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Port CEO advocates industrial land reserve, says may be forced to use farmland if industrial space not saved

December 10th, 2012 · 27 Comments

Robin Silvester, Port Metro Vancouver CEO, always worth paying attention to.

Here’s my Globe story on what he had to say recently:

The Vancouver region’s industrial land needs to be protected the same way its farmland has over the past 40 years – with an industrial land reserve to prevent it from being rezoned for anything else, says the CEO of Port Metro Vancouver.

With the port booming and intense demand for industrial space about to hit the region, CEO Robin Silvester has issued a call for a reserve that will be out of the reach of “financially constrained municipal governments.”

That would be similar to B.C.’s groundbreaking Agricultural Land Reserve, created by the province’s first NDP government in 1973, which prevents municipalities from rezoning farmland to anything else without going through a rigorous review process.

Mr. Silvester, who has been on an aggressive campaign to promote the port’s importance to the regional economy since he arrived here in 2009, said Vancouver recently lost a major port-related development to Calgary because the company couldn’t find land locally.

He wouldn’t specify which company, but Calgary media revealed in late November that Target is going to build a 1.3-million-square-foot distribution centre there.

“An industrial land reserve, like the Agricultural Land Reserve, would set out clear rules for everyone to follow. And clear rules are the foundation of economic certainty,” said Mr. Silvester, who oversees the operation of 28 terminals and facilities in Burrard Inlet, on the Fraser River, and in Delta.

And he warned that, unless there’s a solution developed to protect industrial land, the port will be under extreme pressure to use agricultural land for industrial uses – something that no one wants.

Ports typically create a huge demand for storage and distribution centres around them, because the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks. So goods coming in need to be taken out, re-sorted and put into new containers before they are transported from the port.

His call for a reserve, made Friday at his annual address to the Vancouver Board of Trade, was welcomed enthusiastically by people in shipping and commercial brokerage, and somewhat more cautiously by municipal politicians.

“It is a tremendous idea,” said Bob Laurie, a consultant who specializes in commercial land. “The lower end of the market needs protecting.”

Industrial land is often eyed by developers as prime ground for redevelopment into commercial or residential developments, because it is typically the cheapest land in any region after agricultural, making it likely to generate the biggest profits.

Mr. Silvester noted that various municipalities have rezoned 3,000 hectares worth of industrial land to other uses in the past 30 years.

Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie said everyone in the region recognizes the importance of industrial land, but Metro Vancouver is trying to protect it through a new land-use plan called the Regional Growth Strategy.

That plan requires municipalities, for the first time in the region’s history, to get approval from the Metro Vancouver board before rezoning any industrial land.

“It protects the region as a whole from an individual council being pressured by a developer or financial needs.”

Mr. Louie said he’d like to see whether that new initiative is successful first, before launching into a complex concept like an industrial-land reserve, which would have to be initiated and regulated by the province.

Commercial brokerage firm Avison Young noted in a newsletter earlier this year that the Vancouver region saw $360-million in industrial investment in 2011, the most the region has ever had.

That’s just the beginning of a “tsunami” of port-related development to come, it said.

“[The] impending storm surge will fundamentally alter the industrial landscape when the ‘wave’ of next-generation distribution centres and transshipment facilities makes landfall in the near term.”

Representatives from the B.C. Liberal Party and the NDP did not respond to a request for comments about the idea of an industrial-land reserve.

Mr. Silvester said Port Metro is going to start a community dialogue about the idea in the new year.

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  • Richard

    A great start would be kicking stuff that is not industrial off industrial land. Mini storages, car dealerships and big box stores would be a great start. Office parks where the offices have no connection with anything that belongs on industrial land should be the next to go. People want to work close to transit anyway.

  • Bob

    This is a non-starter. Not enough political will regionally. The idea was floated in the Regional Growth Strategy process but was quickly abandoned. Municipalities won’t surrender their autonomy. There’s no precedent since 1973 of the Province stepping in and forcing municipalities’ hand as they did with the ALR.

  • Richard

    So what prompted this is a Target distribution centre that ended up in Calgary instead? Well, obviously not port related as it ended up in Calgary. Didn’t have to be here either as it ended up in Calgary. One has to question if something like that is the best use of land here.

    If there is a reserve, there would have to be some tight controls and certainty that the land is used for the greatest economic benefit of the region.

  • mezzanine

    @ Richard, I think the target distribution centre is akin to an “inland port”.

    Although I would agree with you to ask if this is the best use, economic and otherwise, of the (limited) land here.

