Vancouver needs to fight to retain the prime industrial site of the Molson Coors brewery for new-economy jobs if it wants to thrive like Seattle and San Francisco, says a professor who specializes in the economies of West Coast cities.
It's one of the many warnings emerging in response to the news this week that Concord Pacific Developments, which has built thousands of condos on former industrial land on the north shore of False Creek, has now bought the Molson Coors brewery site on the south side for $185-million. That's more than triple its current assessed value.
The company has issued a brief statement saying it wants to eventually build a "sustainable mixed-use addition to Vancouver" with a strong component of local and global tech companies after the brewery finds a new site in the new few years.
"This is a bit of a watershed moment for the city and the region," said Tom Hutton, a University of British Columbia professor of urban and regional planning. "This could be a successful site for cultural and technical industries. I don't think this is a site for a housing project."
Concord Pacific's suggestion that it include residential units as part of the mix on the site also has politicians scrambling to define their bottom line on what should happen with the land, while specialists in urban land use such as Mr. Hutton are speculating on the future possibilities.
Mr. Hutton said Seattle and San Francisco, the two most dynamic urban economies on the West Coast, have been successful because they didn't give up all of their inner-city land to high-end condo development.
"They take industrial land use very seriously," Mr. Hutton said. Vancouver could do what those cities have done with South Lake Union in Seattle and the South of Market in San Francisco to carve out space for tech industries.
"If the city is serious, the Molson lands, along with False Creek Flats, could be successful places for tech and creative industries," he said.
The site is currently zoned for heavy and light industrial uses, with accessory uses. It is also defined as a protected industrial zone in Metro Vancouver's regional growth strategy. Metro chairman Greg Moore said it would take a two-thirds' vote to change that.
Jay Wollenberg, president of one of the region's pre-eminent land-use consulting companies, Coriolis, said the reality is that no manufacturing company is going to want to move to a central-city site and build a new factory. There would be too many problems with transportation of materials and with finding employees who could afford to live anywhere near the new facility.
Instead, he said, politicians need to focus on what kinds of jobs it wants there. "The right way to go about this is to put on the table a set of realistic alternatives."
Councillors from all three of Vancouver's political parties say the area needs to be protected for industrial-type uses, although they have differences.
Councillor Raymond Louie, from the city's ruling Vision Vancouver, said he and staff were clear with anyone who asked about the site that it was zoned industrial and was going to stay that way. Concord Pacific wasn't among those that visited.
Now, Mr. Louie said, it will be up to the company to make a move. "They'll need to go through a process to convince us we should even look at it."
He also noted that the city has many other things to work on before giving up time on its agenda to planning for the area, and he doubts that the current council, whose term ends in 2018, will even get around to this.
"I expect this is a long-term play on their part."
Councillor Adriane Carr of the Green Party said she could see some adjustments being made to the zoning to bring in new tech jobs. "But adding residential is a no go."
Non-Partisan Association Councillor George Affleck said the city needs to be cautious, even about allowing in high-tech jobs that could be located in office zones.
Concord Pacific has been an aggressive player in Vancouver recently, also purchasing the Bayshore hotel site near Stanley Park for $290-million, with the backing of a Chinese bank, even though there is currently very little development potential on the property.