As mall builders hunt desperately for space in the land-squeezed Lower Mainland, they're alighting on controversial spots out of the reach of municipal planning.
First, it was the Tsawwassen First Nation. Now, it's the Vancouver International Airport, where politicians and planners are fuming over the airport authority's plans to partner with London-based McArthurGlen in building a massive luxury outlet mall.
The proposed 460,000-square-foot mall will be three kilometres from the airport terminal, on 22 hectares in the southeast corner of Sea Island, near the bridge that crosses to Richmond's Lulu Island.
"I think this mall is problematic," said a clearly irate Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, intent on preventing sprawl.
His council officially came out against the proposal this week – a first that anyone knows of for a Canadian airport – and asked for an investigation into whether the Vancouver Airport Authority is abiding by the legal terms of its mandate to provide airport-related services.
He acknowledged that the city has no power to dictate anything on the authority's Sea Island land, because it's under federal control. But he said council will do everything it can to influence the outcome.
Metro Vancouver staff, equally dismayed, say they'll also exert influence to get the airport authority to work with the region's plans.
Planning manager Gaetan Royer sent a six-page letter to authority board chair Larry Berg this week, itemizing all the ways that putting the outlet mall on industrial-designated land contradicts the region's just-approved regional growth strategy. That strategy aims to concentrate commercial activities in town centres well served by transit.
The mall, which its European developers say is aimed at the high numbers of Asian tourists and residents in Vancouver, will also worsen traffic congestion in Richmond, Mr. Royer's letter said.
"We question whether a major retail outlet centre falls within YVR's mandate," he wrote. "Allocating Federal land for the exclusive benefit of a development that could be undertaken by any commercial developer on private land appears to be beyond the role of an airport operator."
But local authorities are running up against two powerful forces.
One is the huge desire by builders of both outlet-style and regular shopping centres to find new places to build in Canada.
American and European developers, in particular, hunting the last two years for new spots, have been impressed that Canadians malls sell so much more per square foot than do U.S. ones and been struck by the low ratio of mall space to people in the country.
The other force is the airport's desire to maximize the money it gets from the 1,340 hectares it controls on Sea Island. It has plans to build a business park at the Templeton Canada Line station and has enticed Canada Post to build a new distribution facility elsewhere on its territory.
"It all relates to keeping the airport viable," said Vancouver Airport Authority representative Rebecca Catley. "It's our responsibility to maximize the value of our assets."
Neither of the other two projects has generated much controversy, or even commentary. But the luxury mall has, something that Ms. Catley said the authority wants to work to overcome.
"We don't want this to be a point of contention," she said. "Richmond is our home. This needs to be good for everybody."
Ms. Catley said the airport developed a master plan in 2007, when it designated a significant part of the land as "non-aeronautical commercial," though she couldn't say whether people understood that might mean outlet malls or other non-traditional airport businesses.
She also said it would be a tourism draw, along with providing 1,000 new jobs at the hundreds of stores that will eventually be in the mall.
But Richmond's mayor isn't convinced so far. "We're not saying the airport should not be developing at all there. There may be many appropriate uses. But I don't know why an airport would be running a retail mall outside its terminal."
Editor's Note: The original online version of this article was incompletely posted. This is now the full version.