  • Rick

    If it is a choice between agricultural land, and industrial land, then I’m sorry Mr. Silvester, but you lose, though I’m dubious our political class has sufficient wisdom to see it that way.

  • Jim McGraw

    This is a totally ridiculous statement in the article: “because the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks.” Of course they are the same size. That’s the reason standard containers were developed, so they wouldn’t have to be unloaded and reloaded when the containers were transferred to another transportation mode. Just visit the port facilities east of the SeaBus Terminal in Vancouver and you can see the transfer from ships to trains and trucks every day.

  • Mr. Silvester has his eye, in particular, on the Spetifore lands adjacent to his Delta Port but also Fraser docks.

    His reasoning is that off-shore containers do not fit local rail flat bed cars.

    Accordingly, large areas of land are needed to trans-ship goods out of off-miss-sized containers to local containers that fit local flat beds.

    In other words the whole purpose of the container is corrupted.

    This is an extraordinary lapse of coordination given the somewhat oppressive control the various international trade agreements are imposing on us in other and all areas.

    I do not thinq lapses in coordination on the part of Mr. Sylvester’s world-wide business network is reason enough to encroach on our, already dwindling, local food producing lands.

    Furthermore much of the trash and trinkets contained can be either manufactured here or foregone completely . . .

  • Bill Lee

    “Ports typically create a huge demand for storage and distribution centres around them, because the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks. So goods coming in need to be taken out, re-sorted and put into new containers before they are transported from the port.”

    What is this unstandard size?
    There are few these days, most based on ISO R-668 (the TEU, expressed in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU, or sometimes teu). An equivalent unit is a measure of containerized cargo capacity equal to one standard 20 ft (length) × 8 ft (width) container).

    These fit on trucks and rail, sometimes double height.

    Vancouver developed in the end of the sailing era and required a ‘safe port in a storm’ land barrier (Stanley Park now) against high winds and waves toppling the high masted ships.
    Now there is less need.

    The proposed thermal coal shipment from the US to Annacis port is to load up local ships and take to Texada Island up the coast for Trans-Pacific shipment (since most west coast US states and cities are against coal shipping).
    No need for bulk coal at Vancouver port for that (and it bypasses the Roberts Bank coal depot that is now out of operation)

    The rail came down the river valleys to the harbour.
    That is history.
    Now they can take their rail and find a new bulk harbour elsewhere and at last use a new fully-electrified branch line and abandon Vancouver port.
    (The recent Roberts Bank DeltaPort coal terminal accident means a lot of coal is going to Prince Rupert’s Ridley Island port. They don’t have to use Vancouver. Prince Rupert is also closer to Asia and could save a day or two)/

    Are single storey warehouses as port storage the best use of land? No.

    Should the railway continue to use legacy paths?
    No. They have moved most of their yards out of Vancouver and off to the Coquitlam and Surrey suburbs.

    And when will Peter Wall with his new block-busting 955 East Hastings Project want the tracks cleared off Vancouver’s waterfront for his clients tired of the beeping and bright lights of the container terminal a few blocks to the north.

    [ See the June 2012 profile of Peter Wall by a local correspondent in Vancouver Magazine. ]

    No, consider the port to change and draw better maps and straight lines to areas outside of the Lower Mainland.

  • Jon Petrie

    Frances: “… the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks. So goods coming in need to be taken out, re-sorted and put into new containers before they are transported from the port.”

    (And Roger #5 says something similar)

    I think this is nonsense — watch the containers coming off the ships at the dock east of the Seabus. Unless my eyesight is gone they are the same size as the containers with the same markings on the rail cars directly adjacent to that dock. And I don`t see a large warehouse where goods could be unpacked and repacked between the container area and the rail yards. The whole idea of containerization is to minimize labour and theft by minimizing handling of the actual goods being shipped.

    ( In the 1970`s, as a concession to the longshoreman who were worried about loosing work because of containerization, containers with a final destination close to or in Vancouver were unpacked by longshoremen on the Vancouver docks — I suspect that concession has been exchanged for some other benefit.)

  • Guest

    I don’t think it’s a question of different sizes of containers – it’s warehousing that’s required to sort goods that arrive in bulk and will be distributed to different locations across North America. i.e. sorted into separate containers going to different locations – if a container with 1000 XYZ brand bikes comes in, they may not all be going to Moose Jaw.

  • Dan Cooper

    Richard opines, “People [who work in office parks, mini storage, auto malls, and big box stores] want to work close to transit anyway.”

