Opinion: Senakw development will help force Vancouver to truly grow up

Dec 19 2019, 6:07 pm

There is ample discourse in Metro Vancouver’s communities whenever the idea of densification arises, but these public discussions, even amongst our planners and elected officials, rarely ever venture into the economic and social benefits that result from a concentration of opportunities.

Conversely, a lack of residential density where opportunities are concentrated contributes greatly to inequality.

It removes a greater proportion of the population from social interactions, public spaces, and civic institutions, and it reduces those citizens’ overall sense of social and civic connection.

When it comes to economic opportunity, residential density in close proximity to a concentration of jobs increases the chance of attractive employment opportunities and upward mobility.

And with the concentration of employment opportunities, the synergies from a centralized, large, dense cluster of jobs and businesses provides the framework for innovation, when workers are able to interact with each other and exchange services and knowledge in close proximity.

The level of these interactions between residents, businesses, and workers and the resulting positive outputs simply would not exist in low-density areas, away from the concentration of opportunities.

For governments and public agencies, there are also economies of scale to be gained when services, utilities, and modes of public transit are intensely used as a result of clusters of density, with the efficiencies leading to lower construction and operating costs compared to the cost of providing these services and infrastructure to low-density sprawled areas.

With all that said, those who advocate for low density in our region are contributing immensely to class and economic inequalities and a large carbon footprint.

For those who are self-professed supporters of climate action, particularly those who oppose the continued proliferation of the private automobile, it is important to understand that they cannot effectively tackle climate change without first addressing where we live and work.

For planners and elected officials who have given themselves a climate emergency mandate, so much of their focus to date has only centred on the expensive bells and whistles of green building design, when in fact density is proportionally far easier and cheaper and more effective as the primary, multi-faceted urban development tool in the fight against climate change.

Now enter Senakw, a development on a small portion of the traditional lands of the Squamish First Nation that was self-approved by band members last week.

It is a project that is antithetical to the City of Vancouver’s foremost urban planning instincts that are biased solely towards European aesthetic, but it can proceed without the arduous process of seeking municipal permission and following extreme and costly city regulations as it sits on a reserve — outside of their jurisdiction.

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Artistic rendering of the Senakw development in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. (Revery Architecture / Westbank / Squamish First Nation)

Early depictions of Senakw — creating 6,000 homes within 11 towers up to 56 storeys in a highly irregular-shaped, 11.7-acre parcel of land — seemingly drops a development of Wakanda proportions onto the southern end of the Burrard Street Bridge and the eastern edge of Kitsilano, a neighbourhood that has long been defiant to change and density, despite its extreme proximity to the region’s Metro Core.

But such relatively low-density neighbourhoods are atypical to the periphery areas of the city centres of major urban regions around the globe.

Real-world centre examples specifically include Singapore, Tokyo, and New York, and increasingly Sydney, Melbourne, and Toronto.

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Site plan of the Senakw redevelopment at the south end of the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. (Revery Architecture / Westbank / Squamish Nation)

While Senakw’s overwhelmingly main objective is rightly to secure a prosperous long-term future for the First Nation and its members, it also happens to be just the push Vancouver needs to help realize its full potential.

It may seem like a lot to expect so much from a single development, but this is the first commercially-driven project that brings immense scale to the Central Broadway Corridor portion of the Metro Core.

The Metro Core, as defined by both the municipal government and regional district, includes the downtown Vancouver peninsula and its ever-increasing, spillover sphere of influence — the Central Broadway Corridor, framed by Burrard Street to the west, 16th Avenue to the south, Clark Drive to the east, and False Creek to the north.

In layman’s terms, the Central Broadway Corridor is set to become a part of downtown Vancouver. The impact of Senakw will be further compounded by the extension of the SkyTrain Millennium Line to Arbutus Street, and the responsive changes to the allowable buildable form and densities in the area from the city’s Broadway Plan.

