Ecodensity Forever?

Does downtown Vancouver have a future beyond condos and coffee shops? The party’s over. The guests have all gone home, and after seven years of arranging the furniture and polishing the silverware, the hosts can finally sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. They liked us.

Vancouver ecodensity

Does downtown Vancouver have a future beyond condos and coffee shops?

The party’s over. The guests have all gone home, and after seven years of arranging the furniture and polishing the silverware, the hosts can finally sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. They liked us.
Sure, we deserve some down time, a few days off to shuffle around in our slippers and field the thank-you calls. But it won’t be long before Vancouverites have to slap some cold water on their faces and confront the reality of a new day. Our shiny new downtown impressed the visitors, but where do we go from here? How long can a city sustain itself building one “livable” community of high-rise condos after another?

Coal Harbour, Yaletown, False Creek: Vancouver has replicated its exemplary model of urban living over and over. But already cracks are appearing. Southeast False Creek, expected to be the crowning achievement of Ecodensity, required emergency life support to see completion, and its dreams of social diversity will be scaled back drastically, if not jettisoned altogether. We’ve busted our transportation budget with a shiny new subway line that whisks visitors downtown but does little for daily commuters, since downtown jobs are increasingly rare.

For the latest insights into possible futures for downtown Vancouver, BCBusiness gathered a panel including experts in real estate, demographic trends, architecture and design. Cameron Muir is chief economist with the B.C. Real Estate Association; Andrew Ramlo is a director with Urban Futures, a population research institute; and Trevor Boddy is an architecture critic and curator of “Vancouverism,” an exhibition that travelled to London and Paris before returning to Vancouver during the Olympics.

Vancouverites feel pretty smug about having one of the world’s most livable cities, but where do we go from here? Do we just keep building more condos and coffee shops?

MUIR: The trend toward higher density is not going to reverse itself. Vancouver is constrained by the ocean, the mountains, the border and the agricultural land reserve, with land in finite supply. The only place we’re going to house people is through high density and by going up rather than spreading out.

BODDY: Vancouver’s identity for a generation has been a place that has emphasized livability above all else. What we’re not doing well is the other half of the equation downtown, and that’s workspace. We have areas that used to house startups – software companies, architects – areas like Gastown, portions of Chinatown, Yaletown. Those have almost completely converted to housing, so we’ve lost our incubators. And we’ve built very little in terms of workspace over the last 10 to 15 years. In 1991 city council rezoned half of downtown to “residential optional.” Virtually none of that has gone as workspace. Our development and real estate industries are expert at providing housing, but we have to make some very serious public decisions about the nature of downtown and whether it will be a residential-only zone.

RAMLO: You guys are talking primarily about land use, but it’s the people who live on the land that are going to have an implication. Who is living downtown? Well, it’s predominantly 20-to-30-year-olds. A much higher proportion in that age group than in the region as a whole.


Cameron Muir

But how long can we continue filling downtown with condos?

BODDY: That’s one of the most important things for us to talk about today: downtown Vancouver after the era of cheap money. The era when Vancouver identified itself solely in real estate terms ended during the Olympic Games. The identity that Vancouver hangs on to as one enormous and continuous development project is going to change. A certain watermark has been passed, and with an era of expensive money – and with some of the demographic forces that Andrew’s indicated – we’re going to have quite a different city emerging in 10 to 15 years, and I’m not convinced we’re planning for it. I think we’ll be reactive: a kind of panic will set in in a couple of years when we’re not booming, when the cranes aren’t visible, when prices are not going up. We’ve so identified ourselves through those markers that we’ll wonder if we’re still Vancouver without them.

MUIR: Another key issue is affordable housing. If you go back 15, 18 years, the purpose-built rental stock in Greater Vancouver has actually declined about five per cent, and that’s been driven primarily by economics: it made more sense to build condominiums than it did to build rentals. So the population growth and the increase in rental demand has been satiated by private investors who have been buying a condominium or two and renting them out, as well as the many basement suites that are around the city. Purpose-built rental stock is likely not going to increase in a major way unless there’s some program or incentive out there. And as long as that supply is being constrained, then we’re going to have high housing costs.

