The last new neighbourhood in downtown Vancouver won't be like anything else the city has ever seen.
The northeast corner of False Creek, now a stretch of empty, polluted former industrial land, partially blocked by the viaducts that currently connect downtown to the city's east side, will be transformed, promise city planners, architects and urban designers who are about to launch their plans for the area this week to get public feedback.
It will become Vancouver's first lively destination park in a continuous line along the waterfront, packed with restaurants and activities.
It will introduce a new style of architecture for the new residential neighbourhood, home to as many as 15,000 new people, that ditches the city's podium-and-tower style of the 1990s.
It will create a new kind of "lane district" next to the existing Chinatown that will house dozens of independent stores and cafés.
It will see the long-awaited arrival of the city's largest downtown park, after Stanley Park, that will include a miniature version of New York's High Line on one remnant of the viaducts.
It will include a small section that will acknowledge and provide spaces for the city's black community that was pushed out of what was known as Hogan's Alley near Main and Union half a century ago. And it is supposed to become a socially mixed community, with a substantial amount of low-cost housing.
"This is an opportunity to express a new piece of the Vancouver DNA. This is the next generation of Vancouver building," said Gil Kelley, the city's new head city planner who arrived from San Francisco last fall.
As well, he said, it's a chance for the city to heal some wounds from the past for the Chinese and black communities, which had their neighbourhoods first cut off from the False Creek waterfront, then partially or completely eradicated by a plan to build a freeway through the area in the 1960s.
"It's just a really social and emotional piece," he said.
But the plan for northeast False Creek is also likely to set off an intense round of debate as people question whether there are enough social benefits, especially low-cost housing, and whether the city is getting a big enough payment from the private developers in the area to cover the cost of all the new community amenities.
Those questions are being raised already by one man who has been active in working to see Hogan's Alley remembered. He is concerned that the members of the black community who have been part of a city working group are giving up too much.
"I think this is a gentrification plan and the working group is being uncritically supportive," says Daniel Tseghay, who was not included in the city's working group. "The city is making trivial concessions but it doesn't meet the real needs of black people."
In particular, he's alarmed about how little subsidized, low-cost housing will be available in this huge new development.
"What I want would be truly affordable housing at welfare rates."
Planners say that 20 per cent of development in the parcels owned by the private developers in the area – Concord Pacific and Canadian Metropolitan Properties – will be social housing, as will 35 per cent of the units developed on city land that now sits under the east end of the viaducts.
But the city's definition of social housing does not mean 100-per-cent subsidized housing. Instead, in recent developments, it has meant having about a third at welfare rates, a third at below-market rates geared to lower incomes and a third at near-market rates.
That means very few units in the community of as much as 15,000 will be for truly poor people, Mr. Tseghay says.
The other big question still to be settled is how much private developers will provide for community benefits, along with the housing.
It's a tricky issue, as it depends on the density they get.
For Concord Pacific, it's complicated by the fact that, as a result of the contract signed with the provincial government 30 years ago, the company has to give the province a bonus payment because it will be getting much more building space than the original limit envisioned. That may make the company argue that it has less available to give to the city.
"This has to be the right project financially and not driven by any timelines," said Councillor Geoff Meggs, who has been an early and consistent advocate for taking down the viaducts in order to be able to create a more coherent new neighbourhood with some social housing.
"I hope people will finally see the possibilities there. They're very, very significant," he said. "But the city will have to make sure the financial arrangements are appropriate."
The planning for the neighbourhood has been one of the most complex the city has undertaken.
If approved, it will involve removing the 50-year-old concrete viaducts, building a new road network, connecting with the proposed new St. Paul's Hospital to the east, collaborating with two private developers and the province's PavCo, which owns a chunk on the western end, working with two communities that have been trampled on in the past, working out complex legal agreements with land swaps among different groups, bringing Georgia Street down an escarpment to the waterfront and creating multiple new public spaces.
Those who have been working with the city on the project say, however, that the spirit of collaboration and creativity has been unusual.
"We've been working on this site for eight years but it didn't go far because there wasn't an overall plan. What broke the ice was when the city decided to take the viaducts down. Suddenly everyone is looking at this as a comprehensive plan," said architect James Cheng, who has been working on concepts for how to arrange building masses on the Canadian Metropolitan site, the current site of the Plaza of Nations.
His early designs show terraced buildings that frame the new BC Place. The idea is to provide as much public space as possible overlooking the False Creek Harbour and taking advantage of the south-facing shore.
On the Concord side, one of Vancouver's legendary urban designers, Joe Hruda, proposed the idea of creating a public plaza at the foot of Georgia Street that mimics the public plaza in the Italian town of Portofino.
Concord may be given permission to build some extra-tall towers at the entrance to that, as gateway markers.
Then, in one part of the residential area closest to Chinatown, Mr. Hruda has come up with the concept of a lane district, similar to one that exists in Melbourne, Australia, where the entire area will have small commercial spaces at the ground level with housing above.
"I called it an 'indie lane district,' a place for small business, an incubator district," Mr. Hruda said.
Part of the Dunsmuir viaduct, under the current plan, will be saved and used as a way for cyclists and pedestrians to get from the lower level under the viaducts to the downtown streets above.
Concord is planning to adopt a completely new style of architecture for the area, different than what it built over the past 20 years, said Mr. Hruda, with buildings lining the planned city park that are more mid-rise with a consistent horizontal line, like the buildings that line New York's Central Park.
The plan for the new 13-hectare park is getting help from James Corner, the man who helped design New York's now hugely popular High Line Park.
The city will be showing off all of its and the partners' plans for the area in a big fair June 10 on Carrall Street.
Planners such as Kevin McNaney, who is directly overseeing the Northeast False Creek plan, are hopeful.
"This could be reconciliation in action."