Vancouver's False Creek Flats has been poised for years to become the city's hot new tech zone or its third downtown or … well, something.
But, until recently, changes have been ad hoc and scattered randomly throughout this 450-acre tract of land just east of Vancouver's main downtown that is home to rail lines, warehouses with rusting metal roofs, industrial operations of various descriptions, car-repair shops, a big-box hardware chain, and a lot of campers parked on the streets where the city's not-quite-homeless have been taking up residence.
It was in the late 1990s when the city council of the day rezoned part of the Flats for high tech in the hopes that it would become home to the then-exciting dot-com industry. That idea collapsed when the dot-com bubble burst.
In the mid-2000s, it was called Vancouver's "third downtown," as planners encouraged new enterprises to move beyond the central business district and central Broadway – still the region's two biggest office and employment centres. But there was little takeup.
Four years ago, there was a lot of enthusiasm that the area was about to blossom. Emily Carr University of Art and Design was preparing to move in. Startlingly luxurious auto dealerships opened on Terminal Avenue, the main road going through the still grungy neighbourhood. A huge new brewery, Red Truck, was built in one corner. And some very high-end art galleries began moving to the area from posher neighbourhoods.
But the Flats still didn't quite ignite. Instead, tech businesses were still trying to crowd into the Mount Pleasant industrial area nearby, seeing "Mount Pixel" as hipper and already filled with the amenities that young tech workers might like, from brew pubs to clothing outlets specializing in black and grey hoodies.
But now, many patient observers think the area is truly about to take off.
"I think this area in 10 years is going to be unrecognizable," says Jon Stovell, whose property company, Reliance Holdings, has a 150,000-square-foot office building in the Flats going to a public hearing for rezoning early next month. "There's a kind of zeitgeist to the neighbourhood now that wasn't there before."
The city completed a comprehensive plan for the area a little less than a year ago.
It disappointed many in the development community and some planners, however, because – in spite of initial favourable signals – the plan drafters eventually rejected pleas to include significant amounts of rental housing in the area.
Mr. Stovell and others were taken aback that the city would not include housing in an area so close to downtown and with so many potential jobs on the horizon.
"We thought we could put four to five thousand units right around transit and still build all of the office space they wanted," says Mr. Stovell.
Gordon Harris, an urban planner and chief executive officer of Simon Fraser University's community trust, which is responsible for developing residential neighbourhoods around the university, says the planners' decision to keep housing minimal was a loss for the city.
"It was the last best chance to create affordable workers' housing in Vancouver," he says. "I think the Flats is the perfect place to mix residential, employment, public lands and transit."
Planners project that employment in the area will rise to 30,000 workers from 8,000 now within 30 years, including the huge number of health employees who will arrive if and when St. Paul's Hospital opens in 2022, as planned.
Despite the lack of residential allowed, except for a small amount of student and live-work housing, the city's plan did make it clear exactly what would be allowed in the four districts it defined, which made development planning smoother.
The four areas it came up with were: the "health hub," in the area where the new St. Paul's Hospital is supposed to be built; the "back of house" area in the east; the "Terminal spine" in the centre, and the "creative campus" on the southern third of the area, a sector that includes the now-completed Emily Carr, whose doors opened last fall.
That plan, along with growing pressure on every other part of the downtown from the city's booming tech sector, seems to have unlocked activity.
In January, Low Tide Properties – the rapidly growing real-estate company of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson – and PCI Developments announced a joint project for a seven-storey office building with 160,000 square feet, just the first of what is expected to ultimately become 1.9 million square feet of office space built by the two companies.
The building is already about three-quarters leased, with a mix of tenants that includes both Finning International, a traditional industry that used to have a significant operation on the Flats, and Blackbird Interactive Game Studio. It's an illustration of both ends of the Vancouver economy.
"The Finning story is interesting because they're a traditional office user, usually in a downtown tower, but they're seeing the need to be more like a modern tech company," says Blair Quinn, an executive vice-president at commercial-property brokerage CBRE. "The young work force doesn't want to be in a tower."
Mr. Quinn says the 72-per-cent preleasing of the office proposal "shows the pent-up demand."
The two development companies have already earmarked a second site, with 320,000 square feet, as the next project on the to-do list, with a completion date of 2020.
Other landowners are waiting in the wings, including the now non-Chip Wilson-led Lululemon and Mission Hill winery titan Anthony von Mandl.
Onni Group, one of the city's major developers, has proposed a massive complex that would include a 200-room hotel, another 220 units of live-work housing, and 120,000 square feet of office and retail.
"This is the start," says Mr. Quinn. "Everybody's marshalling to get through City Hall."
The False Creek file
History: The False Creek Flats is a former tidal flat that reached to present day Clark Drive at high tide and was infilled between 1917 and 1925.
Location: The Flats is 500 metres from downtown Vancouver and 800 metres from the Port of Vancouver by rail.
Ownership: More than 50 per cent of the Flats land is owned by the City of Vancouver and rail companies. Key municipal assets include works yards, and police and fire training facilities
Rail: Befitting its industrial past, there are 48 kilometres of railway track in the Flats.
Employment: About 8,000 people work in the Flats.
Business composition: There are 600 businesses in diverse industries. About 20 per cent of businesses identify themselves as part of an arts and culture cluster. There are seven educational institutions, including the Emily Carr arts school, and more than 30 technology and research-and-development operations. There's also a produce wholesaler and distribution cluster and 11 recycling and waste management companies.
City of Vancouver, 2017