Land Values: Wesgroup is developing Vancouver’s River District, but the community is missing some key layers

The school, community centre and decent transit are still works in progress

It sounds so familiar. Vancouver, desperate to create new housing, starts the planning process for a gigantic tract of empty land near water at the request of a developer. The first version is a forest of towers. Nearby residents, who largely live in suburban-style big houses with big yards, object, saying it’s too dense. Months and years of back-and-forth ensue.

No—this isn’t Jericho, the current site of a pitched battle over a proposal by three Indigenous Nations, working with the Canada Lands Company, to build 13,000 homes—about equal to the entire population of next door’s Point Grey neighbourhood.

But before Jericho there was, and is, River District, the southeast corner of Vancouver that many people forget about until they find themselves whizzing along Marine Drive en route to Burnaby. If they turn in, they discover a mini-city on the Fraser River that is finally emerging into growth, 20 years after its early talks and the first stages of the slow but steady build-out by Wesgroup Properties.

The 124-acre River District provides a glimpse into the future of the 90-acre Jericho Lands, though obviously the current plan for Jericho envisions far more density: 144 homes per acre at Jericho, compared to 56 at River District.

But the two are both large, master-planned communities that will be developed by a single entity, which means there’s a unified concept and an owner that will oversee everything from curating the mix of retail to advocating for better transit to putting effort into good public spaces that are often the heart of a community. (So, already light years better than the random towers that, for example, Burnaby has let various developers put up around Lougheed and Willingdon, where there appears to be no one doing anything to make the streets or general area feel like a community instead of piles of concrete next to a big road and a SkyTrain line—the Brentwood Mall re-development excepted.)

I hung out on the main plaza in River District one sunny afternoon and have talked to many people who live there to get a sense of what they think works (and what doesn’t), with the district now about half built out and with approximately 6,000 people now living in that corner.

I found a very Vancouver mix of people sitting at café tables—a series of dad-son teams playing ping-pong, along with countless dogs and strollers. (How Vancouver a mix? See sidebar below.)

Like any good bougie urbanist, I was seduced by the cool visible stuff: the bikeway, the riverside path, the apiary that Wesgroup developed with the help of a retired beekeeper, the careful placement of the towers against the hills of Everett Crowley Park, the exterior details that pay tribute to the site’s industrial past as a sawmill zone: rusted steel slats, copies of old machinery parts and so on.

But those are easy hits for a passing visitor. What’s it like to live there? What makes it feel like a good neighbourhood, what’s still missing? What works and what doesn’t?

Credit: Wesgroup

As is likely to happen with Jericho, many residents are frustrated by how long it’s taking the school, community centre and decent transit to arrive. The community-centre delay is partly attributable to an event that affected the whole project at the beginning: the worldwide housing recession. Wesgroup had a hard time getting financing for big buildings, so it started building the lower-rise stuff in the west first. That didn’t generate enough revenue or population to pay for or trigger the centre. (It also delayed the development of the now rapidly expanding commercial zone.) Then it turned out that the city didn’t have enough money to build the centre, as originally planned. So Wesgroup was given some extra density to cover the cost and now it’s going to build the thing itself. (ETA: 2027, two years behind.)

The school? Ha. As with everywhere else in Vancouver and the region, the provincial education ministry doesn’t pay for new schools in newly developed areas until: 1. an entire generation of children has completed high school elsewhere (kidding, not kidding), and 2. all other schools within a 20-kilometre radius are filled up completely. So, like Olympic Village and the future Jericho Lands, no school yet or planned for the foreseeable future.

Daycare is a pain point, too. Willowbrae Academy, which has locations all over Metro Vancouver but none yet in the actual city, was supposed to open 176 new licenced childcare spaces by summer 2021. Over 140 people have joined a Facebook group titled “Will Willowbrae Ever Open in the River District?!” Interested parties have had to pay a deposit to get on the waitlist. The latest update they’ve received is that it will open in October of this year.

Transit? Though many say the situation has improved, it’s still not frequent enough to get a lot of people out of their cars.

After that, opinions on the area vary depending on personal situations. Philipp Postrehovsky, who lined up to buy a three-bedroom semi-detached townhouse a little more than a decade ago (price then: $728,000) finds it ideal for his family. It’s quiet. They can walk to everything in the neighbourhood. There are parks and the path along the river is great for running. Postrehovsky, an entrepreneur with proptech startup Zenbase, doesn’t have to commute for work anymore, but finds the area convenient to downtown, Burnaby and Richmond when he does go out.

DJ Lam is less enchanted. It’s too quiet for someone like him, who spent part of his childhood in Hong Kong: “You can hear a pin drop at night.” The transit, though better, is still not good. The retail took a long time to go in—a big deal for him, because he is quadriplegic and can’t just run up the hill in his car to the Champlain Square mall as others do.

Marja Smith (two-bedroom condo, just under $600,000 in 2018) lives a bit further away from the commercial zone and finds it so clogged with drivers that it’s a hassle to shop there. “I end up still having to go out all the time,” says 44-year-old Smith, president of Simply Computing. But she does appreciate what a good area it is for her dog. Besides the parks within the development, the former landfill-turned-park across Marine Drive and up the hill from River District, Everett Crowley, is one of the best dog parks in Vancouver.

For Kirsten Robinson, a City of Vancouver planner who’s been working on River District since she was a junior just out of planning school, it’s been rewarding to see the neighbourhood come together in spite of some deficiencies. She also finds it illuminating to see what things could have been done differently. Back then, the city focused only on the land’s industrial past as the site of a pulp mill. The Musqueam, whose reserve is 15 kilometres away, were barely mentioned. Now the history of the Nation’s long presence on the river will be integrated into the new community centre. And, long after its initial plans were drafted, the whole site had to be built up to a new height in order to prepare for sea-level rise. But it feels like it mostly worked. “I spent a lot of time on that site and, most of the time, it was nothing. Now we’re starting to see 20 years’ worth of hard work come to fruition,” says Robinson.

Interestingly, the nearby neighbourhood—whose residents pushed the city to do better planning with River District—seems to concur. “I think it’s 70, 80, 90 percent of what we agreed to,” says Steve Lloyd, who was the chair of the Everett Crowley Park committee way back at the turn of the century when residents in that Victoria-Fraserview-Killarney area decided to get involved in what was then called East Fraserlands. The development got a lot of attention from international planners for the successful way the city worked with the surrounding neighbourhoods to create a less tower-dominated, more sustainable project than originally envisioned. “I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to plan with the community.”

Lloyd felt like it was a good process, helped in part by Matt Shillito, the planner who was put in charge of the project. And things have come full circle. Shillito is the main planner overseeing the big new development on Jericho Lands. It’s a different time now. There is a community working group the city has established to give feedback on Jericho. But it is divided, as the community is, with no sign of the kind of consensus the city and residents were able to reach 20 years ago.