Opinion: SkyTrain Commercial-Broadway Station deserves real density

Jun 27 2022, 8:33 pm

If you were to take a long stroll through the local streets of the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood, there is a good chance you will come across at least one telltale sign of a household’s disposition on the proposal for the first and only high-rise tower project proposed in their area.

I’m referring to literal signs, however. White plastic signs erected on the front yards of single-family homes, with big red angry text that reads, “NO MEGATOWERS at Safeway!”

You would think that the outrage would be over a proposal to build the CN Tower or Burj Khalifa in their neighbourhood, but it is anything but.

The project they are referring to, of course, is the proposed redevelopment of the Safeway grocery store site right next to SkyTrain Commercial-Broadway Station.

On July 7, 2022, this project will come to a head for those who think this is too much change, as Vancouver City Council is set to consider its rezoning application in what is likely to be a lengthy public hearing process. For others, this juncture is an opportunity to step in the right direction when viewed through the lens of being responsible planning on a wholistic regional level, creating a wide range of new additional housing conveniently located next to Metro Vancouver’s third busiest transit hub, and improving public safety in the immediate area of the hub.

But in rather lukewarm descriptive terms, the redevelopment is barely passable for other reasons — it is merely “in the right direction,” given that the relatively modest project faces immense constraints under the city’s Grandview-Woodland Community Plan.

no megatowers at safeway commercial broadway grandview-woodland

A “NO MEGATOWERS at Safeway!” sign at the front of a house a few blocks away from the Safeway site next to SkyTrain Commercial-Broadway Station. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

For all the outcry that the “MEGATOWERS” are seeing, the superlatives do not quite match what is being proposed — the trio of towers eyed to replace the grocery store and a large surface parking lot are amongst the shortest future towers next to other SkyTrain stations elsewhere in the region outside of the city.

There will be a 355-ft-tall tower with 29 storeys, a 318-ft-tall tower with 26 storeys, and a 277-ft-tall tower with 24 storeys. These towers will contain 653 homes, including 215 condominium units, 345 market rental homes, and 93 below-market rental homes. It should be highlighted that the housing mix tenure was previously primarily condominiums, but it was later revised to 66% rental housing.

Included in the height calculation is a multi-storey commercial podium, including 117,000 sq ft for a new replacement Safeway, retail and restaurant units, a fitness gym, and office space.

There was previously a childcare facility incorporated into the project as a public benefit, but City of Vancouver staff was unwilling to exempt its floor area from the overall floor area ratio (FAR) density calculation. As proposed, the complex will have a total floor area of about 603,000 sq ft, providing a floor area that is 5.7 times larger than the size of the lot.

1780 East Broadway Commercial Vancouver November 2021

November 2021 artistic rendering of the Broadway Commercial Safeway redevelopment at 1780 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Westbank/Crombie REIT)

1780 East Broadway Commercial Vancouver November 2021

November 2021 artistic rendering of the Broadway Commercial Safeway redevelopment at 1780 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Westbank/Crombie REIT)

The entire project as packaged should be viewed as a huge compromise to the neighbourhood’s concerns expressed a decade ago, when residents recoiled at some of the early proposed draft concepts for the Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct during the city’s planning process for the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. But considering what the Plan currently allows for the area around the transit hub, the figurative “compromise borderline” is so far away that supporters of smart, responsible transit-oriented growth cannot even see it anymore, obscured by the fields of thick bushy concessions made by the city.

Ten years ago, an early draft concept by the municipal government envisioned as many as nearly two dozen high-rise towers for the Precinct, with the tallest towers situated on the Safeway site and within the two blocks south. Some iterations of early drafts also called for additional towers west of the transit hub — within the general area framed by Broadway, Clark Drive, and the Grandview Cut.

