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Developers and the city negotiate office-residential mix near BC Place

October 7th, 2008 · 6 Comments

It’s faded out of the news now, but the downtown district around BC Place and GM Place is still going through intense talks as the four property owners and city staff talk about what that new neighbourhood is going to look like.

If you’ll recall, it burst into the headlines in the spring, when Premier Gordon Campbell made an announcement that the Vancouver Art Gallery was possibly going to be moving down there, an announcement that set off a round of commentary about who was really running the city.

It’s an interesting area, usually called Northeast False Creek, that includes the old Plaza of Nations and a lot of parking lots around the two stadiums. There are four property owners involved: Pavco, the government agency that owns BC Place, Canadian Metropolitan, which owns the Plaza property, Concord Pacific, and the Aquilinis.

The big tussle among the parties is partly over putting office space down there. City planners say the area has to absorb 1.8 million square feet of office space, as part of the city’s efforts to make sure there is not just Living First downtown but Working First Too. But developers have been arguing back that there isn’t enough demand for office space and that any office space they are required to put in needs to get some help, i.e. by allowing residential as well to subsidize the overall cost. The Aquilini group had architect Peter Busby design an office tower at one corner of GM Place and then put it on hold, saying they weren’t able to lease it out at rates that would even cover the construction costs.

Now it looks as though that tower may be allowed to have a residential component, as planners and developers are coming close to agreements about who will take what share of the 1.8 million SF and how it can be spread around. This is a big deal in the developer community, because many of them firmly believe that there isn’t enough demand anywhere for office space to justify a whole building. They like the mixed-use concept because they feel like it gives them a guarantee of income from at least one part of the building, the condo sales. On the other side, the Vancouver Board of Trade and commercial brokers, who feel that the city’s condo boom has been to the detriment of the office market, have never liked the condo encroachment and the plethora of mixed-use buildings.

The city’s planning director, Brent Toderian, said city planners are starting to feel more assured that each developer will take enough office space in his sector, which is allowing them some room to be flexible about individual buildings. Since the plans are to have two towers on the Aquilini land, the Aquilini group could spread its share of the office space among those two in mixed-use buildings.

“If we were not confident we could achieve all the office space, we wouldn’t be willing to allow mixed use,”
said Toderian. Not every developer will take a proportion equal to the proportion of land, since Pavco will probably have a lot of commercial space built if the casino that’s down there moves to a new building beside the stadium, as planned.

In other news in the area, he says that there is a lot of activity when it comes to planning for the Vancouver Art Gallery. A team including architect Richard Henriquez has been hired to assess the site. So, while I hear some stories around town that nothing much is happening with that site and the gallery may never move there, that’s not what seems to be going on close up.

Toderian also said that, although staff had originally wanted to hold out for a Triple A type office building at the foot of Georgia, they’re now accepting that that site would be too far from “centre ice,” as he called it, i.e. the central business district, to make a Triple A building feasible.

The official development plan for the Pavco site is coming to council in late October, and more details about what’s happening generally in the area will be available then.

It’s a place to keep an eye on because it’s going to be a very different kind of district in Vancouver, not one like we’ve seen before. This is mixing condos in with casinos, stadiums, art galleries and who knows what else in what’s being called a culture and entertainment zone. I’ll be waiting to see how the developers plan and market these buildings: “Own a box at GM Place — well, something pretty close.” “You want to bet the house? You can do that here.” Hmm.

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  • Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn

  • Wagamuffin

    Great last line.

    If people who live near the one big booze hall that is Granville Street’s “entertainment zone” hate the noise and street activity now, how will condo owners living over a casino and near the stadiums put up with well oiled and/or shady-sad habitues who spill out of those buildings on a nightly basis?

    I curse Larry Campbell for OK-ing the casinos in the first place. I would rather see council and the province come up with something that actually encourages head offices or at least good sized satellite offices to set up camp inVancouver. I know everyone knows that Microsft was looking for significant office space in Vancouver, but there was none so they went to Richmond. Does “build it and they will come” apply here?

  • MB

    Everyone in the arts community I’ve talked to has concerns about moving the VAG to the Plaza of Nations site. Yes, it’s waterfront, and there’s a commitment to build something great with Henriquez … or at least almost-great given Gordo’s involvement. But it’s at the edge, not the centre of the Vancouver universe, the same concern expressed about Class A office space.

    Touristos and residents alike walk all over our increasingly pedestrian-friendly downtown (we have doubled the population there to 100,000 people while concurrently reducing traffic by 10%), but walking a lot farther on a tangential, indirect route while crossing the hideous Pacific Blvd or Expo Blvd freeways albeit to a better gallery is the antithesis of reinforcing the heart of our unique brand of urbanism. They’d probably drive, or not bother to go as often.

    Such an important urban and cultural anchor requires a superb, direct and highly visible connection to the city’s heart (maybe the heritage streetcar project can connect to it from Day One), but that is a distant second best solution to occupying a prime spot within it.

    The last open land along Georgia Street exists in the next block east of the QE Theatre. Though closer to the edge, it’s still walkable from the core on a direct route and is accessible from the prime tourist hotels and cruise ships, and would help stimulate the creation of a strong cultural sector around the library and theatre.

  • Joe just Joe

    I too prefer the location of the old bus lot. It is in the cultural district after all.
    No sense having an art gallery which can not take advantage of the views beacuse sunlight destroys paintings in such a location.
    Save that location for the so called missing public square, or the never built coal harbour concert hall.

  • Wagamuffin

    MB and Joe Just Joe:

    Great points re the Art Gallery staying on the Georgia Street corridor.

    Besides a concert or multi-use entertainment facility, we can look at opening a worthier BC Sports Hall of Fame down on the Plaza of Nations site as well. Make it a more dynamic area for those coming out of the dome and GM Place after games and concerts.

  • MB

    May the Cultural District and Sports District twains never meet. As propose by Gordo, the art gallery will be across Expo Boulevard from the monster truck rallys under the Big Pillow. That’ll shake the paint off the Emily Carr canvases.