Nothing in Colleen Jordan’s background would suggest that she deserves the nickname “queen of the high-rises”. The former school-district librarian spent the last 14 years of her career as the secretary-treasurer for CUPE B.C. before retiring in 2005.
But since getting elected to Burnaby council in 2002, the left-wing politician has taken a keen interest in the city’s community plans. And as the council liaison to the planning-and-building department, she is helping steer the region’s third-largest city through an incredible growth phase.
Speaking with the Georgia Straight in the Burnaby council chamber, Jordan and the city’s assistant director of current planning, Ed Kozak, explain why high-rise developments are being concentrated in four town centres linked by rapid transit: Metrotown, Brentwood, Edmonds, and Lougheed.
“Part of our responsibility to the region is to allow more places for people to live,” Jordan says. “So those are the places where we have designated for high density: density around transit, housing around transit.”
The value of new multifamily building permits in January 2013 reached $125.6 million, according to a recent report to council. That’s more than a third of the total for all of 2012.
“I think that reflects years of work in our town centres and reflects the stability and growth of Burnaby,” Kozak says. “And I think it reflects an adherence to adopted community plans.”
Those community plans weren’t cooked up in a jiffy. In 1977, then–planning director A. L. Parr submitted the original Metrotown plan to council, setting the stage for what Jordan calls the development of Burnaby’s downtown. The Edmonds plan was adopted in 1994, followed by Brentwood in 1996 and Lougheed in 1997. “They’ve all been there for so long that people have just sort of accepted that is where the high-rises are going to be,” Jordan says.
Kozak adds that developers who market projects in Burnaby are required to post community area plans so buyers know what might also be built in their neighbourhoods. Jordan says this reduces the likelihood of newer residents complaining to council several years later when a tower is going up across the street in accordance with the city’s policy.
The town-centre plan is under review in Metrotown, where Jordan and Kozak expect approximately 30,000 new residents during the next 20 years. Ivanhoé Cambridge is building a third office tower in the area, and there are numerous residential developments planned south of the Metrotown SkyTrain station.
“When there’s a new plan or when there’s a changed design, there’s an immediate uptake of the easy sites,” Kozak says. “You see an immediate rush, and then it plateaus. The more difficult sites tend to take a lot longer to turn over and redevelop.”
Jordan estimates that 10 towers have gone up in recent years near the Brentwood Millennium Line station, with another 10 or 20 “on the books”. In the first phase, the owner of the Brentwood Mall, Shape Properties, plans two residential towers and commercial space on the southwest corner of the 11.5-hectare site. The master plan, which was approved last August, calls for up to 11 residential towers from 20 to 70 storeys in height. That’s in addition to two stand-alone office buildings of 30 to 40 storeys and an entertainment precinct allowing for public gatherings, community theatre, and musical performances.
Jordan notes that Shape Properties also owns the Lougheed Mall, and this town centre hasn’t been nearly as quick to proceed. But in Edmonds, there are numerous high-rises in the area close to the Burnaby Public Library’s relatively new Tommy Douglas branch. And this year, a new $30-million recreation centre with a swimming pool will open in the neighbourhood.
“Hopefully, some of the people who used to go to Metrotown [to the Bonsor Recreation Complex] will now go to Edmonds, and it will free up space,” Jordan says. “With more population, you have to have more facilities.”
Cressey Development Group recently filed a rezoning application for the Value Village site, which is on the northeast corner of Kingsway and Edmonds. According to Kozak, council has given staff authority to work with Cressey on “a suitable plan for development”.
“The adopted plan on that site does allow for high-density residential and commercial,” Kozak says. “So they would be working on a plan that would be consistent with that. That would include high-rise towers.”
In an interview with the Straight in his office at Cathedral Place, Cressey’s vice president of development and acquisitions, Hani Lammam, says that his company likes Burnaby’s predictable planning process. “Burnaby is a good place to do business because you know what you’re getting into,” he declares. “You know what it’s going to cost you. It’s not negotiated. It’s predetermined. It’s clear. You know what the deal is going in.”
This perspective is echoed by Daryl Simpson, senior vice president of Bosa Properties. He tells the Straight by phone that his company’s entire current development portfolio of six sites is concentrated in the Metrotown area. The primary reason is strong demand by people to live in Burnaby, but he also cites a good working relationship between city planners and council.
“The fact that there’s predictability and rationality goes a long way, because those are significant items in our pro forma [calculation of future returns],” Simpson explains. “If we know going in what those are going to be, it makes it that much easier to rationalize a project and make it feasible.”
He adds that Burnaby taxpayers have “a level of faith that their interests are being taken care of” because of the city’s very prescriptive community-amenity-contribution guideline. This is what led to the development of the Tommy Douglas library branch in return for greater density in a Bosa Properties commercial-residential development at that location. “The goal posts aren’t always changing,” Simpson states.
That’s not to say there isn’t a community uproar from time to time. Last year, 50 residents signed an online petition to the mayor and council condemning “behemoth developments” in the Metrotown area. “We do not want to become another downtown and we want to maintain a good balance of density and space in our city,” the petitioners stated in their letter.
And when the Brentwood Town Centre concept plan came before council last year, some residents objected to the scale of the development and the amount of traffic it would generate. Generally speaking, though, Jordan says she’s “really thankful” that her council doesn’t face anywhere near the level of opposition that is routinely encountered by Vancouver city council on rezoning applications.
It helps Burnaby council’s credibility that the ruling party, the Burnaby Citizens Association, hasn’t been the recipient of massive political contributions from the development industry—unlike Vision Vancouver. In addition, most of the towers haven’t displaced tenants, according to Kozak, who points out that only three former rental buildings have been lost in the process.
Bosa Properties’ Sovereign project is a prime example of how tepid the opposition has traditionally been in Burnaby. The 45-storey hotel-retail-condominium project at 4509 Kingsway sailed through to approval with barely a whimper. Then $98 million worth of housing units were sold on a single day in February 2011. “It was an internal sales record,” Simpson acknowledges. “It’s not something we like to pound our chest about.”
A couple of years ago, Sovereign was slated to become the highest building in the Lower Mainland because of its location on a hill in the western part of the city. But the queen of the high-rises, Jordan, and Kozak point out that it won’t keep this distinction for long. That’s because Intracorp Projects Ltd. is proceeding with MetroPlace, a 46-storey project on a four-storey podium at the corner of Beresford Street and Telford Avenue.
“It’s slightly higher than Sovereign,” Kozak says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s being marketed as “a new exclamation mark on Burnaby’s skyline”.