Considering how little developable land there is near downtown Vancouver, the inevitable removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts is a golden opportunity for the city to create a neighbourhood from a fairly blank slate.
It’s also a developer’s dream opportunity. But what could that look like? Until the city unveils details when council decides on the removal of the viaducts in September, we can only piece together the information so far.
In the stadium precinct, Aquilini is delivering 600 new rental units to the market with its three-tower project that has just launched. The company has, wisely, been stepping up to fill the demand of a near-zero-vacancy-rate rental market.
“It’s a good time to be in rental in Vancouver, yes,” Kevin Hoffman, senior vice-president of Aquilini Development and Construction, says.
With their new rental community, they are attempting to connect Yaletown, Gastown and Chinatown to finally establish Crosstown, the neighbourhood that has never quite taken off. The newly completed Aquilini Centre tower connects with Rogers Arena, which Aquilini owns. They started taking tenants about a month ago, with rents starting at $1,550 for a 460-square-foot space and going up to $2,510 for 825 sq. ft. feet. The groundwork has begun on the south tower, and the east tower is about a year away. Because they’re providing rental, the city relaxed the parking requirements.
“It will be a vibrant area filled with people who want to live near the action,” Mr. Hoffman says. “Putting both commercial and residential in the area will add vibrancy that’s been lacking. When you go to the games there aren’t a lot of people around.”
Aquilini didn’t know what the city’s plans were for the viaducts when designing its project, so it designed with the viaducts in mind. If the viaduct bridges are removed in 2018, which is the city staff’s plan, they can’t be completely dismantled, or Aquilini would be in a bind.
“Our towers are designed with the viaduct being in place. So, really, those viaducts won’t come down around where we are building the towers – they have to stay. Because our emergency services access is off those viaducts.
“So when we talk about them coming down, they will come down past Rogers Arena.”
That extra piece of leftover viaduct required for the Aquilini project, the city’s planning director Brian Jackson says, could look like New York’s famed High Line elevated park. It could also be part of a bicycle bridge that could help those who might not want to cycle up a 5-per-cent grade. The details are being worked out.
“We’re looking to see how best to get the bikes up from the lower level to Dunsmuir right now,” Mr. Jackson says. “We’re trying to determine how much viaduct we need.”
As for what the overall area might look like without the bulky viaducts, there is talk of a lot of condo towers courtesy of Concord Pacific, park land and a couple of city-owned blocks of mid-rise buildings.
So far, we can envision glass towers with stores, restaurants and wine bars and a lot of jersey-wearing sports fans. The rental market is youth-oriented, so we can expect a lot of millennials to move into the neighbourhood, creating demand for more coffee bars.
“Our vision and our hope is that there will be lots of restaurants and lounges, that type of thing,” Mr. Hoffman says.
Concord Pacific didn’t want to comment on its plans for the area.
“We want to respect the current city process,” Matt Meehan, senior vice-president of planning, said in an e-mail.
But Concord has the most to gain if the viaducts come down. The developer is undertaking a $1-billion plan to add eight buildings around BC Place.
An estimated 12 acres of waterfront park is in the proposal, which is an increase from the original nine acres originally worked out between the city and Concord.
The developer owns a small amount of land underneath the viaducts, but the city owns most of it, about five acres. Half would go toward parkland and the other half toward housing, Mr. Jackson says. To divert traffic from Strathcona, Mr. Jackson says the city is looking at turning either Malkin or National Streets into a major thoroughfare for car and truck traffic.
“We can reconfigure the roads so the entire park is south of the new roadway,” Mr. Jackson says. “Also, the removal gives us two full city blocks on either side of Main Street for potential affordable housing and market housing, which is one way to help pay for the cost of the viaducts coming down. We can recoup the costs this way.”
The cost of the removal and new infrastructure is the public’s No. 1 concern, he says. City staff has been getting such feedback in meetings with stakeholders. But they won’t present the much-anticipated cost estimate to city council until September.
The other big interest is those two blocks of city-owned land. It’s a major opportunity for affordable housing, although there would be market housing in the mix, too.
Councillor Geoff Meggs says he’s open to a suggestion that the city could develop leasehold land around Main Street. At least then it would be hanging on to an asset instead of selling it off.
“I face criticism that this is all a smoke screen for condo developers, and it hasn’t been that at all,” Mr. Meggs, who’s in favour of housing aimed at lower- and middle-income people, says. “What commitment will there be to affordability in that area? Council has to determine that. Where the city has two blocks of land, the emphasis should be on inclusion rather than the pure bottom-line approach.
“But I don’t think we should be irresponsible and deploy land that loses money over the long haul.”
There is the matter of paying for such a massive project. The city needs to do that, while offering desperately needed affordable housing.
Otherwise, the only true public benefit will be the waterfront park. It’s a fine balance.
Not surprisingly, Strathcona residents have been vocal about concerns over traffic and housing.
“If the viaducts do come down, we would like to see that firm commitment to truly affordable housing,” Strathcona resident Pete Fry, who is the B.C. Green party candidate for Mount Pleasant in the upcoming provincial by-election, says. Mr. Fry points to the nearby location of the future St. Paul’s Hospital as having a major impact, with visitors needing overnight accommodation. That could easily turn a lot of rental suites in Strathcona into Airbnb rooms.
He’d like to see housing that is “truly affordable” in that it reflects local incomes. Vancouver incomes are notoriously low. That would mean a one-bedroom apartment would rent for about $1,200 a month. And he’s not accepting the argument that Strathcona won’t be impacted by traffic.
“The reality is, they are building a six-lane road and millions of square feet of residential development, which will have parking for cars. It’s ridiculous to think we won’t see an increase in traffic.”