The New North Vancouver

North Vancouver reinvents itself with a plan that calls for higher density, more jobs and a promise not to compromise neighbourhood character. Seen across Burrard Inlet from downtown Vancouver, the three North Shore municipalities look idyllic. West Vancouver climbs the slopes of Cypress Mountain, while the two North Vancouvers – distinct legal entities, one the city and the other the district that surrounds it – serve as an alpine suburb for a middle-class mix that offers a microcosm of Metro Vancouver.

Lynn Valley, North Van | BCBusiness
The new commercial complex in Lynn Valley has provided a much-needed social centre for the area.

North Vancouver reinvents itself with a plan that calls for higher density, more jobs and a promise not to compromise neighbourhood character.

Seen across Burrard Inlet from downtown Vancouver, the three North Shore municipalities look idyllic. West Vancouver climbs the slopes of Cypress Mountain, while the two North Vancouvers – distinct legal entities, one the city and the other the district that surrounds it – serve as an alpine suburb for a middle-class mix that offers a microcosm of Metro Vancouver.

But like many older, single-family-home neighbourhoods throughout Metro Vancouver, the single-family-home neighbourhoods of North Vancouver – and in particular, the District of North Vancouver – are going through a generational crisis. While developers have built high-density housing in the appealing Lonsdale Avenue corridor, the district is recognizing that the single-family homes its older residents were able to buy are out of reach for its young adults and families.

Large-lot houses are typical in the
District of North Vancouver;

recent commercial/residential
development at Maplewood;

Edgemont Village;

high-density residential towers in
the City of North Vancouver’s
“downtown” district off Lonsdale

Jim Rainer is a long-time North Vancouver resident. A former forestry executive, he started his family here with his wife in the late 1950s, just off Lonsdale Avenue. After relocating to Toronto, he returned to buy a newly built home on a quiet street at the top of the District of North Vancouver. The real estate agent discouraged him, but the price was right, and there was a school just up the street. The district was selling neighbouring lots for $5,000 apiece – a steal, in retrospect – and other families soon moved in.

Now, over 50 years later, Rainer looks back wistfully. A steady stream of cars to and from the elementary school just up the street indicates that young families still live in the school’s catchment area, but Rainer knows the school’s reputation has helped save it. “There are still a lot of people in the catchment basin for this school who can afford to live here,” Rainer says. “This is not likely to change because the school has an excellent reputation. It had good teachers when our four kids went there, and the staff is still top drawer.” But if the school’s calibre has helped it avoid closure, schools elsewhere in the district haven’t been so lucky. The remaining schools now draw pupils from a broader area, underscoring the subtle changes in the district’s demographics and fabric. Below the surface, not all is well.

Facing challenges in the District of North Vancouver

While rising home values may benefit existing residents, it has meant challenges for the District of North Vancouver and other municipalities. High land costs and a shrinking employment-age population discourage employers from setting up shop, resulting in fewer jobs and further acceleration of the shift toward an older demographic.

Between 1996 and 2006, the District of North Vancouver lost 1,000 jobs. Over the same period the proportion of 20- to 40-year-olds in the district fell from 27.7 per cent to 21 per cent – well below the regional average of 28.5 per cent. Seniors – those 65 years of age and older – rose to 13.5 per cent of the population over the same period (compared to 12.8 per cent for all of Metro Vancouver).

But seniors need places to live too, and the lack of smaller, affordable homes in the District of North Vancouver hurts those wanting to downsize just as much as young families looking to get a foot in the real estate market. Those who sell don’t have a lot of options to downsize in the neighbourhoods where they’ve raised families, developed friendships and enjoyed medical care. To sell often means leaving everything they’ve known.

“There’s a lot of people who would like to call the North Shore home, but there probably aren’t enough opportunities to accommodate the people who would like to be there,” says Neil Chrystal, president of Polygon Homes Ltd. “A lot of people are leaving that community to go elsewhere because they can’t find the housing that they want.”

Image: Peter Holst
Mayor of the District of North Vancouver, Richard
Walton, says no more trees will be cut down to make
room for new subdivisions.

The North Shore’s potential

Chrystal was raised on the North Shore and knows the potential of the area, as well as the hurdles it has faced as the population has shifted. It was partly with a view to addressing these challenges that Polygon launched Anderson Walk, a low-rise, wood-frame building just off Lonsdale in the City of North Vancouver that’s seen both first-time home buyers and retirees move in. The city has been the favoured spot for these kinds of projects, but he believes the district has opportunities for similar projects. “If you look at Mount Seymour, for example, there’s very few opportunities for them to downsize within their community, so many of them end up moving to the city,” Chrystal says. “It’s a shame that they have to leave to find the housing.”

