A new neighbourhood is emerging amid the squat, old industrial buildings that lie to the east of Vancouver's gentrified and trendy Main Street area.
Framed between railway tracks to the north, wide thoroughfares Clark Drive to the east and Great Northern Way to the south, and Main Street's growing wall of condo towers, the area nicknamed "The Flats" is set to become an arts-and-tech oriented enclave of students, restaurants, galleries, breweries, coffee shops and limited residential.
Already, several new businesses have set up shop, including Mark James' Red Truck Beer on E. 1st Avenue, which will begin brewing in about a month's time, says the architect in charge of the project, Tim Ankenman. The brewery is aiming for a timely summer launch, and is on target now that the German-imported equipment is in place, he says. The 1,850-square-metre brewery will include a 50-seat diner, just one of the new restaurants that will be part of the fabric of the area, once fully realized. Momento Coffee House will soon move in, too, which will make up for the area's serious lack of coffee shops.
"This emerging unique neighbourhood will become an important part of our city," says Mr. Ankenman. "There's such a diversity happening between the east and west side of Main. On the west side, you have Burger King being redeveloped, and [condo project] Meccanica happening. All that is on the fringes of the east side of Main, where we still have car repair shops and Ralph's Radio."
The heart of the flats is Great Northern Way Campus. By 2017, it will be the new home for Emily Carr University of Art + Design, alongside the Centre for Digital Media. Finning International, manufacturer of Caterpillar machinery, donated 18 acres of land to Emily Carr, B.C. Institute of Technology, Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C., back in 2001. The recipients have formed the GNW Trust to oversee development of the acreage, but only Emily Carr will have an actual school there. The land was already zoned for some housing, which made the Trust's job easier.
"I don't want to be accused of exaggerating, but I think it's unique and tremendously exciting and a good opportunity for us, and our partners, and hopefully for the city to show how a previously industrial-only zone can be revitalized into something more interesting," says Matthew Carter, president of the Trust. "The exciting thing is where it is strategically located, as well as the four university institutions that own it collaboratively, that are doing interesting and innovative things, and then there's the big art school being one of the four partners anchoring it — that introduces a whole other level of uniqueness."
The Trust sold off four acres of the Finning property to the Onni Group, which has plans to build the neighbourhood's first residential condo project — a six-storey, two-building development that will finish construction in two years. It is, appropriately, called Canvas, and prices will start at around $250,000 for about 500 square feet of space. The buildings will offer 209 artist live/work studios, some with rooftop patios, and a common courtyard. The design was kept intentionally mid-rise.
"There is no talk of a tower there," says Onni vice-president of marketing, Nic Jensen. "There are some height requirements which we have to abide by — that's why the two buildings at six stories."
On an adjacent lot, there is another plan to build more artist/live work units, as well as student rental housing and a hotel that amounts to 400,000 sq. ft. of new development.
The city is at the data collection stage of a community plan for the entire False Creek Flats, which covers a much bigger area, all the way to Strathcona. In this eastern core of False Creek Flats, they are looking at more office space for high-tech industries and green jobs, as well as parks and pedestrian bridges over the railway tracks.
"We are waiting to finalize the downtown eastside plan, and once that's finalized we will allocate our staff to get work on it right away," says director of planning, Brian Jackson.
In the meantime, major change is already underway. There are several other breweries already operating nearby, including Main Street Brewery, Brassneck, 33 Acres and R & B Brewing. Alberta's Big Rock Brewery has plans to build a $3.5 million brewery in Mount Pleasant.
This summer, Mountain Equipment Co-Op opens its new 112,000 sq. ft. headquarters on the former Albion Fisheries property, just west of the campus. The headquarters will draw around 300 employees a day.
Several galleries that once clustered around South Granville have moved into the area, including Equinox and Monte Clark galleries, which have leased large, former Finning factory shop spaces from the Trust. The galleries regularly draw people to the site for openings. And unlike the tony storefronts of Granville Street, the new look of the galleries is far more industrial, drawing comparisons to Yaletown, or, further afield, Manhattan's Meat Packing District. Equinox Gallery owner Andy Sylvester says he and Mr. Carter christened the neighbourhood.
"It's catchy and easy to remember, and it defines the space we are in down here — and it stuck, which is the most important part," says Mr. Sylvester.
From a condo marketer's perspective, the new neighbourhood has built-in appeal, particularly the 1,800 new students and faculty that will soon be located there.
"Obviously, the Main Street buzz has really been growing, and this is a continuation of it," says Mr. Jensen. "We're branding it 'Southeast False Creek Flats' — six minutes to Science World and the seawall, and also to south Main, where there are great restaurants and groceries and coffee shops. And the other intriguing thing is all the art galleries that have moved there."
But there's another major factor at play in the future direction of the new neighbourhood, and that is the possibility of a future SkyTrain station. For Onni, part of the appeal was the city's proposal for a station at Emily Carr's new campus, says Mr. Jensen.
So far, the Onni projects are the exception to the rule for the flats. The city has a long-standing policy of preserving the area for jobs. Student rental housing has been allowed in the two-year-old Centre for Digital Media Building, which has 76 units on the top floor. For students who work late at night, more housing means more on-street activity, as opposed to the deserted streets of industrial land after hours. But besides the Onni condos, no other market housing is up for consideration.
"The city was supportive of allowing student rental housing and they have indicated they will support more," says Mr. Carter. "And they have also indicated they are not comfortable allowing market-housing condos, which are not in keeping with their vision for how the flats should develop."
However, if all goes according to the city's plan for a SkyTrain station at Great Northern Way and Thornton, the area could also get a major boost from the Millennium Line. If approved, the rapid transit extension from nearby VCC-Clark station would continue along the Northern edge of the site and enter a tunnel, then turn south towards a Broadway and Main Street station, and on to UBC. The green light on a new transit station could drastically change things, says Mr. Jackson.
"We would have to take a serious re-look at the planning for that area should SkyTrain be announced, because that would be a significant new node of development that we would take a look at."
The very things that make a neighbourhood interesting are often the things that wipe it out. Artists' enclaves have routinely been gentrified to the point of unaffordability, pushing out artists to make way for condo towers and chain stores. For that reason, Mr. Sylvester says he and many others in the arts community are against a SkyTrain station moving into the flats. It also doesn't help him that a proposed rapid transit extension would go right through his gallery and the Monte Clark Gallery, taking them out of the picture altogether. It would also mean the loss of historic property.
"The thing that put me in this building was the 14,000 sq. ft. space with 25-foot ceilings. These buildings don't exist in Vancouver," says Mr. Sylvester. "We have the luxury of space."
As well, he says, Vancouver needs an intellectual core. The universities are located on the fringes, with UBC at the tip of Point Grey and SFU on a mountain. The flats neighbourhood is an opportunity to create that core.
"I don't want to be critical of the developer community, but I hope it becomes an area where culture has a voice — I hope it's not simply a place where we build more condominiums without an infrastructure that has cultural interest and vitality to it."
Editor's note: The original print and online version of this story did not make it clear that the Flats is in Vancouver, B.C. This version has been corrected.