River District breathes life into South Vancouver
At first blush, the River District Centre at the foot of Kerr Street looks more like a family gathering place than a real-estate marketing office. A group of moms with their infants are seated in a circle, laughing and singing. Off to one side is a kids’ library, where the wall is covered with children’s art. Nearby, a machine will take your photo, enabling you to send it as a postcard. In another area, there’s an Xbox Kinect and a screen for showing children’s movies. Everyone is welcome to drop by—there are no age restrictions.
It’s all housed in a roomy, wood-panelled building with a high ceiling overlooking a gorgeous view of the Fraser River in Southeast Vancouver.
“This is a totally different approach to real-estate marketing,” Kyra Lubell, director of community relations for River District, tells the Georgia Straight. “The other thing that is unique is we’re not selling any real estate out of this building. We’re just educating the community about the project.”
River District is one of the largest community-building exercises in the city’s history. The area formerly known as East Fraserlands encompasses 52.6 hectares along the Fraser River, between Kerr Street and Boundary Road. Once the site of the Canadian White Pine Mill, this huge chunk of land south of Marine Drive was bought by ParkLane Homes in 2003.
Lubell explains that the goal is to create a “complete community”, with an elementary and secondary school, four child-care facilities, restaurants, retail space including a grocery store, parks, office space, public plazas, and recreational amenities, all within walking distance or a short bicycle ride. ParkLane is the land developer, preparing the site. Other builders will construct 6,000 to 7,000 new homes, which will eventually house some 15,000 residents.
The most noticeable feature of the area is the Fraser River, where the occasional log boom can still be spotted near the foot of Kerr Street. In the coming years, River District will be crisscrossed with bike lanes and pedestrian walkways as part of a comprehensive effort to create a sustainable community. Inside the River District Centre, there’s a huge, dazzling, colour-coded model showing the five neighbourhoods that will be developed over the next 15 to 20 years. The tallest buildings will be around 24 storeys in the High Street area at the centre of the project, fanning out into low-rise and mid-rise condo projects, as well as some townhouse developments. There’s even a plan for short-term boat parking beside a yet-to-be-built waterfront restaurant. This will enable patrons to anchor their vessels, have lunch, then head on down the river. “It’s a neat concept if you have a boat,” Lubell says.
In addition, Lubell says that ParkLane Homes will create an island, called Sanctuary Island, near the riverfront, which will only be accessible to wildlife. It’s part of the company’s strategy to promote the revival of songbird populations.
“We’re actually located on the Pacific Flyway, which is part of their migratory route,” she states. “So what we’ve done is create different types of habitat for them. Sanctuary Island is obviously one of those areas.”
Matt Shillito, the city’s assistant director of planning, tells the Straight by phone that the goal is to create a sustainable new neighbourhood centre along the waterfront in Southeast Vancouver. “It’s to introduce new shops and services and community amenities, as well as a whole variety of different housing types, in a location where many of those things are currently lacking,” he says.
During the planning process, he heard concerns from Southeast Vancouver residents about having to drive to Champlain Mall or Burns Road whenever they want a litre of milk. That won’t be the case when River District offers those services in its High Street area, in the second phase of the development. The overall plan calls for up to 250,000 square feet of retail space and another 250,000 square feet of flex space, which could include office, institutional, or light-industrial uses.
Shillito says that all buildings will be at least LEED Gold, and there will be a district energy utility to provide heat and hot water, likely by capturing waste heat from a Metro Vancouver incinerator in Burnaby. “There’s a storm-water management strategy, so the rainwater and other water flowing down to the site will be cleaned and slowed up before it goes into the river,” he adds. “At a high level, the concept of introducing higher densities, mixed use, and a complete community on a brownfield site in the centre of the region is probably one of the biggest things we can do for reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Over the next 20 years, River District will include five neighbourhoods, restaurants, retail, and a mix of housing options.
Brent Toderian, the city’s former director of planning, tells the Straight over the phone that most communities on the suburban edge of the city are “not complete” because they don’t have sufficient density to facilitate a mix of uses. He suggests that this won’t be the case in River District, where all the homes will be either townhouses or condos.
“The intention in the long term is to have transit possibly even run along the rail tracks,” Toderian says. “There has always been the intention for it to match the city’s philosophy around walk, bike, and transit, even though it’s on the far edge of the city.”
He adds that this might be the last opportunity to buy a riverfront home in Vancouver, because Metro Vancouver and the city have already indicated their opposition to rezoning any more industrial land that isn’t in proximity to a SkyTrain station. “We have a very long river in Vancouver but not much residential development along the river, because the clear intention of the city is to preserve the majority of that river edge for job space,” he says.
ParkLane’s first development partner, Polygon Homes Ltd., is already marketing New Water, a two-building, 157-unit condominium complex on the western edge of River District, along Kerr Street. In an interview with the Straight in the Polygon marketing office on Kerr Street, the vice president of marketing, Ben Smith, says his project is competitively priced.
To elaborate, he says it’s possible to buy a condo in New Water for less than $500 per square foot, with units starting at $324,900. He suggests that this is one of the most affordable new-home options in Vancouver. He describes it as buying waterfront but not at waterfront prices.
“If you think of buying a home for under $400,000 in Vancouver, what are you going to get?” Smith says. “Here, we’re going to give you a two-bedroom home that’s 850 square feet. That’s great value for the city of Vancouver.”
River District has design guidelines to ensure the community has a certain look and feel. Smith characterizes New Water as having a “very modern West Coast aesthetic”, with a mixture of steel, brick, and timber details that play on the heritage of the site. On a tour of the display suite, he points out that the kitchens and bathrooms have quartz countertops. And Smith notes that each unit includes top-of-the-line stainless-steel appliances manufactured by Fisher & Paykel and Bosch.
In keeping with River District’s sustainability objectives, New Water includes low-flow faucets for energy efficiency and water conservation. The ground-floor units have their own gates, which will allow residents to enter and leave without going down a common walkway.
Like ParkLane, Polygon has developed some innovative marketing approaches. It has placed a couple of bicycles in the marketing area, so prospective purchasers can cycle around the neighbourhood to get a better sense of the community. When I ask Smith if he wants to hop on the bikes to check out the area, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment, even though it’s raining.
Cycling past a refurbished pier, Smith says that he often sees people hanging out there, walking their dogs, or dropping a line in the river for fish. As we move into the area known as West Fraserlands, he points out that in some apartment-rental ads, landlords have taken the name “River District” to describe this area as well. “It’s starting to have some cachet,” he comments.
Later, we pass by a huge open field that is heavily used in the summer months by beach-volleyball and ultimate players. It’s easy to notice how fresh the air is in this part of the city. “It’s because you’re by the water,” Smith says with a smile.
It’s sure to be central to Smith’s marketing pitches in the future.