The most ambitious original iteration of this transit-oriented density for Commercial-Broadway Station would have been equivalent to what is permitted today within the Oakridge Municipal Town Centre (the areas both inside and outside the mall property) — anchored by SkyTrain Oakridge-41st Avenue Station — under the Cambie Corridor Plan.

grandview-woodland community plan commercial-broadway station precinct alternate original 10

One of the earlier, more ambitious concepts for Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct under the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. This was rejected. (City of Vancouver)

grandview-woodland community plan commercial-broadway station precinct alternate original

One of the earlier, more ambitious concepts for Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct under the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. This was rejected. (City of Vancouver)

grandview-woodland community plan commercial-broadway station precinct alternate original

One of the earlier, more ambitious concepts for Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct under the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. This was rejected. (City of Vancouver)

But fierce neighbourhood opposition sent Vancouver City Council, led by Vision Vancouver at the time, into retreat, especially with the 2014 civic election just around the corner.

City council completely capitulated, greatly extended the planning process timeline for the Grandview-Woodland Plan, and established the “Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly,” which essentially dictated the outcome, and repeatedly pared down the area plan to its very light-weight form today.

The Grandview-Woodland Plan, as approved by city council in 2016, permits towers only within the Safeway site — the only location where taller high-rise towers are permitted in the Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct or anywhere in the entire Grandview-Woodland Plan (apart from less than a handful of small pocket sites, such as on Hastings Street). Adjacent sites beyond Safeway next to Commercial-Broadway Station are limited to up to 10 storeys, and a large single-family “residential character area” is retained less than a block west of the transit hub. Some blocks near the transit hub fronting the arterials of Broadway, Commercial Drive, and 12th Avenue are limited to four to six storeys only.

One of the earlier, more ambitious concepts, even after scaling back:

grandview-woodland community plan commercial-broadway station precinct alternate original

Building heights of one of the earlier, more ambitious concepts for Commercial-Broadway Station Precinct under the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. This was rejected. Click on the image for an expanded version. (City of Vancouver)

Final plan as approved:

grandview-woodland plan commercial-broadway station precinct approved

The 2016-approved building height and land use plan for the Commercial-Broadway Staton Precinct under the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. Click on the image for an expanded version. (City of Vancouver)

Within the area plan’s entirety of 4.45 sq km, the Grandview-Woodland Plan as approved will add just 9,500 residents over a 25-year period spanning through 2041. For comparison, the entirety of Senakw and its 9,000 residents will fit into a land area of 0.01 sq km. The Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood will grow from 34,000 residents to 43,500 residents over the lifespan of the Plan.

This means the modest Safeway redevelopment as proposed will already account for 15% of the entire neighbourhood’s decades-long population growth, based on the estimate that the project’s new housing will provide enough space for up to 1,400 residents.

This mild growth for this area within the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood is a complete misalignment with the realities of the city’s challenging housing conditions due to the constraints in supply, the close proximity of the neighbourhood to Metro Vancouver’s economic centre in downtown Vancouver peninsula and the Central Broadway Corridor (Broadway Plan), and the major transit hub it is served by.

Gentle densification overwhelmingly dominates one of the region’s busiest and largest transit hubs.

Yet other transit hubs elsewhere in the region are the inverse of what is happening at Commercial-Broadway Station.

Further east along the Expo Line, the Joyce-Collingwood Station Precinct Plan, which focuses on a two-block radius extending from the transit hub (a total of about 30 acres), already had about 15,800 residents in 2018, when city council approved the plan. Over 25 years, the far smaller transit hub at SkyTrain Joyce-Collingwood Station will see its population grow by about 4,900 to 20,700 — comparable to what is allowed in the immediate areas surrounding the far busier and more regionally accessible Commercial-Broadway Station. Moreover, this means the future population of the immediate blocks surrounding Joyce-Collingwood Station will be half of the future population of the entire Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood.

Joyce-Collingwood Station Precinct Plan

Joyce-Collingwood Station Precinct Plan. Click on the image for an expanded version. (City of Vancouver)

Joyce-Collingwood Station Precinct Plan

Joyce-Collingwood Station Precinct Plan. (City of Vancouver)

5058 Joyce Street Vancouver Joyce by Westbank

The 2021-built “Joyce” tower at 5088 Joyce Street, immediately north of SkyTrain Joyce-Collingwood Station. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Even further to the east, beyond Vancouver’s municipal border, Burnaby’s emerging skylines of Brentwood Town Centre, Metrotown, and Lougheed Town Centre represent the runaway density and demand that would have otherwise found its place in Vancouver, specifically the highly suppressed Commercial-Broadway Staton Precinct Plan area.