    True. Then again, people who work in industrial (light or heavy) are also people who work, and who also need transit! Both light and heavy industrial provide well-paying jobs which do not require an advanced degree but on the other hand aren’t simply serving coffee or french fries. I say: there needs to be good transit to the heavy industrial areas too, as well as light industrial inside the cities to provide services and jobs in the reach of all those condo dwellers. I’m thinking about False Creek Flats and Main-to-Cambie-and-2nd-to-Broadway as an example.

    In other words, I like the idea of industrial land reserves, or at least some process to achieve the same thing.

  • . . . because the containers that come off ships are not the same size as those that go on trains and trucks.

    Read the Sylvester quotation Guest @ #8.

  • Frances Bula

    @Jon. I am checking with PMV on this, to see if I quoted him wrong or didn’t include some technicality or what. I actually remember reading a New Yorker piece or NYT piece about the genius of the guy who invented the standardized shipping container, which has made it possible to ship endless amounts of stuff around the globe.

  • Guest @10 is right, it is for dispatching container content (typically palette) you need it.

    very few container (called super cube) doesn’t fit readily on car and truck (especially in NA)

    On the guy who invented the container,
    If I am correct, CBC Ideas (Paul Kennedy) has an encore edition on it tomorrow Thursday (at 8pm).. A very recommended listening.

  • Ideas Thursday – at 9pm (not 8pm).

  • A Dave

    “it’s warehousing that’s required to sort goods that arrive in bulk and will be distributed to different locations across North America. i.e. sorted into separate containers going to different locations”

    Guest is partially right, but the warehousing and sorting of containers is really done along the waterfront (ie. the shunting yards adjacent to Gastown where the eastbound trains are built or westbound are dismantled). The tracks are the “warehouse” as Jon Petrie notes — and anyone living on Water or Alexander will attest after countless sleepless nights….


  • A Dave

    The containers are standardized (and virtually all double deckers now) travelling seamlessly from ship to rail or truck by crane, of which there are more than twice as many now than there were less than a decade ago (which the port maybe glosses over).

    In the 1990s, the trains still had cabooses and the old container cars had the side sliding doors that enabled hobos to hop on and off of empty cars. Before they rebuilt the Main overpass to Crab Park (late 1990s), there was still a small hobo village (30-100 people depending on season) with lean-tos and fire pits etc. on the slope beside the tracks there. Seems like yesterday, but it’s been almost 20 years now…

  • pacpost

    As someone who is involved in logistics, let me try to clear up a bit of the confusion.

    What people see on ships coming into port are 40 ft standard-height shipping containers. This is the standard international container.

    When it comes to North American truck and rail transport, the majority of goods are shipped via 53 ft. containers. A lot of what you’ll see on the road are 53 ft tridem vans (where the container is integrated with the chassis, and not detachable). These tridem vans cannot be loaded onto rail, nor can they be loaded onto ships. The containers you see on rail are 53 ft. containers (standard height or high cube). These can be loaded onto rail and truck chassis.

    Hope that clears things up for those above who claim that all containers are the same size.

  • The adoption of legislation to deter the rezoning of industrial land is within the power of the provincial government. However, the next government would only act if it had a political reason to do so. The Port would need to build a coalition of interests including organized labour and a respectable cross-section of local government leaders. Is this doable? I don’t know. In any case, it’s certain that the protection of industrial land doesn’t have the sentimental cachet that green belt protection has enjoyed since 1972.

  • Jim McGraw

    You are right about length. I should have been clearer in writing about standard sizes.

    Containers are standardized in their eight-foot width so they can be stacked one on top of the other and loaded on a variety of vehicles.

    Lengths can be anywhere from 20 to 53 feet. Containers are constructed in a way that fastening and reinforcement points are standardized to enable it to be stacked with shorter or longer containers.

    The width is standardized so it can be loaded onto a ship, train or truck although the longer ones tend to be used mostly in North America. There 53-foot containers now being used in trans-ocean shipping.

    As other writers have noted, most of the distribution centres are probably reloading containers because not everything in the container is going to the same place. That is not exactly the most efficient use of containers (or land).

    The sentence however is still wrong. The containers on ships most definitely go on trains and trucks. Otherwise, why have intermodal containers?

  • Paul

    Two words: Inland Ports

    It’s a no-brainer.

    Land-use in Metro Van will be the most important set of decisions we make in our generation.

  • Bill Lee

    Re: Paul // Dec 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm #21

    Yes, Inland Ports.