Will Vancouver ever be a head-office town?

MUIR: We continue to have a small contingent of head offices here, and it’s still going to be a centre for businesses that need that connectivity, that need to have a presence in the major city. But a lot of office space activity over the next 20 years is going to move out toward the suburbs, where rents are less and there’s available space. And when we look at job growth, it’s highly correlated to where population is and where business park industrial land is, and that’s certainly strongest in areas such as Surrey and Langley, for example.

RAMLO: There’s also the function of what the Lower Mainland economy is. Unlike Calgary, where you go to the streets and ask, “What’s driving our local economy?” and people are going to say, “Oil,” ask the same question of somebody in downtown Vancouver and people don’t really know. So it’s a much more diversified economy, which lends itself to diversification in terms of the workplace as well. We don’t need as much of that concentration downtown. But having said that, if you’re not going to build any offices downtown, then you’re certainly not going to reinforce those jobs downtown.

BODDY: I guess I’m the worrier here because I think Vancouver has been asleep at the switch in terms of economic development. The city of Calgary spends more on economic development than every B.C. municipality put together. And they’re out there stomping on our toes. Vancouver, for the first time, will have to get over its beautiful-adolescence self-image and actually get out there and wear down some shoe leather, using things like land and quality of life to attract new business and grow the ones we have. Yes, there are lots of startups in Yaletown apartments, and lots of us work out of our homes, but what happens when you hire your third employee? When businesses get successful they migrate out, and there goes the tax base.

MUIR: We can’t disconnect downtown Vancouver from the overall region. Yes, the downtown area is an innovation incubator for young entrepreneurs, and as those incubators produce companies they may in fact move out of their trendy downtown space. But the important thing is that they move out to maybe south Vancouver or to Richmond or to Surrey or Burnaby, but not out of the region or the province. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges going forward, to maintain that intellectual capital.


Andrew Ramlo

How else will the shift of business from downtown to the suburbs affect Vancouver?

BODDY: If they move to strip malls in Surrey, that has a huge public policy impact. The growth in office space in the last decade has been in places that are incredibly ill-served by public transit. Our whole radial system of rail-based transit makes absolutely no sense because people are going to jobs where there isn’t any bus service. That’s the other missing option: we’ve got huge potential to develop around our transit stations, but complete paralysis. Look at Broadway and Commercial: 24 years after it became the hub of our transit system, nothing has been done there. If you look at Toronto, you see that the development industry worked with politicians and overrode the objections of neighbours to make job and living hubs right at transit. We are so far behind that, and we’re behind Richmond and Burnaby, and even Surrey is doing that. Vancouver is the slow coach.

RAMLO: That regional context applies to living too. The data for people with kids shows that you probably move into a condo downtown, either with a kid or you have one after you move in, but where do you put the next one? Do you put him out in the hall? Your likelihood is to transition away from that condo downtown. They’re going toward family-style housing, and the degree to which that type of housing is incorporated into downtown at a reasonable price will keep some of those people from going elsewhere.

What will downtown Vancouver look like in 20 years?

BODDY: Vancouverites talk about downtown because it’s our hood ornament, our symbol, our leading brand. But really, the future of downtown will ultimately be determined by what happens in the rest of the city and the region. Architecturally, Vancouver is more or less done; the cake is baked. It’ll be surprisingly undifferent in 15 to 20 years. What will really change will be things like our arterials. Kingsway, for example. Talk about huge potential: a transit corridor, and a lot of it has views. We will make a better downtown by enforcing the best qualities in the rest of the city. We can create affordability, create places where people other than extremely wealthy investors can have a niche.