It’s common today for civic planners to urge the sacrifice of single-family-home neighbourhoods in the name of density and affordability. The District of North Vancouver, however, developed a new official community plan last year – its first since 1991 – that it believes offers something different.

Home Price Index

Vancouver West $2,165,800
West Vancouver $1,825,000
Richmond $1,002,800
North Vancouver $950,900
Burnaby South $930,700
Burnaby North $902,900
Vancouver East $820,400
Port Moody $777,600
New Westminster $651,500
Port Coquitlam $545,100
Maple Ridge $467,800

Benchmark detached home price. Compiled by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver

Respecting the district’s existing single-family-home neighbourhoods, the plan focuses residential growth in a network of eight hubs that, to date, have been under-developed or have been marginal to planning activities. One such area is Capilano-Marine, currently a mix of industrial and retail development along the Capilano River. Residential stock here is older, but affordable and close to amenities and job opportunities (including the Seaspan shipyards, which expects to hire 500 people after being one of the winners of the 30-year shipbuilding contracts Ottawa awarded last fall). Lower Lynn, between Lynn Creek and Seymour River, and Maplewood are similar areas, where residential areas lie close to shopping centres and industrial zones with well-paying jobs.

The trouble is, the homes in these areas are on large properties from an earlier era when salaries bought a lot more real estate than today’s wages will buy. The big shortcoming of the 1991 community plan, according to District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton, was a focus on residential growth rather than economic sustainability. “It was a good plan, but one of the things it was probably a little shy on was the recognition of the importance of long-term stable business in the district,” he says. “It was really an official community plan that was about residential neighbourhoods and protecting the character of those neighbourhoods, and a little less about the economic side of sustainability.”

The District of North Vancouver’s new community plan

The new plan aims to respect the low-rise nature of the district, but within strict boundaries. Push-back against the previous plan resulted in past councils nixing plans for the construction of 3,000 homes on what was then – and will now remain – green space. “We’re done cutting down trees to build new subdivisions,” Walton states, emphatically.

But the district also plans to encourage economic development within district boundaries, setting an ambitious goal of increasing commercial-industrial floor space by 33 per cent by 2030 (from 5.9 million square feet today) and boosting the number of jobs in the district to 36,000, which is 10,000 more than currently exist.

An improved transit network that facilitates movement of people and reduces the district’s environmental footprint is also envisioned, part of the district’s response to changes in climate that are a stark reality for a municipality whose identity is sandwiched between alpine watersheds and a working waterfront.

“We identified the demographic shift, the loss of jobs, environmental impact, somehow trying to get better transit to our communities,” explains Brian Bydwell, general manager of planning, properties and permits for the district. “But rather than disrupt existing neighbourhoods, we had to find places where we had opportunities to grow.”

Image: Gayleen Whiting
The District of North Vancouver has identified eight hubs slated for growth. (The City of North Vancouver lies within the pink border.)
The solution was a “network of centres” that channel growth into eight hubs, adding density to existing centres while allowing duplexes and other forms of infill development to augment the housing stock of existing single-family-home neighbourhoods.

Key hubs designated in the plan include: Capilano-Marine Drive on the western edge of the municipality, where 2,000 additional housing units are planned; Lynn Valley, home to a new library and town centre with plans for an additional 3,000 housing units; Lower Lynn, an area between Main Street and Mountain Highway also slated to receive 3,000 new homes; and Maplewood, on the east bank of the Seymour River, with 1,500 units.

Edgemont Village, which is attracting new office development, Queensdale, Parkgate and Deep Cove are additional hubs. Capilano University is an anchor for its community, while Squamish First Nation has ambitious plans for property it controls along the Seymour River.

North Van’s density plans

Densification is also planned for the District of North Vancouver’s commercial-industrial lands, which municipal staff are reviewing for potential infill and densification opportunities. A rezoning exercise now allows office space above industrial in two areas, for example. “We aren’t growing, so we have to more intensely use them,” Bydwell says of the district’s lands.

Commercial Lease Rates

Yaletown $29 – $35
Vancouver (Downtown) $26 – $42
Vancouver (Broadway) $24 – $30
North Shore $20 – $28
Burnaby $19 – $28
New Westminster $16 – $26
Richmond $16 – $20
Surrey $17 – $28

Class “A” commercial real estate lease rates per net rental per square foot. Compiled by Avison Young for year-end 2011.

The new focus on density is making the area that much more attractive to home builders who, in the past, have been reluctant to invest in an area that’s been a mix of everything but offered no real sense of place. That changed when local developer Abo Taheiri, principal of Seylynn (North Shore) Properties Corp., plunked down $43.3 million for a 5.5-acre site on Mountain Highway. The site, known as Seylynn Village, can accommodate 700,000 square feet of highrise development. Other sites are now in play.

