The City of Vancouver is working on a proposal to rezone publicly owned industrial land that is also the last of the developable inner city waterfront, making it highly valuable real estate.
Former City of Burnaby senior planner Robert Renger made a freedom of information request last year about the Southeast False Creek site and recently received a largely redacted document from Vancouver’s real state services department. The city proposes making height and density changes to the Southeast False Creek official development plan of 2007 (amended in 2018), and then rezoning the area to allow residential and commercial uses. It’s the first step in the rezoning process for the area, which is about 10.8 hectares, or 24 acres.
Mr. Renger believes that such an important rezoning of public land should have more transparency, and it should have been made public by now.
“I don’t think it is, or should be, the natural order of things for establishing public policy for public lands,” he says. “Real estate services are not a private developer. Public consultation and discussion is warranted for such an important public development area.”
Anyone who walks regularly along the sea wall on the south side of False Creek between Olympic Village and Cambie Bridge will be familiar with the largely under-utilized mostly industrial site. The parcel falls within one of three defined pockets of the Southeast False Creek ODP, which planned early on for residential use.
The first of the three pockets of Southeast False Creek to be developed was Olympic Village. Properties to the east, around the rail yards, have also been developed under the ODP. Concert Properties negotiated a deal with the city to redevelop a large part of that neighbourhood with market housing and social housing.
All that remains is the work yards industrial land, also known as Area 1A, which includes police parking, a very large works yard on the sea wall, a couple of heritage industrial buildings, some temporary modular housing, a small nature island and Hinge Park. About 8.94 hectares can be improved upon, and 2.9 hectares developed, according to the document.
The plan is to rezone the work yards for retail and residential housing, with some units below market, some moderate rate market housing and mostly market strata or leasehold strata, depending on economic viability and council decisions. It’s unclear whether the idea is that it remains public land or is sold off. The part about the sizes of the projects allowed has been redacted, as well as transportation networks, view cones, massing, heights, floor area, and shadowing.
The acreage would be developed in phases, starting in the east and framing around Hinge Park and working westward.
The requested changes would impact height and density, allowing owner-occupied housing for first-time buyers. The document says that 19 storeys are possible within current view cones.
In an e-mail response the city said that the land is contaminated and needs remediation and is in need of considerable infrastructure improvements. The city has hired consultants to prepare for this work and staff are awaiting results of a study.
“If a rezoning application is submitted in regards to the land in Southeast False Creek Area 1A, details will be posted online and there will be a public open house[s], which would lead up to a public hearing about the rezoning. Council will provide direction on any terms of disposition and the future land tenure once a plan for redevelopment has been approved and potential costs and funding sources are fully understood,” said the e-mail.
Mr. Renger questions why the plan wasn’t revealed when the city staff’s controversial plan for False Creek South – the 1970s neighbourhood closer to Granville Island – was presented to the public. Council rejected that plan, which included a tripling of existing density, in October, 2021. The proposal to rezone the adjacent work yards parcel to the east was submitted a few days later, in early November, 2021.
Mr. Renger shared an e-mail from deputy city manager Armin Amrolia that said the rezoning application would take two years along with ODP amendments. Ms. Amrolia says that since the ODP was created in 2007 the city’s policies have adjusted to allow for more height and density in the area, and surrounding buildings have changed the urban context.
“I thought it was very strange when they started that public consultation about what should happen to city lands in False Creek South that they excluded that whole area,” says Mr. Renger. “And they had a plan for this land, but no one knew about it.”
Mr. Renger says he couldn’t understand why major density was being proposed for the existing community of False Creek South, when there was developable land next door that wouldn’t cause upheaval.
“Shouldn’t we be consulting about vacant land instead of developed land first?” he says.
Former City of Vancouver senior urban designer Scot Hein, who worked on the original ODP for Southeast False Creek, is concerned that the city might undo a lot of the planning and design work they’d done to keep mid-rise density. At that time, they planned dense mid-rise buildings for Southeast False Creek, with some minimal allowances, he says. That’s why Olympic Village is an award-winning mid-rise neighbourhood. They didn’t want a sea of towers, such as what exists on the north side of False Creek.
Several well-known names in land use policy circles signed a letter on April 6 2004 to Mayor Larry Campbell and council that argued against a “high-rise approach” for Southeast False Creek. Those names include Chuck Brook, who worked on the recent False Creek South plan update on behalf of the city, as well as high-profile architects Peter Busby and James Cheng, UBC professor Patrick Condon, developer Michael Geller, and others.
The city can either continue that vision, which included a mixed tenure of housing types, such as affordable rental, or go in the direction of a private developer, Mr. Hein says.
Many housing advocates would like to see publicly owned land used for social housing, more in line with the Vienna model, where the city owns considerable affordable housing. The Vancouver way is to sell off public lands to maximize values.
“It’s the last waterfront site in the inner city, and as much as we argue for complete community with mixed equal tenure, there’s another view that can’t be discounted that says it’s a taxpayer owned asset, so exploit the hell out of it – meaning, 100-per-cent market housing … with magical views,” Mr. Hein says.
“And then take the proceeds and build non-market housing somewhere else where the land is cheaper. I get that argument too. It’s not like it’s obvious what we should be doing.
“But if they want to change from the council-approved intention enshrined in the original official development plan, then there has to be a public process around that because it has implications about what will then happen with False Creek South and all the work from that community.”
The city maximized the value of its property further east when it consolidated city land with land already owned by Concert Properties, creating a 6.4-acre five-tower project called The Creek. It includes the 15-storey, 135-unit Railyard Housing Co-op. The project is a community land trust model and more than half the homes offer housing to households with incomes between $25,000 and $55,000. In exchange for extra density, the developer delivered the co-op, which remains public property. Concert then built 443 market strata units in four condo towers ranging from 12 to 17 storeys, with a city park.
At the Vancouver Real Estate Forum in April, Concert’s chief executive officer David Podmore interviewed B.C. Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon, and they discussed “BC Builds,” an upcoming program that will likely use publicly owned land for new developments. Citing exorbitant land costs, Mr. Podmore had been pushing for this sort of collaboration for years.
Mr. Podmore said in an interview last month he’d prefer to see the city hang onto public land and sell leases instead, known as leasehold. In the early 1990s, his company entered into 80-year land leases on six city properties, delivering 970 rental units that they still manage today. Concert is owned by Canadian pension funds.
“The model that we did use in the early 90s, and we’ve used it occasionally on projects since that time, is leasehold interest in the land, and it can be 80 or 99 years. There are a lot of positive features for the government if it’s government owned land. But getting the land at an acceptable price on a long-term lease basis is very, very helpful.”