And there are actual “MEGATOWERS” proposed next to Burnaby’s SkyTrain stations.

Burnaby City Council is expected to give the green light this summer on a multi-tower, mixed-use proposal immediately northeast of SkyTrain Lougheed Town Centre Station. The tallest tower is 850 ft with 80 storeys, making it the tallest building in Western Canada — and that fits the moniker. Two other towers in the project are slightly shorter, and a fourth tower is 50 storeys with an unspecified height. This Pinnacle Lougheed project is also directly affiliated with a secondary Carrigan Court project site about one block west of the transit hub, with the City of Burnaby’s inclusionary rental housing policy fulfilled by the off-site 3.4-acre redevelopment with three towers (33 storeys, 25 storeys, and 23 storeys) containing 900 homes — 405 inclusionary rental units at below-market rents, 141 below-market replacement rental units, and 354 condominium units. The Carrigan Court redevelopment alone, one block from the station, is the equivalent of the Safeway redevelopment that is right next to Commercial-Broadway Station.

9850 Austin Road 9858-9898 Gatineau Place Burnaby Pinnacle Lougheed 2022

2022 concept artistic rendering of Pinnacle Lougheed at 9850 Austin Road and 9858-9898 Gatineau Place, Burnaby, with the first phase highlighted. (JYOM Architecture/Pinnacle International Development)

A handful of other tall towers — each exceeding the height of Metro Vancouver’s current tallest, the Living Shangri-La tower in downtown Vancouver — are planned or currently under construction next to other SkyTrain stations in Burnaby. Altogether, the number of towers that will be taller than Living Shangri-La has grown to about a dozen — all outside of Vancouver, and next to SkyTrain. And these towers are not standalone works, as they are just part of the growing cluster of towers next to the transit hubs — all generally taller than what is being proposed at the Safeway project to generate more housing and/or employment uses.

In the suburban districts and neighbourhoods where these tall tower projects are being proposed, residents have not brought out the torches and pitchforks, or at least it is more measured and not to the same degree as what has been unfolding in the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood. If the general suburban consensus in support of transit-oriented development were to be used as the baseline, then those opposed to a trio of modest high-rise towers next to Commercial-Broadway Staton must be in reaction to something more akin to a coal power plant proposed for Grandview-Woodland.

The idea of perfection is certainly subjective, but surely what is proposed for the Safeway site’s public realm and overall redevelopment is better than the status quo of a large surface parking lot and a 40-year-old dilapidated grocery store building.

The greater the density permitted, specifically market density (and especially ownership condominium density), the more capacity and willingness a developer will have to offer more public benefits.

Like it or not, proper density that pays for land and construction costs and fulfills third-party financing obligations is the reality in order to fulfill endless community amenity contributions and affordable housing wish lists.

Like it or not, the market-driven private sector is the biggest generator of housing supply, and while there is much room for improvement for the non-profit and public sectors, especially to fulfill some needs that cannot be met by the private sector, they are fundamentally incapable of building the volume and at a pace that is required.

1780 East Broadway Commercial Vancouver November 2021

November 2021 artistic rendering of the Broadway Commercial Safeway redevelopment at 1780 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Westbank/Crombie REIT)

1780 East Broadway Commercial Vancouver november 2021

2021 rezoning application artistic rendering for the Broadway Commercial redevelopment at 1780 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Westbank/Crombie REIT)

1780 East Broadway Commercial Vancouver November 2021

November 2021 artistic rendering of the Broadway Commercial Safeway redevelopment at 1780 East Broadway, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Westbank/Crombie REIT)

About five years ago, the City of Burnaby enacted rental housing policies that provide a win-win-win-win for the municipal government, the public, any existing residents potentially impacted, and the developer. These clear-cut policies provide developers with more density to fulfill the city’s new inclusionary and replacement rental housing requirements, without eating away at the much more valuable condominium density that pays for most of the project costs. Burnaby developed these policies in response to the redevelopment-spurred displacement of renters in older buildings around Metrotown Station, as the city previously had no safeguards to protect renters.

