When fans took their seats Friday in a renovated BC Place, they walked into an airy space featuring a retractable roof, giant scoreboard and lighting system that makes the stadium glow from within.
But to get there, some of those stadium-goers likely trudged through shabby parking lots and concrete dead zones. The neighbourhood may have a sparkling $560-million centrepiece, but much of its surroundings remain drab and uninviting.
The site next to BC Place is still vacant, tied up in a complex rezoning and planning exercise that is supposed to make BC Place the heart of a "world class international entertainment destination." A waterfront site between Carrall Street and Science World designated for a park remains covered in concrete. The Plaza of Nations, built for Expo 86, is showing its age.
But plans coming to council this month could set the stage for major overhauls in the area, including a new rink and community centre and expanded public space at the Plaza of Nations.
BC Pavilion Corp., which runs BC Place, is meanwhile pushing ahead with a rezoning proposal for land next to the stadium, even though city council in April rejected a major casino that was a key element of the proposal.
For PavCo, the rezoning – with or without partner Paragon Gaming involved – is a stepping stone to other stages of its development plans, including access roads and land and density swaps with Concord Pacific, which also holds chunks of undeveloped property in the area.
"If Paragon chose to, then they'd be able to go ahead with the smaller development. They haven't said no, they're investigating it. Obviously it has an impact on their plans and their finances, but they are looking at it right now," PavCo chair David Podmore said on Wednesday, just before the refurbished BC Place was scheduled to open its doors.
Council approved relocation of Paragon's Edgewater Casino, now located at the Plaza of Nations, at its current size (600 slot machines and 75 gaming tables) but rejected plans for expansion to 1,500 slots and 150 tables, while also slapping a moratorium on gambling expansion in the city.
Both companies are talking to city officials, but PavCo is "taking the lead" on the next steps of the rezoning, Mr. Podmore said. Paragon declined to comment.
There are also plans afoot next door, where Vancouver-based Aquilini Investment Group – owner of the Vancouver Canucks – has teamed up with fellow landowner Canadian Metropolitan Properties on a proposal for a community centre and ice rink near Rogers Arena.
Aquilini ran a similar proposal by city council last year, when it got a cool reception. City officials were eyeing development fees for other potential community perks, including upgrades to the main library, not a rink. Since then, the companies have been talking to city officials and to neighbourhood residents, says Aquilini Development president David Negrin.
The proposal, featuring a rink that would be used as a Canucks practice facility part-time and open to the public for the remainder, is outlined in a staff report scheduled for an Oct. 6 council meeting.
Under the proposal, the two developers would operate the rink under conditions that guarantee public access, Mr. Negrin said. Tax breaks for the developers would also be part of the package.
"We think it's a good deal," he said. "There have been very good negotiations – we haven't finalized it but we hope we are moving toward it."
The proposal could see about $22-million worth of community amenity contributions – fees that developers pay to the city in exchange for rezoning that allows for redevelopment – go toward the sports and recreation centre.
Aquilini also has plans to add to the growing urban forest sprouting up around BC Place and Rogers Arena with as many as four towers that would include commercial and residential space.
In an indication of how complex the downtown jigsaw is, Aquilini has been talking with city engineers and planning staff about two lobby designs for one of its proposed towers – one designed to work with the viaducts and one without.
The city has floated the idea of removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, remnants of a 1970s freeway system that was scrapped after public outcry.
Aquilini's wish list also includes a new rental apartment building, a rarity in downtown, based on an economic model that does not include parking spots.
"We're saying because it's right downtown, right at the SkyTrain, we wouldn't build parking," said Mr. Negrin, adding that construction costs for parking stalls downtown ring in at about $30,000 per spot.
In the months leading up to the report, there was considerable wrangling over how social housing would fit in to the mix, with Canadian Metropolitan offering cash-in-lieu instead of land to meet the 20-per-cent social housing component required by the city.
A residents' group backed that approach, saying it made more sense than earmarking a "dirt site" that could sit vacant.
"We ask that you support an option that will produce real social housing rather than simply another vacant lot," the False Creek Residents Association said in a Sept. 9 letter to council, adding that a vacant site would be a "blight" as are the numerous other such sites in the vicinity.
The staff report recommends that council "endorse in principle" several recommendations, including a change to the public benefits strategy that would allow the sports and recreation centre to go ahead.
Whatever happens in the neighbourhood, it may not happen quickly. The site-specific negotiating over community amenity contributions – which can range from $25 to $75 per square foot – can be drawn out and are tied up with higher-level city and neighbourhood plans.
"The development approval culture generally has created lengthy delays in approval process," said Penny Gurstein, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. "What has evolved is a process of negotiation on everything. There's no sort of guidelines that people can follow. Everything is sort of up for grabs."
Report suggests longer, skinnier waterfront Park
A report headed to city council this month includes recommendations that relate to Creekside Park, a waterfront space set out in 1990 as part of Concord Pacific's redevelopment of the former Expo lands.
The False Creek Residents Association has for years lobbied city hall on the issue, saying the city should require Concord to build the nine-acre park and that the green space was overdue for a neighbourhood with thousands of new residents.
Calls to build the park grew louder this year, when Concord proposed a temporary, smaller park that would be in place for more than a decade as the company built more residential and commercial buildings.
Council turned down that plan. The staff report headed to council this month includes a reconfigured park that would be skinnier than boundaries outlined in earlier designs but stretch farther along the waterfront.
Contaminated soil – a legacy of the area's industrial past – is part of the picture. The reconfigured park "would allow for a significant portion of the most highly contaminated soil to be capped in place rather than being moved," the report says. "This would be safer and would expedite the delivery of the park."
In campaigning for Creekside Park, the False Creek Residents' Association has also raised the issue of how much tax Concord pays on the site, arguing that the tax bill does not reflect the site's value or the fact that Concord has been able to lease parts of the property for special events, including the Olympics.
The 2011 assessed value for the site – known as Lot 9 in the long-running planning process around False Creek – is $400,000. The residents' group has appealed, saying that assessment vastly undervalues the property.
Concord Pacific declined to comment.