RAMLO: If you just look at the downtown peninsula, your cake certainly is baked. But the pancake is going to flow eastward as well. And the Downtown Eastside will certainly have an implication in terms of becoming a more integrated part of downtown. That may be on the job side because people are looking at some sites to be developed in terms of workspace. But also on the residential side, with the City of Vancouver saying they’re going to put a cap on residential development here. Well, where are the developers going to look? They’re looking to the east side.


Trevor Boddy

Why haven’t developers taken advantage by building around transportation nodes?

MUIR: I think the number-one reason is that we don’t see the groundwork laid by local cities and municipalities in order to have those nodes rezoned and capable of supporting taller buildings and much higher residential densities. With the SkyTrain station on Commercial Drive, you’d think, given all the time that it’s been there, there would be several office towers, residential towers, some office space, unique retail and restaurant facilities.

RAMLO: And that’s not a product of the transportation system; that’s a product of planning. The planning notes say that we want to focus on jobs, in terms of that higher density stuff, in the regional town centres. Commercial and Broadway is the most accessible location within the Lower Mainland in terms of transportation, and it’s fundamentally stupid that it’s one storey all the way around.

BODDY: But the planning situation is a manifestation of political will, and in Vancouver there has not been political will to develop, or even to plan around the stations. For example, I live right by the King Edward station of the Canada Line. It’s all single-storey commercial buildings and bungalows, a hundred yards away. And when the line opened, the planning process just started. Where were they seven or eight years ago when they knew exactly what the station would be? There’s a kind of terror of residents objecting. In other words, why make a fuss by allowing density at our nodes? We’ll just leave it fallow. And you see the results of that at Commercial and Broadway.

If Vancouver’s downtown core is essentially built out, might suburbs like Surrey become the new downtown?

BODDY: I’ve been doing a fair bit of work in Surrey, and I think there is a really different ethos out there. I see a kind of hustle and grit right now that’s sort of lacking from Vancouver. I see a kind of readiness and an openness; Surrey knows that it faces a very competitive landscape for talent, for new businesses, for the tax dollars, and if they don’t offer quality urban spaces, with bikeable, walkable hubs, with more amenities, they will lose to other municipalities that are doing it better.

RAMLO: Vancouver’s the good-looking cousin. In Vancouver we can sit back on our laurels and say, “Gee, we can accept anything because we are the good-looking cousin.” And that has certainly shaped, to date, what is done on the land-use side and is going to in the future.

BODDY: Vancouver’s problem in the urban forum and in business development is success. We’re good-looking, we’re popular; the world came for our Olympics and they loved us. But we have to understand that we cannot coast on beauty and livability forever. We have to actually deliver the goods, and delivering the goods means filling in the gaps: developing the arterials, addressing affordability, for both residents and businesses.

Where do you expect to see the biggest change in Vancouver in the next 20 years?

RAMLO: It’s obviously going to be a much different place than it is today. Immigration is going to drive population growth in the coming years, so it’s going to be much more culturally diverse. And the tides are turning: downtown is becoming more of a suburb, and the suburbs are becoming more like downtown. Downtown will always be downtown, but we will start to see some diversification throughout the region.

MUIR: The skyline is going to get a little bit higher, but, more importantly, in 20 years the boomers – the pig in the python if you will – is moving forward and housing design over the next 20 years will have to change, as will the way we design livable communities. In terms of the economy, I think Vancouver’s ideal location and our ethnic diversity are setting the stage for tremendous success with our trading partners in Asia, and I think we’ll be astounded at the amount of trade and integration that we’re going to receive as a result of that.

BODDY: I’d like to go back to the metaphor of the downtown peninsula as a cake that’s baked. What hasn’t been done, though, is that we haven’t iced it yet. And I think there are some pretty important decisions there. You can destroy a cake with icing, and by icing I mean things like public spaces, parks. And I do think that with the 10 or 20 per cent of sites that are yet to be developed, we have to get much more demanding in terms of architectural quality, both in terms of the visual quality of our buildings and their social fit and possibility. Basically the shape is there; it’s come out of the oven and it’s ready to be iced. I hope it ends well.