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Greater Vancouver’s Regional City

2014 January 2
by dan bertolet

Vancouver_Patterson_towers

In The City in History (1961), Lewis Mumford describes the “regional city” as an alternative to formless, auto-oriented sprawl. The regional city consists of a central major city encirled by a network of smaller satellite cities, all connected by rapid transit. Apparently greater Vancouver, BC, was listening.

The photo above is in Burnaby, the first city east of Vancouver along the Skytrain line. It looks as if a section of downtown Vancouver was imported. No fear of heights here. In the photo below, a brand new 46-story residential tower rises from a sea of low-density housing adjacent to the Metrotown Skytrain station. Density near transit—pretty simple.

Vancouver_Metrotown_new_tower2

Continuing east by Skytrain, the next node is the City of New Westminster on the Fraser River:

Vancouver_New_Westminster_towers_distance

It’s a city in transition, but again, they aren’t afraid to make big and bold—that is, tall and high-density—moves with their new buildings:

Vancouver_New_Westminster_towers_downtown

The 37-story triple tower project shown below, known as Plaza 88, is completely integrated with the New Westminster Skytrain station and bus terminal:

Vancouver-Plaza_88

Imagine that instead of a huge surface parking lot and some scattered low-rise apartments and strip malls, there were half a dozen high-rise towers clustered around the Sound Transit LINK light rail station in Tukwila. That’s the difference between how the greater Vancouver region does things, and how the greater Seattle region does things.

And it’s why greater Vancouver will continue to be a more sustainable region for decades to come.

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All photos by the author, taken on a dreary gray December day in 2013.

 

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Josh Mahar permalink
    January 3, 2014

    Nice! Good follow-up. I amend my original comment; I knew they had density in the ‘burbs there, but that’s pretty serious. And strategic.

    So how do they actually achieve this smart concurrency of transit and density? I’m skeptical that every jurisdiction just happens to be on board, but maybe that is so? Does Translink or Metro Van have any direct authority over land use? Do they throw their weight around more in terms of negotiating certain requirements when planning for transit?

  2. January 3, 2014

    Don’t wanna block all those precious “views” in Seattle with high-rise, high-density buildings! Gotta love the Steinbrueck legacy.

  3. David Moser permalink
    January 3, 2014

    Echoing Josh’s question, how were the NIMBY’s of regional Van de-clawed? Surely someone raised a stink about these towers in public comments and hearings, but still the projects went ahead. Would love to see a report on the details of how this happened.

  4. Kristen C permalink
    January 3, 2014

    “No fear of heights here.” But apparently a “fear” of real urbanity. Or an inability to do urbanity. It’s all towers in the park. Parking garages and large setbacks, big blocks and wide boulevards.

  5. Benjamin S. permalink
    January 6, 2014

    I’ve lived in and studied both Vancouver and Seattle, and to me it seems that there’s a couple of factors behind the density around transit in Metro Vancouver – hard to say what is more or less important, but that appear to have an influence:

    1 – Stronger regional government – Translink, the regional transit body, runs just about all transit in the region. Imagine that SoundTransit, KC Metro, and the neighbouring suburban agencies were all one organization with an integrated fare structure. Add to that the fact that land-use coordination has been a priority for this massive agency, and you get more leverage even over reluctant suburban municipalities.
    2 – Explosively rising housing prices – Land and housing costs are so incredibly high in the Lower Mainland that developments that wouldn’t pencil out in other cities do so here. The benchmark price for a single-family house in the region topped 900 000 CAD last year, I believe. There’s a strong incentive for developers to overcome obstacles to rezoning, and for planners to look for opportunities for growth.
    3 – Rapid transit corridors following old freight rail corridors – This has definitely helped the densification of the “new downtowns” such as Metrotown. The old rail corridors usually have a lot of rapidly depreciating warehouses and industrial buildings next to them. Much easier to redevelop than single-family homes. (Note that this isn’t true for New Westminster in the last photo, which is why that development is so unusual in its area.)
    4 – Different land-use practices and urban demographics – These kinds of towers-sprouting-from-lowrise areas are not unusual in big Anglo-Canadian cities. (A legacy of British planning schools, maybe.) Especially Toronto, which has huge postwar tower clusters along some subway lines. Also, some of the places where this is happening (such Burbaby, with Metrotown) are built-out post-war suburbs who’ve seen better days. New Westminster is an older city, but also worn-out. They missed out on the downtown growth boom of the 90s and early 00s. They’re looking for new residents, and hitching high-density development to a transit line is an easy win.

