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Oakridge mall project gets green light from Vancouver council

An artist's rendering of the Oakridge project. Elevated Commons Looking North.

Brook Pooni Associates

One of the biggest, most complex mall redevelopments in Canada was quickly approved Friday by Vancouver council.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team all voted for the $1.5-billion Oakridge redevelopment project that will add 2,900 housing units and double the retail space of the existing mall built in 1954 in south Vancouver.

"We have a big city that's growing fast. It's big projects like this we are dealing with," said Mr. Robertson, at the conclusion of three days of public speakers, some of whom supported the rezoning, many of whom didn't.

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"This is a big, green, complete community in the centre of Vancouver. I'm excited when I see the possibilities here."

The development, expected to take a decade to build, includes 11 towers with heights of up to 44 storeys and another three lower buildings, as well as a park with a small lake on the mall's roof, a community centre, a daycare, a library and a seniors' centre.

That density wouldn't be unusual in Vancouver's downtown, but it's a dramatic change from the suburban, single-family area of south Vancouver where it's being planned.

The debate and vote moved along much more speedily than usual at the council, where controversial rezonings and other decisions that have attracted dozens of speakers are often put off for several days to allow councillors to digest the input.

Councillors who voted against it – the Green Party's Adriane Carr and the Non-Partisan Association's George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball – all said it was out of scale for the neighbourhood, wasn't supported by local residents, and would put a strain on local services.

"We are talking about a development with 5,000 more residents, 5,000 more workers, but there are no firm commitments [for more infrastructure]," Ms. Carr said.

Ms. Ball said the size of the development created a core worry for local residents about how their city is changing.

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"They're losing the Vancouver they love. And they have fears that it will change all the neighbourhoods around it to the same thing – more towers."

The Vision councillors in attendance unanimously supported the rezoning, saying they believed it would ultimately be an asset to the community and not the kind of concrete jungle that people have seen elsewhere.

"What we see is not a proposition to build a replica of Metrotown," said Councillor Raymond Louie, referring to the collection of towers that has sprouted up next to the SkyTrain line and major mall in Burnaby. "This is one of the most complete communities we have ever had for the city."

The mall had just gone through an extensive rezoning process that was completed in 2007. But after the Canada Line rapid-transit line was completed in 2009 and it became apparent how popular it was, the mall's owners, Ivanhoe Cambridge, decided to apply for a rezoning with much more density than the 2007 plan.

The public hearing attracted about 100 speakers, many, though far from all, passionately opposed.

Some said they feared that people who live in towers wouldn't be good neighbours or participate in the community. Others said they hated the size of the project. Many said the city's transit, schools, hospitals, and roads were already jammed and this project, along with others planned along the Canada Line, would just add to the problems.

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The mayor acknowledged he was concerned about transit service as developments come in along the line and promised his council would push to increase capacity.

The city's transportation planner, Jerry Dobrovolny, said the Canada Line is currently carrying about 5,000 people per hour and can carry up to 10,000 if TransLink buys more service from the private operator.

Graeme Silvera, the vice-president of retail development for Ivanhoe, said after the vote he was surprised relatively few people had come out to speak on such a big project.

He said it's a unique project in Canada because, unlike other mall redevelopments that are adding a few towers on the edge of their parking lots, "we're building a residential community right into the mall."

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