College kids board streetcars on Main Street. They’re heading to those popular campuses by SkyTrain’s VCC–Clark Station. The streetcar follows the resurfaced China and Brewery creeks, whose banks are ornamented with trees and flowers, and in whose waters salmon are starting to return. Residents of newly developed co-op and affordable housing units gather in the parks by the canals, as do workers from the area’s warehouses and railways. The air is aromatic, a strangely pleasant mix of diesel, fresh-cut grass, and roasting garlic from a nearby restaurant. The sounds are eclectic too: children’s laughter, rumbling freight cars, and music from a dorm-room stereo.
What is this? A vision of how Vancouver’s last brownfield, the False Creek Flats, could be redeveloped.
The Flats—bordered by Clark Drive and Main Street to the east and west, respectively, and Prior Street and Great Northern Way to the north and south—are where city planners should be focusing their attention for new development, Bob Williams argues, not the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. Williams, a member of Vancity’s board of directors, would know. He has spent years and considerable sums of money during his career in finance and politics researching just this: the proper development of the Flats. And he’s convinced that it can be done, that it should be done, and that it should be done now. The fact that he was instrumental in bringing British Columbians Whistler Village, Robson Square, Surrey’s Central City, and the West Coast Express adds weight to his arguments.
The False Creek Flats so far have been a dismal failure for the City of Vancouver, in Williams’s opinion. Underutilized and unvisited by the majority of the city’s residents and tourists, they are where Vancouver’s notorious class divide begins. “It’s melting, to some extent, with gentrification”¦but the Main Street divide is real.”¦We have this brownfield between Clark Drive and Main Street, and we’ve spent billions west of Main,” Williams told the Georgia Straight. The Flats are where shimmering towers morph into empty land. They consist of a spaghetti network of rail lines—many of which are unnecessary for the port’s rail operations, in his view—a large parcel of land held by Providence Health Care for a hospital it can’t afford to build, remnants of well-intentioned schemes to lure high-tech industry, and educational facilities still in their infancy. The area is neither cohesive nor attractive; to many, it’s just a sorry view from the SkyTrain.
But Williams believes the Flats could become a true community, one “very different than west of Main Street but with amenities and with people living there and with work there”¦a very intensive live-work neighbourhood”. Williams’s plan would involve four (admittedly complicated) steps, as well as a large dose of political will, but he believes that “in the end, the logic will be overwhelming”.
It all starts with the railroads that created the Flats and that still own vast swaths of the land. Williams hired a railway consultant when he was with the Vancouver City Planning Commission and he was advised that except for those used by Via Rail and Rocky Mountaineer, most of the east-west lines in the Flats are just “appendage[s] as they appear to be”. He was also told by the port authority that the “north-south [rail corridor that services the waterfront] is absolutely critical and it’s too tight”. This is the backbone, Williams asserted: “Shift the rail to the east, strengthen the north-south corridor; probably, because the city has expropriating powers, it can pick up that Glen Drive corridor relatively cheaply and at the same time buy CN [Canadian National] on the western face. And you’re basically trading cheap land for valuable land as the basic real-estate deal that transforms the Flats.” The Main Street–VCC streetcar could also be realized by buying, from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the rail spur that runs between the two stations.
The second step is daylighting China and Brewery creeks, which are buried under the Flats. Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer said that digging up creeks is consistent with the action plan produced by the city’s Greenest City Action Team, which calls for green space within 300 metres of every city resident. The “most logical [way to accomplish this] in the East Side is salmon, daylight the salmon streams”, Reimer said. Williams gets excited about the prospect of canals bringing waterfront back to Clark Drive and rising property values bringing new amenities to East Vancouver.
Land acquisition and financing is the next part of Williams’s strategy. The city has “a property endowment fund worth two to three billion dollars now, despite what they pissed away with the Millennium project [Olympic Village].”¦Let’s start using it to buy the whole rest of the Flats,” he said. Once the city has purchased property, Williams would like to see tax-increment financing (TIF) introduced. With TIF, the False Creek Flats would have their boundaries properly defined, and the City of Vancouver would issue bonds to pay for its infrastructure improvements. TIF would allow those bonds to be repaid through taxes collected in the Flats. As the area’s property values and tax revenues increase, the city will effectively have paid for the revitalization of the Flats without needing outside investment.
