rising as high as 55 storeys over the second-largest shopping centre in the region. There will be enough retail and office space (810,000 square feet of the latter alone) to qualify this as a second downtown for the City of Vancouver, and there will be some 3 million square feet of residential—including 2,300 condos (many priced at over $2,000 per square foot), as well as 587 units of market rental and 420 of affordable rental.

Add to that a 100,000-square-foot community centre, a kilometre-long running track, a two-acre “food hall,” and a nine-acre park with more than 1,400 trees (which is the number of trees calculated to have been growing here when Oakridge was still an old-growth forest). And this is all unfolding on a 28-acre site at one of the busiest intersections in town. Chaos.

Except for this: once you get through the gate—past the safety officer accosting people for having the wrong footwear or (horrors!) no safety vest—the place is an odd kind of sanctuary. I mean, it’s no Walden Pond, but, for starters, its weirdly quiet. Yes, there are trucks and cranes, along with the constant thrum of machine noise that drives the neighbours crazy. But there’s little shouting or banging. Turns out that it’s a lot less noisy to tie rebar (the steel rods used to reinforce concrete) than it is to hammer lumber.

Also—and this is obvious once you think about it—no one is running around. First of all, they can’t be; the aforementioned safety officers would have a coronary. But these are hourly workers moving at a measured pace. At least it seems measured until you try to keep up. Stumbling across a couple of feet of freshly tied rebar, wearing borrowed steel-toed rubber boots, I realize they’re actually sprinting.

Still, the key to output isn’t hustle so much as effective planning and methodical execution. It begins with a daily 7 a.m. meeting of site superintendents, but instead of three or four attendees as you’d have on a typical high-rise project, there are up to 40 of them. You have senior superintendents for the biggest buildings, assistant supers representing the trades and someone whose sole role is to make sure all those cranes keep not bumping into one another.

The meeting is a study in nonchalance. Everyone speaks just loudly enough to be heard by the general superintendent, who pumps up the volume if it’s an update for the whole group. Then, everybody breaks into task-specific huddles, which wrap with near-military precision as people disperse through the site, joining workers who have already resumed their tasks from the previous day.

Still, the scale is all but unfathomable. This is a $4.5-billion project, from Vancouver developers Westbank and QuadReal. The site excavation went into the ground five storeys deep, constituting 761,000 cubic metres of material; it took 54,760 dump trucks to carry it all away.

Now, it comes back. On the biggest day, contractor EllisDon poured 5,000 cubic metres of concrete in one go—that parade had more than 500 cement trucks. It was for a “raft slab,” the foundation of two big buildings along 41st Avenue. They had to book every concrete plant in the city, months ahead, and complete the pour on a Saturday when no other work sites were competing for product.

And that’s the easy part. Leigh Edge from Westbank says that all they’ve been building so far is “the skeleton”—the concrete bones. Now, crews are starting on major mechanical components, heating and air conditioning—“the heart and lungs.” And, soon, others will begin hanging the curtain-wall “skin,” mostly glass cladding. Then (and by this point, the number of workers on site will have almost doubled) they’ll fill in the designer interiors, installing everything from handmade Italian cabinetry to 1.125 million square feet of carpet (most of it from 100-percent recycled material).

All that will take some time. But Edge says that, by next March, “you’re really going to see something” as the exteriors take shape. And, by Christmas 2024, you’ll be wandering Vancouver’s most beautiful new park and frolicking through the entertainment and retail pleasures of the city’s second cultural hub.

With enthusiasm—and just a hint of equivocation—Edge says: “That’s the plan!”

On the Radar

Water In; Water Out

The stuff might fall out of the sky, but even in Vancouver water is too precious a resource to waste. So, Oakridge Park is going to dip into the 195-square-kilometre Quadra Sands aquifer to source water for everything from flushing toilets and washing Teslas to watering trees and gardens in the nine-acre mall-top park.

Actually, the term “aquifer” might make you think that Oakridge is perched over a big underground pool or cave; but it’s more like a vast bathtub full of saturated sand—the water in which flows beneath Oakridge from the highpoint at Queen Elizabeth Park south toward the Fraser River. Rather than relying exclusively on fresh water drawn and pumped from the North Shore mountains, 15 kilometres away, Oakridge will tap the aquifer, which, added to recycled stormwater, will provide 72 percent of the project’s non-potable water, breaking a North American record.

That still won’t quench the thirst for drinking water—or manage the kind of wastewater that won’t sit well on the greenery. For that, Westbank added:

  • kilometres of new storm sewers—6 feet in diameter
  • 2 kilometres of sanitary sewers2.5 feet in diameter
  • 1.5 kilometres of water mains—12 inches in diameter