Vancouver's newest neighbourhood-to-be is less attractive than a car impound lot at the moment.
The land for the future Northeast False Creek urban village sits on either side of and underneath the city's worn 50-year-old viaducts that were built to whisk commuters into and out of downtown without them having to descend to the grubby industrial land then underneath.
But now that land, empty except for piles of concrete-barrier blocks, chain-link fences and parking lots, is planned to be transformed into a new development with as many as 15,000 new residents.
An even bigger change is that the city and the developers who own the land are negotiating how to integrate a new kind of retail into this area unlike anything Vancouver – or many cities – have seen.
Instead of leaving it up to the developers to lease to whomever is most likely to pay the bills on time, a practice that has resulted in a proliferation of bland chain stores, banks and restaurants in many of the new projects in the region, city planners are aiming to create three new retail zones in the area with special curation to ensure that businesses foster a special identity.
One will be a waterfront section filled with restaurants, shops and entertainment options, aimed to draw city residents and visitors down to a seawall and plaza built along False Creek. That will be a change for Vancouver, where most of the waterfront to date has been dedicated to walkways and bicycle paths with very little commercial activity.
The second major retail area, embedded on the ground floor of every residential building in this area close to one of the city's major sports arenas, is planned to be filled with small non-chain shops – the kinds of places that can usually survive only in run-down, low-rent strips far from downtown.
"We call it 'the indie zone,'" says Peter Webb, the senior vice-president for development at Concord Pacific Developments Inc., the real-estate behemoth that has built out most of the former Expo 86 lands on the southern edge of the downtown peninsula the past 30 years. "There will be these little commercial spaces in tight-oriented laneways – like European-width lanes that don't take cars."
Many storefronts will be only 25 feet wide, creating less expensive spaces for small businesses and matching the size of stores in the older districts nearby. The aim is to bring in independents and people experimenting with businesses for the first time.
It will be different and require some risk-taking, acknowledges Mr. Webb. Smaller, independent businesses can't pay the kind of rents usually charged downtown. As well, they can end up folding unexpectedly, leaving a landlord with no income for a few months (or more) as new tenants are solicited. But, said Mr. Webb, Concord Pacific is ready to make the gamble – and has the institutional heft to be able to handle the experiment. "We feel really strongly that we can make this work. Certain aspects will require support on our side but we believe it's such a fundamental thing for place-making."
And Concord's planners think this kind of retail will attract new buyers to the condos they'll be selling above. "They know there's a buzz going on below."
That's a considerable shift from Concord Pacific's attitude to retail in its early days of development on North False Creek in the 1990s. Mr. Webb says the company simply sold off some of the stratified retail spaces and wasn't willing to invest in retail when there appeared to be little demand for it. But, he said, that has changed and the company now holds onto its retail spaces wherever it is and manages it to enhance life for nearby residents.
Both Concord Pacific and city planners say that the concept is inspired, in part, by a similar district in Melbourne, Australia, where there's a thriving neighbourhood of small streets and laneways filled with local businesses.
The third retail area will be developed on city-owned land that sits under the viaducts on either side of Main Street, on the far east side of the new area.
There, a working group of people who represent Vancouver's black community is looking at how to pay tribute to and provide new space for that group. Hogan's Alley, as it was known, used to be home to many black railroad workers in the first half of the 20th century, before the area was razed to build the viaducts – one phase of a freeway that was supposed to run through the city's downtown.
That group would also like to see a lot of retail in the area, but retail that encourages small and local ventures.
"It's an important opportunity to give folks a space who are not getting access. This is a tough city," says Stephanie Allen, who works in non-profit-housing development. "We've had a lot of people say this is a great idea. What we're looking at is how do you produce retail space that's acceptable to startups."
The group, which is working with a consultant from the United States who specializes in reviving historic black areas in American cities, has discussed creating a non-profit to manage the new area, with a view to choosing tenants who fit the model.
City planners, who are overseeing the buzz of excited discussion going on with both developers and community groups, are so far actively pushing for or at least backing the new concepts.
They say the new retail is needed, according to research the city commissioned from Collliers.
"We've had a study done that says there's demand for more retail here already today, even without the new development," says Holly Sovdi, one of the team working on the plan at city hall.
He acknowledges that some groups in the areas around Northeast False Creek are concerned about the potential impacts on rents and displacement if there is a flood of new kinds of businesses. "We're going to have a chapter dedicated to managing those impacts," said Mr. Sovdi.
He said the city is so interested in promoting this new vision of retail that it is discussing potential incentives for developers to ensure that they retain management of retail and that they choose small, independent businesses.
He admits the city is asking developers to do a lot down there already in terms of public benefits, but ensuring a different business mix is being added to the list. "There's a lot of competing interests, but retail is key."
Developers, on the other hand, don't want standard bonuses from the city, like permission for extra building space above the usual zoning limit. Concord would like to see the city amend its bylaws so that the restaurants and bars in the area can stay open later – a crucial move if it's going to draw the postconcert, postgame crowds from the nearby arenas.
They also want to ensure the city doesn't close off the whole waterfront to cars. Drivers need to be able to at least get a glimpse of what's along the waterfront at some point, to entice them to come and sample the new businesses, said Mr. Webb. Some businesses on other sections of the waterfront, like those around the Burrard and Granville bridges, have suffered, he observed, because no one really knows they are there except for seawall walkers.
Whatever the outcome of those particular negotiations, a local retail consultant says that the city and developers are making the right move by trying to get away from the standard retail picture.
"What's happening in retail, it's changing so dramatically. I think it's a pretty good strategy for the area," said Raymond Shoolman, who is with the company Dig360. People can get standard products anywhere, including online these days. So what they want is something unique and "experiential," he said.
Pop-up stores, which give very small operations a chance to show their stuff in public, along with interesting new restaurants and unusual businesses are what people want when they do their shopping in person, he said.
"It's very, very exciting times."