Vancouver Urban Development: The Downtown Divide


The world tilted and we didn’t fall off. Like a scary Disney­land ride, the market has shaken some money out of our pockets, and we’re now dealing with an upset stomach and some blurred vision. But as with any ride, we know from experience that somewhere, in the not-so-distant future, the roller-coaster will end. Our legs will stop shaking and we’ll find some steady ground to stand upon. As the City of Vancouver looks for that solid ground, the current priority for planners is to preserve the downtown core for office/commercial density. The problem is that, in isolation, this plays into the growing perception of Vancouver as a “rich man’s city.” Our number 1 challenge going forward is finding affordable homes for local incomes, and while we must continue to attract businesses to Vancouver, these new office towers will prove only part of the solution. Without housing for future workers, and not just for the CEOs, our economic prospects are in serious jeopardy. Adding to the housing strain is the fact that people are still migrating to B.C. – from across Canada and around the world – in record numbers. Urban Futures predicts that average migration to the Lower Mainland will rise from about 30,000 annually to over 45,000 annually in the next two decades. People in places like China and South Korea – who have also gone on a bit of a ride and seen money fall out of their pockets – are now re-evaluating where they want their money, as well as themselves and their families, to live. They’re searching for something new and hopeful – but something that’s still safe. Vancouver remains, despite all the global economic uncertainty, at the top of their list. But if we are to continue to be seen as that “safe” alternative, we need to be able to fund cultural and civic infrastructures – to build and maintain the sort of city in which people want to live. As philanthropy declines during these tough economic times, how are we going to fund major museums and cultural venues? How will we fix another tear in the BC Place roof? Governments can’t take on debt as they did before because the revenue is not there to offset the enormous costs. Look at what happened to Ballet B.C. just before Christmas. As office and residential developers continue to sit on their chequebooks, where are we going to recoup all those lost property taxes and development-cost dollars that help run our city and province? I estimate that over $100 million in anticipated development-cost levies has been put on hold in southeast False Creek alone since mid-2008. This is revenue that our city was counting on, and now they’ll have to either raise taxes or cut funding to deliver today what was promised yesterday. As much as the rest of B.C. and Canada hate to hear it, Vancouver is special. That is why we can’t say, “Let’s have office towers,” and “Be less reliant on the car,” then ignore affordable housing for those who want to live close to work. We can’t say, “Create cultural experiences,” “Solve homelessness” and “Entice the world to move here” and then complain when the world actually shows interest in coming. As our stomachs settle and eyes clear, we are left counting and recounting what’s left in our pockets. But we’re also left with some hard choices. Do we build offices in the hopes of attracting new business without building nearby homes for workers? Do we continue to rely on investors to be our primary source of rental stock? Can we build cultural venues and fund arts institutions without property-related tax dollars? This time, when the dust clears, we cannot complain about the state of Vancouver unless we resolve to be part of the solution. Nothing can be looked at in isolation. As my ex-wife used to say, paraphrasing a well-known quote: “A man who adheres to a position previously stated when times change is an idiot.” It’s a guiding philosophy for my business and an enduring hope for my city.