But there is no displacement of any existing renters for the Safeway redevelopment.

Even with the site size challenges, a sizeable public plaza is included as a key feature, providing a mid-block pedestrian connection between Broadway and 10th Avenue, and an event-friendly space, all in alignment with the area plan.

The new density must also be generated through added height if public amenity spaces like the public plaza are to be retained. Density accomplished horizontally, occupying a greater site footprint, would eliminate the plaza space.

The new foot traffic generated by the concentration of new residents, workers, and visitors of the new on-site businesses will also help improve public safety. With more eyes on the street, there will be a greater deterrence of public disorder, criminal activity, and other undesirable behaviour in the area.

A decision by city council to approve the Safeway redevelopment would indeed be a step in the right direction, but it must go far beyond that.

The city needs to go back to the drawing board on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan’s stipulations for the Commercial-Broadway Plan Precinct, reverting to a transit hub area plan that is much closer to what was first contemplated a decade ago.

This specific area (but not the entire Grandview-Woodland Plan) must be sent through a new area plan planning process before more transit-oriented development sites are wasted with density that is not fitting of one of the region’s busiest and most centrally located transit hubs. The real potential for the Safeway site has already been wasted, and just half a block west of the station at 1651 East Broadway, construction is now approaching completion on a 10-storey condominium, rental housing, and retail building — approved by city council in May 2018.

The Precinct plan allowing for towers on just one particular site and a mix of low- and mid-rise buildings on the surrounding blocks is deeply irresponsible.

1619-1651 East Broadway Vancouver Construction April 28 2022

Construction progress on the 10-storey, mixed-use building (condos, rental housing, and retail) at 1619-1651 East Broadway, Vancouver, as of April 28, 2022. SkyTrain’s Commercial-Broadway Station is visible half a block away. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The need for the rethink also takes into consideration the Broadway Subway. Although the Millennium Line Broadway Extension project starts one station to the west at VCC-Clark Station and the eastern boundary of the recently approved Broadway Plan is just to the west at Clark Drive, the subway’s benefits of exponentially improved regional accessibility will be particularly felt at Commercial-Broadway Station as well. The transit hub can expect a greater ridership influx of transfers between the Expo and Millennium lines, including a new way to reach the Canada Line via the Millennium Line’s Broadway-City Hall Station transfer link. From Commercial-Broadway Station, it will be only a six-minute ride on the Millennium Line to Broadway-City Hall Station, and 12 minutes to reach Arbutus Station.

A heavily revised Commercial-Broadway Plan Precinct should also be accompanied by an effort to formally designate the area as a “Municipal Town Centre” under Metro Vancouver Regional District’s Urban Centres classification. This would put the Precinct on the same status classification as other Municipal Town Centres such as Oakridge Municipal Town Centre, Brentwood Town Centre, Lougheed Town Centre, and Edmonds Town Centre.

Beyond a major revision of the area plan, realizing Commercial-Broadway Station’s transit-oriented development potential also requires a reconsideration of the area’s mountain view cone height restrictions, including View Cone 21 emanating from the intersection of Commercial Drive and 15th Avenue, which crosses over the public plaza of the Safeway project. The Precinct’s eastern areas are also affected by View Cone 27 emanating from Trout Lake Park.

metro vancouver urban centres map

Map of the Urban Centres of Metro Vancouver. (Metro Vancouver Regional District)

oakridge municipal town centre cambie corridor plan

Oakridge Municipal Town Centre within the Cambie Corridor Plan. (City of Vancouver)

skytrain nanaimo station tod vancouver

Transit-oriented development concept for SkyTrain Nanaimo Station in Vancouver. (submitted)

skytrain nanaimo station tod vancouver

Transit-oriented development concept for SkyTrain Nanaimo Station in Vancouver. (submitted)

 

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