Vancouver City Council seeks to restart Waterfront Station hub planning

Apr 25 2022, 10:36 pm

Two City councillors are hoping to relight a fire on the planning process for downtown Vancouver’s Central Waterfront, which would be anchored by a future world-class transit hub expansion for Waterfront Station.

About 15 years ago, the previous Vancouver City Council initiated a planning process for the Central Waterfront, in response to calls for a more cohesive plan for the waterfront after Whitecaps FC owner Greg Kerfoot’s pitched a proposal to build and self-fund an outdoor soccer stadium over the Gastown railyard airspace he owned at the time.

The plan to build a 15,000-seat stadium, eventually expandable to 30,000 seats, went nowhere after city staff deemed there were technical and safety challenges with fitting a stadium in the constrained location over the railyard. The Whitecaps have since solidified their use of BC Place Stadium as their home field over the long term.

In 2009, City staff completed the planning process, establishing the Central Waterfront Hub Framework.

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Layout of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework in downtown Vancouver. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Artistic rendering of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework area in downtown Vancouver. (City of Vancouver)

The completed framework called for a significant covered indoor transit concourse on the north side of Waterfront Station’s historic CPR building — expanding the circulation area, passenger capacity, and amenities, and setting aside space for an additional platform for either a future SkyTrain or commuter rail expansion.

A new underground corridor from the transit concourse would link passengers to a new marine transit terminal, with multiple services including SeaBus, and space for future long-haul passenger ferry operations to Vancouver Island and Seattle. A proper bus exchange would also be established for Waterfront Station.

The extension of the area’s roadway viaducts would also enable new building development sites, specifically for commercial uses — over 1.4 million sq ft of space for office, hotels, restaurants, dining, and other service-based uses. Major plaza spaces would also be created between the various new buildings.

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Artistic rendering of the transit concourse at Waterfront Station. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Site plan of the expanded Waterfront Station, with the underground link between the expanded station and the new marine terminal. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Artistic rendering of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework area from Canada Place. (City of Vancouver)

In their member motion scheduled to be deliberated this week, A Better City Councillor Lisa Dominato and Green Party Councillor Pete Fry are looking to have the City Council direct city staff to restart the Central Waterfront planning process. Following its expected approval this week, City staff would report back with the budget and resources required to begin a “comprehensive planning program” for the Central Waterfront starting in 2023.

As part of the planning process, the City would collaborate with the federal and provincial governments and other entities including the private sector. Other landowner and stakeholder interests other than CF also include TransLink, Port of Vancouver, Pavco (Vancouver Convention Centre), Canadian Pacific, and GHD Equity Holdings.

“To date, there remains confusion and uncertainty about the future of the Central Waterfront with a number of incompatible and competing aspirations for the area,” reads the motion.

“The City of Vancouver does not have jurisdiction over the entire Central Waterfront District, however, the City is uniquely empowered with the authority and mandate to convene, collaborate, and envision complex land-use decisions and development proposals with senior governments, landowners, and stakeholders as part of comprehensive area planning. The Central Waterfront presents an opportunity for world-class city building and benefits to Vancouverites and visitors for generations to come.”

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Site plan of the expanded Waterfront Station. (City of Vancouver)

Vancouver Central Waterfront Hub Framework

Artistic rendering of the Granville Street extension looking north from the intersection with Cordova Street. (City of Vancouver)

The “confusion and uncertainty” appears to be, at least in part, a reference to CF’s proposal to build its tower within the precinct, known as The Crystal at Waterfront Square.

In 2014, an initial attempt was made by Cadillac Fairview (CF), the owner of the CPR building and parking lot, to realize one of the towers in the Central Waterfront Hub Framework. The City’s 2009 framework called for an 11-storey building on the parcel, but CF submitted a development permit application calling for a much larger 26-storey office tower with over 500,000 sq ft of office space and zero vehicle parking. The proposal was controversial for its height and contemporary geometric appearance, with critics asserting it would have an overwhelming effect on the historic CPR building.

In early 2020, CF submitted a revised proposal that adjusted the tower’s orientation, based on the input it had received over the years. The revised project was set to be decided by the development permit board in Spring 2020, but the meeting date was cancelled after the pandemic’s onset.

555 west cordova street the crystal office tower

January 2020 artistic rendering of 555 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. (Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture / Cadillac Fairview)

555 west cordova street

January 2020 artistic rendering of 555 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. (Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture / Cadillac Fairview)

555 west cordova street

January 2020 drawing of 555 West Cordova Street, integrated with the future expansion of Waterfront Station and the Central Waterfront district. (Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture Cadillac Fairview)

Some of the key challenges with realizing the Central Waterfront district deal with infrastructural costs, specifically the high cost of building roadway viaducts over the railway. It was previously suggested that revenues from market-based commercial development alone will not be enough to cover the various project costs.

The last time a viaduct was built in the area was in the 2000s when Canada Place Way was extended between Burrard Street and Thurlow Street. But this project was funded by the provincial government to allow for the construction of the West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre.

In its rationale against the Whitecaps stadium, the port also previously suggested that it was prioritizing the preservation of its space for future port-related operations, and the importance of optimizing the use of its properties for such purposes has only intensified with the recent global shipping logistics challenges. This also includes railyard capacity serving the Centerm and Vanterm container terminals.

The area north of Waterfront Station is also likely the last remaining opportunity for a long-term expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre to ensure its competitiveness in attracting events.

And when it comes to specifically realizing the transit-use components, TransLink did not include the Waterfront Station hub as one of its projects in its recently approved 30-year Transport 2050 plan.

Vancouver Whitecaps Waterfront Stadium

Artistic rendering of the final concept of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Waterfront Stadium. (Vancouver Whitecaps)

downtown vancouver skyline central business district office towers f

Office tower in downtown Vancouver from the perspective of Waterfront Road. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Instead of focusing on making progress on the Central Waterfront Framework, in the 2010s, the City redirected its attention towards creating the Northeast False Creek (NEFC) Plan that depends on demolishing the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts. Previous plans in the late 2000s by Concord Pacific to redevelop their lands in a way that accommodated the retainment of the viaducts were abandoned in favour of a more ambitious and expensive plan that has yet to be realized.

The City now anticipates the demolition of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts will not happen until 2027 at the very earliest. But this entirely depends on the revenue generated from the new condominium developments in NEFC to support the public amenities and infrastructure costs of the project, which were estimated at $1.7 billion in 2018.

Immediately west of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework area plan, the federal government is planning an office tower redevelopment of Sinclair Centre that increases the floor area of the heritage complex to up to about one million sq ft.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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