Throughout the summer, The Globe's B.C. bureau is taking an in-depth look at housing in the Vancouver region, where skyrocketing prices are limiting who can afford to buy a home in Canada's third-largest city and what those homes look like. We're examining trends in the Lower Mainland's housing market, as well as following buyers who are trying to navigate it.
The Lower Mainland's industrial land has been the region's escape valve for housing pressure for more than four decades.
In Vancouver alone, almost half of the industrial land the city had in 1970 has been let go for other uses. About 100,000 people now live in condos and townhouses on the 565 hectares of land that once housed mills, barrel-making factories, breweries, ironworks and rail yards.
That includes everything from Coal Harbour in central Vancouver, once a strip of marine industries, to the River District in the city's southeast corner, a former mill operation.
That pattern is similar in the rest of the region. In Richmond, North Vancouver, Coquitlam and more, hundreds of hectares of former industrial lands were transformed into new communities. That means a lots less room for industrial jobs and the region's significant port activity.
That relief valve, which gave beleaguered city politicians an easy way to absorb growth without enraging existing residents, is not quite as easily tapped into as it once was.
The Regional Growth Strategy, approved by Metro Vancouver directors in 2011, spelled out exactly what industrial and "employment" land was left in the region, and it created a tougher set of hurdles for owners and city councils to get through before it could be converted to other uses.
"I think the initiative by Metro Vancouver has had a very marked effect on people even trying to acquire industrial land," says development consultant Michael Geller.
Vancouver planners, too, say they don't have many requests to convert industrial to residential since the city, besides endorsing the Regional Growth Strategy, has taken its own particularly hard line on conversions.
"There aren't those people hammering on our doors any more to build residential on industrial land," says senior planner Jane Pickering.
But the pressure hasn't vanished.
Now, Ms. Pickering and others say, different kinds of users are trying to get through the door onto industrial land: breweries, art galleries, high-tech companies, all those who think they can make a plausible claim to being sort of industrial to get access to industrial land that is typically priced much lower than commercial land.
"The question is how much do we let them open it up to the public," says Ms. Pickering.
The city did allow new breweries in industrial land around Mount Pleasant – Mark James's Red Truck Beer Company near Main and Great Northern Way; Big Rock Urban Brewery, near Cambie and Fourth; 33 Acres off Broadway near Main, and others – to have public-service areas alongside their production facilities. But the city is wary about opening the door further.
And, throughout the region, there are still struggles over industrial land that owners and even city councils want to see converted to residential use.
In Vancouver, St. Paul's Hospital will be moving to industrial land near the train station and there's persistent talk that hospital directors would like to see some housing around it to help pay for the cost of the new hospital. The city manager and head planner have been signalling strong No's to that, but Mr. Geller said it's bad urban planning not to have other uses around the hospital, as well as financially unwise not to let the hospital raise some of its needed money that way.
In Port Moody, two significant pieces of land – the former Ioco oil-refinery site and the Mill and Timber site – are the subject of a tug of war. Metro Vancouver planners are trying to make the argument that Port Moody should hang on to them for industrial purposes. Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay has said those pieces of land, at the eastern end of Burrard Inlet, are too far from the port or other industrial hubs to be useful.
Both were designated by Port Moody as "special study areas," something that municipalities did as part of the Regional Growth Strategy process to preserve the right to convert them, but the tactic means the future of a lot of land is up in the air.
That's a devastating trend for the CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, Robin Silvester, who has been mounting an unusually energetic campaign to save industrial land.
"We're still hurtling toward a brick wall," says Mr. Silvester, noting that current estimates say the region will run out of industrial land – now with an inventory of about 10,000 hectares, a quarter of it undeveloped – within a decade. "And the Ioco lands, that's 4 per cent of the total industrial land base."
Mr. Silvester has called for an industrial land reserve and much more assertive control over land in the region than what Metro Vancouver is able to do.
But, at the moment, Metro Vancouver has limited ability to enforce its Regional Growth Strategy. It has already lost one court battle concerning that strategy in Langley, over converting agricultural land to residential.
Elisa Campbell, Metro's director of regional and strategic planning, says the focus now is on providing compelling arguments to municipalities for why they should save their industrial land. As well, Metro is trying to come up with clear goals about which land should be saved for hard-core industrial use and which could be used for a mix of uses without hobbling the region.
Both she and Mr. Silvester say everyone needs to understand that when they give up industrial land for other uses, they are giving up something valuable for the community.
"Jobs on industrial land are good-paying jobs," says Mr. Silvester.
If the region wants to address housing affordability problems, one way to do it is by ensuring that the city makes room for those jobs.