Designing the new community is the final stage. Williams favours development in patterns or threads, an idea popularized by noted architect and designer Christopher Alexander. “So Chinatown or Strathcona should be extended in with the same kind of height wave so it becomes a natural extension of Strathcona, and the uses may be mixed and different, but the patterning has to fit, and similarly on the other side.” He didn’t offer any specific development ideas and laughed when asked if he owned land in the Flats. “No,” he said. “No, I don’t.”
Williams argued that keeping the Flats purely industrial is flawed. The way to generate wealth in a “modern society is by breaking through the silos of the individual parts of the economy.”¦Often the arts are the secret to adding value, although most societies haven’t caught up to that yet.” Williams says he can see live-work studios for lower-income artists built near the Great Northern Way campuses.
His vision is obviously not without critics, including Coun. Reimer, but perhaps the most powerful opposition comes from the regional government. Metro Vancouver is in the final stages of seeking approval for its regional-growth strategy. In its draft plan, Strategy 2.2 aims to “protect the region’s supply of industrial land”. If the regional-growth strategy is adopted as is—and it requires the unanimous approval of the region’s 22 municipalities—Vancouver might not get the final say on the Flats. Much of the area between Main and Clark and Terminal and Great Northern Way is designated industrial, and changing that would be very difficult. The Straight spoke with Christina DeMarco, Metro Vancouver’s division manager for policy and planning, about the future of the Flats.
DeMarco confirmed that Metro is committed to keeping the False Creek Flats industrial. Viable cities need industrial land to service area businesses and to provide for employment diversity, she argued. We don’t want to be a city of “shoeshiners and Starbucks baristas”, she said. And she believes that over time, new employment opportunities will arise in the Flats.
Reimer also wants to protect Vancouver’s industrial land, and she feels that Williams’s plan would do the opposite: “The minute you start raising property values, you have just gotten rid of your industrial land.” Although Reimer said she could see some low-income housing in the Flats, she stated that from an environmental perspective it’s important that industry and warehousing stay within Vancouver’s city limits. Vancouver, she argued, is already trucking goods from the port to warehouses in the Fraser Valley, then turning around and trucking them back to the city a few days later. This is why billions of dollars are being spent on expanding regional highways, “something we all end up paying for”.
For Williams, though, Vancouver’s strategy in the Flats is not about being green. “Look at the Flats: not a tree to be seen, and no water.” Williams said he believes that the city likes having the Flats as a place to put stuff, whether it’s a Home Depot, storage lockers, or a park that developers were supposed to have built elsewhere. “None of it is coherent.”
And the storage lockers are a waste of space, in his opinion: they generate little employment, take up lots of space, and benefit relatively few people. “If the city truly was serious about warehousing, and not storage lockers,” Williams argued, “they’d zone for it.” Although DeMarco conceded that allowing Home Depot to open in the Flats wasn’t good for the area, she supports having storage lockers there because they allow increased residential density. “People live in these glass towers where they can’t even put bookshelves.”¦Part of the need of a dense core is having these storage places.”
DeMarco sees the Flats as the “refrigerator, storeroom, and repair room of the downtown”. And it’s this proximity that’s imperative. For example, “Albion Fisheries wanted to be very close to all their clients in downtown.”¦The printers there on Great Northern Way”¦they archive downtown firms’ files and often have to get them there instantly.” She would tell those who are interested in developing housing to “go into single-detached areas” and leave Metro’s industrial pockets alone.
DeMarco also thinks that it’s shortsighted to convert rail yards into mixed-use areas. “The reality of it is we have a really bare-bones rail system in Metro Vancouver right now. So if you thought about much-improved connections to Seattle and Portland, and fast trains”¦we could easily need that land in False Creek”¦and it doesn’t mean we need to leave that land vacant, but if it switched to industrial uses, and if we do need more rail area in the future, it’s much easier to convert it to rail from industrial than, say, compared to a strata-titled residential building.”
In regard to the regional-growth strategy, DeMarco said “the City of Vancouver’s planners and council so far” are supportive of keeping the Flats industrial. Whether or not that support holds remains to be seen.
Ironically, it may be Mother Nature that gets the final say on the Flats. Climate-change experts like Hadi Dowlatabadi, of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, are predicting that without dikes, rising sea levels will render the Flats prone to flooding in the not-too-distant future.
Real Clark Drive waterfront.