    You can also look at in terms of the counterfactual – where should density have arrived by now, but hasn’t? Around the Commercial-Broadview Station (the most important interchange in the system) is a low-rise, 1910s-vintage neighbourhood with long streetfront retail strips and mostly single-detached homes past the main roads. Yet almost all redevelopment has been blocked in the area by a quixotic coalition of anti-gentrification campaigners and local homeowners/landlords (the latter of whom are benefiting handsomely from quickly rising rents and prices). The same dynamic is now playing itself out in the Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood, also a former streetcar suburb facing a (gasp) 19-storey residential tower. The anti-height positions held by some neighbourhood associations are as strong as anything I’ve encountered in Seattle. (Also – don’t forget the high-density node of Bellevue. Now we just have to get transit to it.)

    • Josh Mahar permalink
      January 7, 2014

      Thanks for the comment Benjamin, really insightful stuff!

      Those housing costs are unbelievable!! I honestly couldn’t believe that when I first read it (no offense), so I looked into it and indeed: $900,000 for a SFH in Greater Van; second highest housing prices in the world after Hong Kong. It’s really a whole different ball game up there when it comes to the economics of development.

      • Benjamin S. permalink
        January 7, 2014

        Yeah, it’s pretty loopy. But the thing is, though rents have been rising, they’ve not kept up with house prices. So a lot of people rent (even whole SFHs) where in other places they would own. See here: http://theeconomicanalyst.com/sites/default/files/u3/price_rent_ratios.jpg (I don’t generally like citing price/rent ratio stats since they are often misleading, but here you see how divergent Van is from other Canadian cities.)

        I don’t know why exactly this phenomenon is happening, but the region does indeed have a lot of sacrosanct low-rise areas where any growth, even along transit corridors, is very difficult (see: the West Side.) The difference that strikes most people, however, is that much of the downtown penninsula has been open-season for growth in the last 20 years. Think of an area the size of the one bounded by E Yesler, Broadway, E Madison and MLK, nearly all converted from low-rise warehousing and commercial, to 25 – 40 storey point towers. This area accounts for the lion’s share of the region’s densification. But it was easier, because it’s downtown. Now comes the harder stuff in the suburbs.

  6. Rico permalink
    January 9, 2014

    As a Vancouverite a couple of points. The Skytrain has been around a lot longer than LINK so be patient. The first Burnaby picture is around Patterson Station and is very poor urbanism and tower in the park, but the newer areas are doing things much better.

  7. yvrlutyens permalink
    January 10, 2014

    Jarrett Walker has taken pot shots as the development around Patterson Station as well, but I don’t really see what is wrong with it. It is not the kind of urbanism that I would live in, nor would it be appropriate in any central area of the city, but there is nothing inherently flawed about towers in a park. It can be done badly, but around Patterson Station it is very pleasant.

    As to why development patterns are different in Vancouver, Translink actually has no direct control over any development in the region, it is just that the interests of most of the regional governments coincide. Almost all city councils in the region want growth. They see it as economic development and a bigger tax base, and there are usually development cost charges that are also added to the municipal coffers. Most of the new high rise areas have been in former light industrial and underutilized areas that don’t generate that much opposition. In the City of Vancouver proper, there was a recent rezoning from SFD to multiple residential, including some high rises, along the subway route to Richmond. This met with plenty of local opposition, but council approved it anyway. One of the reasons that they do this is that in the City of Vancouver all ten city councillors are elected at-large (on election day, there is a ballot with all the names on it, and you pick up to ten picks). This weakens the power of individual neighbourhoods
    vis a vis the whole city. And the city councillors know that they can count on the support of a large chunk of the city that is pro development.

  8. Ron permalink
    January 15, 2014

    The regional town centres were mandated by the Livable Region Strategic Plan which was passed on the regional level of government (Greater Vancouver Regional District, now known as Metro Vancouver).

    More recently, the LRSP has been replaced by the Regional Growth Strategy.

    http://www.metrovancouver.org/planning/development/Pages/default.aspx

  9. February 11, 2017

    RE:Greater Vancouver’s Regional City | citytank Валок Салфорд Приморско-Ахтарск

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