“Everyone else was a little reluctant to go ahead because nobody’s done anything like that in recent history,” says Matt Thomas, a broker with Avison Young. Now, he adds, “all the developers are interested in the area. I get calls on a weekly basis from groups looking to buy sites.”

Thomas himself is keen on what’s in store. He was raised on the North Shore but headed to Vancouver as an adult. Now he’s at a stage where he wants to move back and raise a family in the same sort of community in which he grew up. “You can’t go to West Vancouver [and] most of North Vancouver is priced too high,” he says. “This is an area that will be priced a little lower, so a lot of the people my age will be able to afford moving back onto the North Shore.”

While pricing for highrise units in the area is far from certain at this point, Seylynn has several factors in its favour: low land costs ($65 a buildable square foot, versus more than twice that in downtown Vancouver) and zoning that allows greater density and, in turn, condo units smaller than the typical single-family home. One element that Thomas believes would enhance the area is better transit service, yet another part of the district’s plan.

By channelling density and development into key centres, the district’s community plan envisions the creation of an “enhanced transit, active transportation, district energy and . . . livable, sustainable urban corridor” anchored on one end by Ambleside, which West Vancouver has designated as its town centre, and the district’s Lower Lynn and Maplewood areas on the other.

Image: Peter Holst
Once dotted with dilapidated homes, the Seylynn
site will soon be transformed into high-density hous-
ing, renewing this area of North Vancouver, just off
the Trans-Canada Highway.

While most North Vancouver residential development to date has clustered along Lonsdale Avenue, thanks to tram service a century ago and the current SeaBus link to Vancouver, the district’s designation of key centres for density will increase the viability of a single, east-west transit route – most likely a B-Line bus service. The vision hasn’t yet progressed to formal discussions, but it has both municipal buy-in and the support of TransLink.

The vision of a unifying corridor underscores the fact that the district’s challenges aren’t unique. Walton candidly notes that the district’s plans are in sync with what City of North Vancouver staff are developing as part of a review of the city’s official community play, which will wrap up early next year. “It is the urban core; that’s where most of the apartments are,” Walton says, noting that the city currently provides affordable housing to much of the North Shore.

Population Density

Vancouver 5039.0
North Vancouver City 3812.2
New Westminster 3799.7
White Rock 3633.1
Burnaby 2275.6
Port Coquitlam 1826.4
Port Moody 1073.7
Richmond 1354.9
Surrey 1245.3
Coquitlam 941.5
Delta 526.5
North Vancouver District 513.9
West Vancouver 483.5
Maple Ridge 259.4

Per square km. Compiled by Metro Vancouver, 2006 census (most current information)

The City of North Vancouver

The City of North Vancouver’s housing stock is 52 per cent rental apartments and duplexes, and Lonsdale is both the region’s historic downtown as well as the natural and most welcoming place for highrise development. Walking north along Lonsdale from the waterfront, one will encounter several development sites that are transforming parking lots and low-rise buildings into mixed-use towers offering residential and commercial space.

Darrell Mussatto, mayor of the City of North Vancouver, says each municipality makes a contribution to the life of the North Shore, but he’s also keen to see greater cohesiveness emerging a century after the three North Shore municipalities hived off from each other. “You’re starting to see development in an east-west line, whereas before it used to be north-south – everything went to Lions Gate, Second Narrows Bridge over to Vancouver,” he says.

“We all know that we’re all going to have to provide some level of housing, whether it’s high-end of market or non-market rental housing; we all have to provide some of that,” Mussatto says. “[But] we all share in the amenities . . . . We’re at our best on the North Shore when we’re working together.”

It’s a model he thinks the rest of the region can learn from; density needn’t mean the end of existing neighbourhoods, but it doesn’t mean they’ll stay the same, either. While the North Shore has the luxury of modest population growth – the combined population of North Vancouver city and district increased just 3.8 per cent between 2006 and 2011, versus 4.4 per cent for the Vancouver metropolitan area – it is trying to accommodate the growth in a way that respects what is largely a suburban context.

“Everybody thinks the world is going to end and the sky is going to fall, but it won’t,” Mussatto says of the plans for increased density. “It starts living locally again. You have local farmers’ markets and local activities so you don’t have to commute long distances.”

This is what Jim Rainer remembers of the North Vancouver where his family first lived in the late 1950s, just off Lonsdale on West 16th Street. Shops were around the corner and the running around families do today wasn’t necessary. The community was smaller, and social connections developed as neighbours passed through local shops and along the street. “There were many more single-family homes, both east and west of Lonsdale, than today.  And the densification is gradually replacing single-family homes with row houses and condos,” Rainer says. “[But] hopefully, this village atmosphere will exist when all the highrise construction now underway is completed.”