Balanced Communities : Commercial space makes a comeback in Vancouver


It appears as though Vancouver has gotten over its near anaemic growth in new office space.  4 new projects promise to add enough commercial space to at least attempt to keep pace with new demand in the downtown core. What is certain is that Vancouver will have to develop several more projects if it is to begin to try to re-establish a balance between residential and commercial space that has been made unbalanced by the condo boom of the 1990’s.

Past conversions of such well known commercial architectural gems as the Duke Energy building and the BC Hydro building should never again be allowed to happen. While government intervention to promote public transit and higher density are examples of good things, conversions of these buildings have shown us the government mistakes. Keeping taxes significantly higher on commercial space has already added the soft market; going ahead with the conversions was almost a death blow to downtown office space. What they need to now do is lower these taxes and further encourage offices to locate downtown Vancouver and not out in some suburban office park.

With downtown office vacancy currently hovering around 3.7% there is not a growing push on to build new commercial towers. Almost all of the newly planned AAA office space in the Vancouver area appears to be headed for downtown. A cluster of new developments are being proposed to meet the growing demand for space. One can only hope that these new developments signal a future where downtown development is more balanced between residential and commercial interests. Before these new projects, Vancouver was at real danger of becoming one of the few North American cities with a reverse-commute out of downtown.

It’s an encouraging sign to see most of the new office space is going in around existing skytrain stations. While perhaps not most of the new development will take place downtown Vancouver it does serve much of the same purpose to have this development occurring at high density rapid transit stations complementing high density residential in those areas. There is a hungry and talented pool of young urban professionals in these condo buildings downtown who are craving jobs which are close to home. The addition of these buildings has the potential to make such newer downtown neighbourhoods as Coal Harbour and Yaletown much more complete communities where people do not drive to work.

Figure 4 from City of Vancouver clearly shows the Office building boom of the 70s and 80s followed by the Condo Boom that followed.

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Pacific Northwest: Where Airport Rapid Transit is the rule, not the exception.

The new standard for world-class cities is for them to have efficient rapid transit to and from the airport. In North America especially, this has been so far difficult for most major cities to achieve. What were once top priority plans to expand rapid rail transit airports in cities across this continent, are now nothing more than long-term planning at best. What went wrong? Well a whole lot more than went right, from the financial collapse to cost overruns, bad planning and lack of funding. Let’s take a look at three cities in the Pacific North West where it has gone right instead.

Vancouver

The city built the $2 billion plus Canada Line to Vancouver International Airport to coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympics. At the time the rising cost of construction and ridership predictions which were considered way too generous caused a lot of backlash against this project. Usage has grown steadily from 83,000 in September 2009 to well over 110,000 in February 2011. The line carried a record of 228,190 people during the 2010 Olympics and is well on track to meet its 2021 ridership target of 142,000.

What went right here is that all levels of government came forward to recognize the true importance of connecting the Downtown Vancouver area with Canada’s second largest airport and Asian hub (YVR). People coming in and going out of the city now have a 25 minute ride into downtown that is reliable and efficient even in the worst rush-hour traffic. The rail line is even now sparking multitudes of pedestrian friendly and transit-orientated development along its route.

City Vancouver
Metro Population 2,659,623
Current Rapid Transit Network Skytrain – 3 lines, 47 stations, 69 km.
Daily Ridership 381,100
Airport Connection Since 2009
Future? 3 expansion lines by 2020

Expanded Skytrain Network 2020

 

Seattle

Years ago few would have predicted rapid transit in the Emerald city, let alone rapid transit connecting downtown and the airport. Expansions to Monorail and the building of light rail were shot down time and time again. Eventually cooler heads prevailed and today Seattle  is undergoing a light rail renaissance with 2 active lines and more than 5 other expansion projects in various stages of development. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the regions largest, serving over 30 million passengers each year. With the ongoing traffic jams along Highway 5 it only made sense to give people an alternative to driving.

Ridership of 25,000 in a metropolitan area of over 4 million may seem like small potatoes. When you consider that Seattle was late to the game in building rail rapid transit and has only had it operational for a handful of years, it’s a good deal of progress. While the city may have a long way to go to catch transit friendly Vancouver in ridership numbers, Portland on the other hand may be within striking distance if the building of light rail continues at such a rate.

City Seattle
Metro Population 3,439,809
Current Rapid Transit Network Link Light Rail – 2 lines, 18 stations, 17miles (28km)
Daily Ridership 24,700
Airport Connection Since 2009
Future? 3 expansion lines by 2023

 

Portland

Out of the 3 biggest Northwest cities, Portland was the first to establish a direct link between downtown and its own airport (PDX). Portland has a light rail system called MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) which is similar to Seattle’s yet much more extensive and established.

City Portland
Metro Population 2,238,895
Current Rapid Transit Network MAX Light Rail – 4 lines, 85 stations, 52miles (84km)
Daily Ridership 121,300
Airport Connection Since 2001
Future? 3 expansion lines by 2023

Marine Gateway updated project design

The Marine Gateway project situated at Marine Dr and Cambie St has now been redesigned and scaled down. The plan now calls for the tallest of the residential buildings to be 335 feet with the other tower running at 255. According to the developer, Marine Gateway will add over 6000 trips a day to transit within the area. Considering the Canada Line is currently running at about a third of capacity, they figure that transit should be more than able to absorb this increase.

The design is very much a transit village type idea, reminiscent of the Commercial Drive Skytrain Station and also of the new development that has gone in at New Westminster Station. The overall goal of the project is to decrease the amount of new car trips made, as such this development has 25% less parking spaces within it than other typical Vancouver developments. Another interesting note is that their own studies have found that since the Canada Line has opened, traffic along both Cambie St and Marine Dr are down 9-20%.

I know there is considerable public opposition to this project and as such in the past year the developer has scaled down the scope of it. I saw some people on the news who had just bought houses in the neighborhood within the past couple of years and had sunk heavy money into renovations. To me anyone who buys property beside the new SkyTrain and then complains right after about development should have their head checked. This is exactly the kind of development the City of Vancouver desperately needs. I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail and that both the developer and residents of the area can reach some sort of compromise.