Skip to main content

The Salt Building, which was built around 1930 to refine raw salt and converted in the 1980s as a paper recycling plant, is seen in the Olympic Village in Vancouver, Nov. 12, 2012. The building is now used as an event facility.Rafal Gerszak

It is not just residents in the Lower Mainland who need to live in compact, dense developments to get the best use of the region's limited land supply.

Industry does, too, say Metro Vancouver staff and politicians. And if industrial developers do not stop sprawling and building inefficiently, the region's farmland will come under threat.

"With a limited amount of land, we don't have any alternatives," said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, the chair of the region's planning and agricultural committee. "But when the [industrial] land is used up, the pressure moves to agricultural land."

Metro Vancouver is about to start public consultations about the need to have intense, Hong-Kong-style industrial development, following reports earlier this year that showed how tight the land supply is getting.

With the number of containers coming in and out of Metro Vancouver ports potentially doubling or tripling in the next 30 years, the region could need as much as 3,000 new hectares – an area just a little larger than all of Port Coquitlam – to accommodate new jobs generated by the ports and growth in other uses like manufacturing and wholesaling.

Although many think of Vancouver as the land of lattes, yoga pants and made-for-TV movie production, the region still has about 300,000 jobs on 9,000 hectares of currently developed industrial land. That is 25 per cent of the total jobs in the region, even though industrial land accounts for only about 5 per cent of the total area of Metro Vancouver.

Both the federal and provincial governments have been huge supporters in recent years of port expansion, as Vancouver competes hard with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle for container traffic from Asia.

More containers mean the region will need more room for distribution warehouses and other port-related traffic.

The region has lost big chunks of industrial land in the past 20 years, as various cities have converted it to residential uses that are much more profitable for the landowners.

Vancouver's once-industrial waterfront has become home to condos at Coal Harbour, the Olympic village and East Fraserlands. Burnaby and Richmond rezoned large areas of industrial land to residential around SkyTrain lands as they were put in. North Vancouver's Park & Tilford brewery became a shopping mall.

So regional planners are trying to push industrial developers to do what commercial and condo developers have been doing for years – maximize the land they're on by building as high and as wide as they can go.

"As a region, we have to look at this land in the same way we look at our town centres," said Gaetan Royer, Metro Vancouver's manager of regional planning. "We need to talk about putting light industry on top of heavy industry rather than beside it."

Some cities, like Vancouver and Richmond, have already been nudging industrial developers to go denser.

Mr. Royer pointed to several examples of industrial buildings in Vancouver that have built up to three storeys, like the Terra Breads industrial bakery in Mount Pleasant. Richmond, in its recently approved community plan, has removed height restrictions on industrial land that is not directly beside residential.

Mr. Royer said the region should also look at making roads on industrial land narrower, to create more building room.

However, Mr. Corrigan and others who sit on Metro's planning committee noted that developers are resistant to building more density, because it's faster and cheaper to do one-storey concrete boxes surrounded by parking lots.