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(Hadani Ditmars for The Globe and Mail)
(Hadani Ditmars for The Globe and Mail)

'An exercise in place-making' Add to ...

"It's a rare opportunity for any architect to plan a whole community from scratch," says Jim Cheng on a tour of the East Fraserlands development he master-planned.

And it's a rare thing in Vancouver to have so much undeveloped waterfront land to work with. But Mr. Cheng, who is also in charge of planning the new Plaza of Nations development, made great use of the 7.6 million square feet at his disposal.

Not only is this the biggest mixed-use development project in the city since False Creek, one that will eventually house 20,000 people, it's also a LEED Gold standard community that will rehabilitate several acres of riverfront, returning some of the once industrial area and former site of the Canadian White Pine mill to its natural state. The 130-acre project just south of Southeast Marine Drive, demarcated by Kerr Street to the west, Boundary Road to the east, and the Fraser River to the south, involves a bevy of architects and two different developers. Park Lane Homes/Wesgroup is overseeing the public architecture, while Polygon is handling the residential side (called "New Water").

But to understand the gestalt behind the planning process - that saw extensive community consultation and a week-long workshop with leading new urbanist Andrés Duany, one has to appreciate the context.

The area is bordered on the west by a series of well-intentioned residential developments built over the last decade but (like the plethora of single family homes to the north) with no real urban amenities like grocery shops, cafés or restaurants - or even direct access to the riverfront - and on the east by industrial parks and a patch of suburban Burnaby. Surrounding this area is an eerie no-man's-land of warehouses and auto repair shops.

"So this is not just a real-estate development," says Mr. Cheng, still brimming with enthusiasm for the project, "it's an exercise in place-making."

More than 60 per cent of the first residential units on offer (designed by North Vancouver-based Shift architecture) were sold within the first week they became available.

"The main design guideline for the architects," Mr. Cheng explains over coffee at the newly opened riverside restaurant kitty-corner from the sales centre, "was authenticity. We wanted to respect the spirit of the place." Not in any kind of cloying post-modern pastiche kind of way, he says, but rather to reinvigorate the riverside tradition with a modern sensibility.

The townhomes designed by Raymond Letkeman, that will sit atop the sloping site and take in the south-facing river view, replicate the Sawtooth silhouette of the old White Pine mills. Other industrial references include use of steel and heavy timber, large expanses of glazing with mullion grids, shingled roof planes and corrugated metal. But this is all done within the context of contemporary West Coast style, with riverine references like wood decking and cable railings.

"We wanted to avoid building anything monolithic or over-planned on the riverside," says Mr. Cheng, "and stay true to the fine grain form of the area." Mr. Cheng also tapped into the variegated housing styles and "spontaneity" of riverside housing - remnants of which you can still see on the opposite shore in Richmond.

As a result, he involved several different architects in the whole process - with Shift and Letkeman contributing to the residential side (Mr. Cheng will also design some riverfront housing over the next few months) and Walter Francl, Peter Busby, David Miller, Peter Bohlin and Hughes Condon Marler architects (HCMA) designing the public buildings in the new village centre. It's here that a pedestrian-friendly high street will feature mom 'n' pop-style shops - a significant departure from the big-box-style stores in the surrounding area.

Despite Mr. Duany's involvement in the initial community planning process, Mr. Cheng sees this project as being "beyond new urbanism."

"New urbanism in many ways is a tame, very American version of what we're doing here - limiting height to two or three storeys and a scaled-down version of mixed use," he says.

Instead, Mr. Cheng says he's pursuing a kind of "old urbanism."

"Just look at ancient Rome, or even Pompeii," he says in the afternoon sun as tugboats and log booms float past the embryonic new community. "They had residential quarters with retail spaces in front - selling wine, or cheese or textiles."

East Fraserlands will have high-rise buildings - some as tall as 24 storeys - integrated with other housing types. Make no mistake: the pastoral riverfront scenes aside, this will be a high-density community.

During the consultation process, says Mr. Cheng, residents realized their need for community centres, shops, cafes, restaurants and recreational facilities - the kind of urban amenities that require "critical mass."

"That's the high-density trade-off," Mr. Cheng says with a grin as he surveys the hundred or so people who have flocked to the newly opened Roma Burger Bar - designed with riverine industrial references by HCMA.

Next door is their "discovery centre," conceived as a kind of urban longhouse, which has already become an interim de facto community centre (an actual one will soon be built). A grandfather sits at a large table watching his grandchildren colour in cartoon characters. Outside, kids play in a sandbox and on a brand new carved wooden jungle gym as their parents look on. Residents from the surrounding areas have come here to bicycle, walk their dogs or even fish for smelt in the river, as eagles and ducks and songbirds glide by.

Build it and they will come is the operative phrase here, as even the beginnings of the project have filled an obvious need in the community. But the high-density nature of the project is mitigated by the large eco-corridors that border the development on the west - offering a substantial songbird habitat - and on the east with acres of forest acting as a buffer zone with the nearby industrial park. Of the 130 acres that comprise the entire East Fraserlands development, 25 will be preserved in their natural state.

It's been 30 years since the development of False Creek, a much lower density development. But, says Mr. Cheng, "we've learned a lot from the successes of places like Granville Island."

"We learned that industrial and residential and commercial could all co-exist in a harmonious and mutually beneficial way. East Fraserlands is taking that concept to the next level."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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