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Construction phasing plan for Senakw. (Westbank / Squamish First Nation)

Once the dust from the construction site has settled and the results are realized, Senakw has the potential of uprooting the current planning paradigm that has led to the wasting of prime development sites with low-density buildings in close proximity to downtown, SkyTrain stations, and arterial roads.

And it will directly set the precedent for sites in all of its surrounding directions.

To the west into Kitsilano, lululemon’s expected departure from its existing global headquarters at 1818 Cornwall Avenue and relocation to a new purpose-built building in the False Creek Flats could lead to a redevelopment of the company’s current 1941-built building, which was previously a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

To the north, the heights and scale of density achieved by Senakw could eventually lead the city to reconsider its blanket policies for the downtown peninsula. Over the short-to-medium term, some sites on the peninsula will potentially see an allowable building height increase as a result of the view cone shadow created by Senakw’s tallest structures.

False Creek South Vancouver

The City of Vancouver owns 80% of the False Creek South neighbourhood. (City of Vancouver)

To the east, the municipal government’s Property Endowment Fund owns 80% of the 136-acre waterfront neighbourhood known as South False Creek. With these 1970s-built structures starting to show their age and with over 700 leases for residential and commercial strata units beginning to expire in 2036, there could be a massive opportunity to redevelop much of the south shore of False Creek between the Burrard Street Bridge and Cambie Street Bridge with intensified residential and employment opportunities.

Currently, all of South False Creek is home to 6,000 people living within 3,200 units — roughly half of the planned number of units for Senakw, which has a ground footprint that is just 7% as large.

And immediately to the south, Senakw will set a strong precedent for Concord Pacific’s proposed transformative redevelopment of the old Molson Coors brewery property into a multi-tower development with high-density residential and office uses as well as a major public realm component.

The developer’s proposed scale for the 7.6-acre former brewery would be well-aligned with the form of its First Nation neighbour, providing a stronger case for the developer’s ongoing pursuit to both the city and regional district to use this property for uses other than traditional industrial.

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Model of Concord Pacific’s highly preliminary design concept for the old Molson Coors brewery development in Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

molson coors vancouver concord pacific quantum park

Model of Concord Pacific’s highly preliminary design concept for the old Molson Coors brewery development in Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

molson coors vancouver concord pacific quantum park

Artistic rendering of Concord Pacific’s highly preliminary design concept for the old Molson Coors brewery development in Vancouver. (Concord Pacific)

A few blocks further south at 1745 West 8th Avenue, Delta Land Development is interested in building a 40-storey tower that defies the current limits of hybrid mass timber construction. This wooden tower could create about 200 homes, with 20% dedicated as non-market housing, as well as office and retail space in the podium, including a grocery store.

The immediate tangible impact of Senakw, of course, is its promise of flooding the housing market with new supply. Not just any supply: between 70% and 90% of the units are set to be purpose-built secured market rental homes.

The volume of market rental housing planned for Senakw is equivalent to up to roughly 25% of the municipal government’s 10-year housing target of creating 20,000 secured market rental homes. At the moment, with just a trickle of approvals due to the burden of regulations, the city is failing to meet its own goals by a very substantial margin.

The First Nation’s development also aligns well with the forthcoming surge in tech industry employment growth, with companies like Amazon propelling much of this boom. Vancouver is receiving a significant portion of the jobs that were initially slated for Amazon HQ2 in New York City.

Most of Amazon’s growth will be housed within the old Canada Post redevelopment, where as many as 12,000 office jobs could be located in a single city block in 2023, when the new office space reaches completion. These market rental homes will be affordable for many of these well-paid tech workers, removing these individuals from competing in the same pool of rentals that are affordable for lower-income households.

While livability considerations with urban development forms in Vancouver have traditionally disproportionally revolved around a rather narrow set of principles centred largely on arbitrary aesthetics, it is now high time for our 21st century livability concerns to also consider the impact restrictions can have on catalyzing and supporting economic opportunity and vitality, and the resulting social consequences of not doing so.

That is the big picture.