For all its charms – its seaside and mountain views, greenery and fresh air – Vancouver remains a decidedly suburban city. It's traditionally been much more about CPR land transformed into residential enclaves than the right blend of high-density, mixed use and transit access that defines urbanism.
But with the high cost of housing and dwindling supply, a growing and aging population and an exodus of youth who can't afford to live in the city, the game plan is changing.
While there have been other arbiters of civic sea change, the most exciting game changer in recent years has been the Canada Line that has spurred densification of the Cambie Corridor.
The unassuming north-south corridor, largely composed of single-family bungalows – now worth an average of $1.5-million – has always been a rather sleepy, suburban feeling enclave, where young families and empty nesters resided. But now both of those groups have changing housing needs that are being addressed by two groundbreaking developments – a mixed-use project on the site of the Oakridge Shopping Mall at 41st and Cambie and the new Marine Gateway project at the southern tip of the corridor.
The increase in density and new transit access have contributed to a dramatic rise in real estate prices, with some homes around the Oakridge area recently tripling in price. But while some long-term residents have expressed concern about rapid change in their neighbourhood, others are excited by the possibilities it will bring for more affordable housing and more urban amenities. The Cambie Corridor plan allows buildings up to 12 storeys in height, with allowances for greater height around the Oakridge Mall and at the southern end of Cambie Street near Marine Drive.
Patrick Condon, a planner and professor of landscape architecture at UBC and author of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, says that densification of the Cambie Corridor will help address the city's "urgent housing needs."
He contends that the city's plan for the corridor, which aims to bring 15,000 more people to the area, is "the best of its kind in North America."
"It's the first corridor plan I've ever seen that focuses so much on what the buildings are going to look like rather than being just a zoning plan."
Mr. Condon supports the largely mid-rise development plan that does not concentrate density exclusively around stations, saying "a more evenly distributed density is best as it supports a finer grain commercial activity and in many ways leads to a more sustainable city."
Mr. Condon, who worked with students to produce a comprehensive masterplan of what Vancouver will look like by the year 2050, notes that in less than 40 years, 25 per cent of the population will be over age 65, a " 250 per cent increase over what it is now."
The plans for higher density housing along the Cambie Corridor, he contends, will benefit the "over-65s" who will be "increasingly mobility impaired and the ones who will be the largest group needing housing."
He maintains that "it's logical to put housing close to services and ways of getting around – unless you want the elderly to be imprisoned within their buildings or complexes – which is true in many parts of North America but hopefully not true here."
At the same time, he says, the new housing will benefit young people and young families. "There were many young people at the public hearings," he relates, "saying 'yes, I need housing and I need it to be affordable and I need it to be in Vancouver – and if I can't get it I will be forced to move to Maple Ridge – where I don't want to go.'"
The alternative to high density mixed use housing developments he says, "is an older city where we will have fewer and fewer young people able to afford to live here – making it impossible for younger families to exist. How can someone take a job at less than $40,000 a year and pay more than half a million for a very simple place to live?" The equation is simple, he says, higher density housing means more affordable housing.
He thinks the Oakridge Mall area in particular is ideal as it "upgrades what is now an auto oriented shopping mall into an urban, attractive place."
"I think the idea of barnacling on appendages to shopping centres is a logical and sensible strategy. Without losing the substantial commercial value that's already in that location – it makes it a more mixed use complex that's not entirely about driving the car to a parking lot but part of a transit accessible, complete neighbourhood."
He also thinks that the new development could be "groundbreaking"
"In urban design circles, there's been talk about changing shopping malls into urban places for decades." The Oakridge development has all the potential, he says, "to become a demonstration of a successful strategy that could be applied throughout North America."
Ivanhoe Cambridge, which owns the 28.3-acre parcel that comprises Oakridge shopping centre, secured city council approval in 2007 for a policy plan that forsees 1.8-million square feet of new density. The site already contains 50,000 square feet of residential, and plans are afoot to add 1.2-million square feet of housing.
According to Gordon Wylie, senior director of development at Ivanhoe Cambridge, 50 per cent of the housing will be town homes and midrise development, and 50 per cent will be high rise – with the policy currently allowing for nine towers on site.
As well as the planned 350,000 square feet of new retail and 200,000 square feet of new office space, Mr. Wylie says ample community space – in addition to the existing library, school and seniors centre – will be added to the site.
"Our vision is to create a complete and sustainable community," he says, adding that the scale and mass of the unique site that remains Vancouver's "single largest parcel of privately owned land next to a transit hub that can be redeveloped," could even allow for exploration of district energy supply.
But Mr. Condon is sympathetic to some area residents concerned about rapid change in their neighbourhood.
"Usually residents don't oppose density per se – they oppose things in their neighbourhood that are unlike their neighbourhood. Sensitive architects understand this."
For Andrew Grant, president of PCI developments who received unanimous approval from the Urban Design Panel last month, for ambitious plans to build the new Marine Gateway community at Cambie's southern tip, the key was "maintaining the character of the neighbourhood."
In this case, Marpole's "urban village" vibe was accentuated throughout the design of the project built to LEED Gold standards that will incorporate two high rises on top of a three-storey podium, 415 market condos, 46 rental housing units, a separate 240,000-square-foot office building, and a 220,000-square-foot cinema – all perched on top of a Canada Line station.
"From the start," explains Mr. Grant, "the concept was a high street that ran down the centre of the site. All of our uses will access that – including transit, the office component, the cinema and the housing units. They'll all come through the centre of the site and maximize concentration of foot traffic through that area – which will be people friendly and conducive to interaction. It will help integrate use and break down scale. Maintaining that neighbourhood feel – through the high street but also through details like architectural finishes – has been an essential part of our design."
"There's no doubt," says Mr. Grant, "that the Canada Line will change the shape of the city. Vancouver is under tremendous pressure for additional housing to meet the demand – and our prices are being pushed up accordingly."
Since many people can longer afford to own both a car and a home, "people have become less reliant on automobiles – so locating housing and retail and work spaces close to each other and to transit hubs makes sense."
In many ways, densification of the Cambie Corridor will be a true test of Vancouverism's – the much lauded high density, car free phenomenon so celebrated in the city's downtown – mettle. Whether it can be successfully managed in the city's southern corridors will make the difference between Vancouver remaining suburbia by the sea – or becoming a truly urban model.
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier online version of this story incorrectly described the Marpole urban village project, which is being built to LEED Gold environmental construction standards. This version has been corrected.