Broadway subway may significantly alter Vancouver's urban fabric

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      On May 23, the City of Vancouver announced plans to take the wind out of the real-estate market on a major transit corridor.

      A policy report is expected to be released sometime in June with details about how speculation will be curbed on West Broadway.

      The goal is “to preserve affordable and rental housing and job space” even as TransLink develops the Millennium Line Broadway Extension Project, a.k.a. the Broadway subway, which will run from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street.

      The city’s announcement comes after at least 19 sites along West Broadway have changed hands since December 2016, including some locations west of Arbutus Street, according to a recent report by commercial realtor Avison Young.

      The most expensive property was the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company building east of Arbutus Street, which was purchased for $39 million in September.

      Next most costly was the building attached to the Staples store west of Birch Street, at $35 million. That was closely followed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of B.C.’s building at 1212 West Broadway, which went for $34.7 million.

      A great deal of public attention has focused on all the land deals in the vicinity of the three Broadway subway stops west of Cambie Street—around Oak, Granville, and Arbutus.

      But there hasn’t been nearly as much discussion about the three eastern stops along the Broadway subway at Cambie, Main Street, and Great Northern Way.

      Vancouver's former director of planning, Brent Toderian, sees False Creek Flats as a “critical” issue for the next city council.
      Toderian UrbanWORKS

      Industrial zoning stimulates employment

      The Great Northern Way location is of particular interest because it's near the edge of a massive tract of industrial-zoned land known as False Creek Flats.

      The city’s former director of planning, Brent Toderian, told the Georgia Straight by phone that when he was working for the city, he learned that housing was prohibited on only 10 percent of Vancouver’s landmass.

      But that relatively small percentage was home to half the jobs in the city.

      About 182 hectares of that “job-space land” is on False Creek Flats, which is bounded by Main Street, Prior Street, Clark Drive, and Great Northern Way.

      More than half the land on the flats is owned by the city, which makes it a tempting site to develop housing.

      A draft plan released last year by the City of Vancouver forecast 3,000 new homes in the area. False Creek Flats will also be home to the new St. Paul's Hospital, which is being built on Station Street near the train station.

      And with a new rapid-transit station slated to go near the new Emily Carr University of Art + Design campus on Great Northern Way, it’s easy to conclude that this could become the city’s next condo hot spot.

      Toderian, however, said that it’s not necessarily going to happen if the next city council wants to preserve much of this area for employment.

      He called it “one of the most critical issues in city planning in Vancouver”.

      “Being an affordable city includes salaries,” Toderian stated. “It includes jobs. With whoever gets in power with the new council, it’s very important that they take the jobs-lands challenge seriously—and not take a lazy approach to the affordability question.”

      By “lazy” he meant not just thinking that allowing strata-title condos to dot False Creek Flats will necessarily make housing more affordable for the middle class.

      False Creek Flats will be eventually be home to the new St. Paul's Hospital, which will bring more jobs to the area
      City of Vancouver

      Rental dwellings have less impact on land values

      When he was in charge of planning at the city, Toderian acknowledged supporting some higher density in former industrial areas but also retaining them as an “enterprise zone” or a “green economy zone”.

      But this had to be done with considerable finesse.

      Housing, he argued, should only be rental, because that doesn’t drive up land values at anywhere near the same rate as strata-title condos.

      Higher land prices drive away businesses that can’t afford to expand, undermining employment.

      “The way I described it at council was in the context that for these specific, strategic lands, condos are a zebra mussel,” Toderian explained. “They’re an invasive species that takes over the ecosystem. You have to protect from condos.”

      Toderian didn’t even want to hazard a guess about what might happen around the corner of Main and East Broadway after a SkyTrain station is built.

      “The challenge of increasing density on transit [lines]—which is a very good thing, let me be very clear—relative to the maintenance of that gritty, authentic community character is one of the biggest challenges in our city,” he said. “But weighing it against the costs and consequences of everything from climate change to public health associated with getting people out of the cars and supporting a more transit-friendly existence—that’s a hard debate to have.”

      As for the future Millennium Line stop at Cambie Street and West Broadway, Toderian said that it may not experience as many changes as people might expect.

      While there will be more density beyond what's there now, it likely won't be increased beyond what's already planned if council wants to retain view corridors.

      There’s already a Canada Line station at that location, and it hasn’t resulted in big changes around that intersection.

      “I don’t think having the extra station will mean the city will radically change its land-use planning,” he said.

      There are six stations proposed along the yet-to-be-built Broadway subway.

      Subway will boost transit ridership

      Toderian acknowledged that some planners prefer street-level light rail over SkyTrain.

      However, he questioned whether there's any will to remove cars from West Broadway to enable this to occur.

      "Basically, you can't add any more capacity without doing something dramatic."

      Toderian also noted that there's "underperforming" transit ridership in the Broadway corridor, which he described as B.C.'s second downtown.

      That's because the bus service is stretched to the limit.

      "You cannot replace the 99-B, which is a very highly functioning express bus system, with a streetcar and expect to add capacity," Toderian stated. "The bus already provides the capacity that a streetcar would, with lower costs."

      He favours a subway because he feels it has a far better prospect of boosting ridership, which offers environmental benefits.

      Plus, he thinks a subway that connects the Millennium Line to the Broadway corridor will create a barrier-free trip from the suburbs to this second downtown.

      "One of the things we know about transit ridership is the more you have to switch [vehicles or systems], the less likely people are to choose transit," he said. "So a seamless trip and a shorter trip by subway on a Millennium Line from the suburbs to the Broadway corridor—our second downtown—is going to significantly increase ridership.

      "It's going to change that underperforming picture that exists," Toderian continued. "So from a mobility-transportation mode shift perspective, it's a very important move."