Proposed zoning changes in Vancouver favour commerce over condos

From the 17th-floor suite at 401 West Georgia Street where Charles Gauthier has his office, the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association can see about half a dozen residential towers in the heart of the city’s commercial district, among them the Hudson, at 610 Granville Street.

Completed in September 2006, the 32-level condo building sits on top of the Granville SkyTrain station and Pacific Centre mall. The Hudson is likely to be one of the last such residential projects in the downtown core.

In February, Vancouver city council will hold a public hearing on staff-proposed zoning changes in the downtown area. If approved by council, one key modification would see residential development disallowed in the central business district (CBD), which extends roughly from Bute Street to Beatty Street and Cordova Street to Alberni Street.

Gauthier noted that such a measure will boost commercial development in the downtown core.

“There’s obviously limited land to do that, and we’re supportive,” Gauthier told the Georgia Straight. “Downtown is blessed with a good transportation infrastructure. If you start to see office developments being built elsewhere that are not along transit lines”¦then what we’re doing is further encouraging people to get into their cars.”

The proposed zoning changes were laid out in a staff report to council in October of last year. The report also recommended an increase in commercial density in the CBD and Yaletown.

The report stated that greater commercial density will create additional office spaces. It also pointed out that removing residential as a permitted use in these areas will mean that “land values remain reasonable for commercial development as a result of reduced land speculation for residential use.”

City staff project a shortfall of 5.8 million square feet of commercial space in the entire downtown area by the year 2030 unless new zoning rules are put in place. The proposed land-use modification for the CBD is expected to generate up to five million square feet of commercial space.

When this is combined with future adjustments to zoning in the Northeast False Creek and Waterfront Hub areas, a total of 7.6 million square feet of commercial space can be created, according to the report, which was authored by Trish French.

The city’s assistant director of current planning, French explained in a phone interview that the proposed changes are a result of the long-term study conducted by staff on future developments in the larger metropolitan-core area. Known as the Metro Core, this area covers the downtown peninsula and extends south to 16th Avenue, west to Burrard Street, and east to Clark Drive.

“We will also be looking at some changes in the area south of False Creek in the industrial and commercial areas there, and in the False Creek Flats eventually, to create more office space,” French told the Straight.

As executive vice president of Bentall LP, Tony Astles is responsible for the company’s office and industrial real-estate operations. Bentall, a major company in the real-estate business, owns a significant number of commercial spaces downtown.

According to Astles, disallowing residential use may not create as much additional office space as staff have projected.

“What I’ve been suggesting to the city is including a mixed use would potentially increase the probability of getting commercial space built because if you have a large building and you can’t launch it strictly with commercial tenants, then by having a portion of it become residential, the combination of the two uses may launch a new building,” Astles told the Straight.

He pointed out that the city should consider that Vancouver is generally made up of small business users, making it difficult to start big commercial developments.

Astles said that one of the reasons office developments are moving to suburban areas is the high cost of development in Vancouver, adding that this is compounded by the lengthy process of getting permits from the city.

Astles will be one of the speakers at a breakfast forum on Friday (January 16) about downtown’s future. Organized by the Urban Development Institute, the forum will be held at the Hyatt Regency (655 Burrard Street); see for details on the event.