    Already the new set of airplanes can take longer trips and fly from Toronto to Asia without having to stop and refuel in Vancouver.

    And vice-versa from Asia. Why go to Vancouver at all? Nothing there, nothing to see, no Niagara Falls or CN tower, lets skip Vancouver.

    I can see a day when the plane from Beijing lands in Calgary and Vancouver-bound passengers take a short flight or the express train to Vancouver.

    So ends the international importance of that polluting piece of concrete that is YVR>

  • pacpost


    Yes, some 53 ft containers have the attachment and reinforcement points required to be able to move them between truck, rail and ship. These 53 ft containers, like the 40 ft containers, can be used in an intermodal manner. However, ocean-going 53 ft containers have only existed for about 5 years:

    The vast majority of truck and trailer combinations that people see on the road in North America are 53 ft tridem vans, in other words trailers/containers that cannot go on rail or ship. They look something like this:

    As for reloading, I’m not sure what you mean by it not being efficient. Different materials and loads originating from one warehouse will often be picked up by one trailer, taken to a distribution warehouse, unloaded, sorted and shipped to different locations. I do it all the time in my line of work. Logistics companies are very efficient in how they move and distribute things, the competition is fierce and squeezes out any inefficiencies. I’m often amazed by how some companies operate.

  • Paul

    Is YVR proposing expansion on to ALR designated land?

  • Frank Ducote

    By all means, put that coal and bitumen on a plane from Calgary, I say!

    Seriously, the proposals are vastly more far-reaching than the size of containers (my, do we love minutiae here). Of much more concern to citizens of the North Shore, at least, is the impact of the new Low Level Road, the doubling and lengthening of rail tracks, expanded hours of operation, the proposal to increase coal shipment and the addition of even more grain terminals, all oaf which have potentially adverse impacts on very close by and uphill neighbourhoods.

    This is no minor stuff, folks.

  • Peter

    I’m glad pacpost cleared up the question of transloading: you have 3 40-foot ocean containers of shoes, dresses and jeans coming from overseas. You reload these into two 48- or 53-foot domestic containers in Vancouver, mixing the shoes, dresses and jeans as required by your distribution system. The main reason for the longer domestic containers is that they are allowed on highways; the ocean containers are often owned by shipping lines who want to get them back onto ships. Transloading creates demand in the Lower Mainland for industrial land and highways – for good and ill. This is not a new story; Sylvester wrote to the municipalities urging passage of the Regional Growth Strategy in 2011.

    Here is a link to some writing on industrial land and the Fraser River:

    And here is a link to a paper on the general question of port-city relationships:

  • Bill Lee

    @ Frank Ducote…

    Coal! Coal you say? Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch…

    And in Seattle and our neighouring town of Ferndale, WA. leading to Cherry Point.

    Thursday, December 13, 2012 – Page updated at 07:00 p.m.
    Big turnout expected for coal-transport project hearing
    By Craig Welch, Seattle Times environment reporter

    Several thousand people will gather at the Washington State Convention Center to offer their thoughts on plans to export Rocky Mountain coal to Asia through ports in Washington and Oregon.

    So many people are expected that the hearing already has been postponed once. The hosts — Whatcom County, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — knew they needed a bigger venue.

    While there are at least five proposals to build shipping terminals in Washington and Oregon to ferry coal from Wyoming and Montana to energy-hungry Asia, Thursday’s hearing is, ostensibly, about just one. A subsidiary of SSA Marine wants to construct a port outside Ferndale, known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal, to ship 48 million tons of coal abroad each year. [ more ]

    … In previous hearings across the state, where testimony was first-come, first-served, some opponents arrived hours in advance and held spots for like-minded colleagues. Some supporters, in turn, paid people to stand in line to make sure their representatives got to testify. This time, the three agencies hosting Seattle’s hearing will switch to a lottery system. On Thursday, they’ll let those in attendance enter random drawings at the top of each hour of the three-hour event for a total of about 150 two-minute speaking slots. The agencies also will accept written comments.

    Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or [5] On Twitter @craigawelch.

    [6] Archive: Coal quandary as state plans to send dirty fuel overseas (March 2011)
    [7] Archive: Proposal for massive Longview coal shipping terminal re-emerges (Feb. 2012)
    [8] Archive: Fights brewing over massive coal-export plans for the Northwest (May 2012)
    [9] Archive: Shipping coal to Asia: Should we do it? | Jon Talton (July 2012)

    and from the “other Vancouver” (Wash.) opposite Portland, Oregon

    and other stories, as the Bellingham Herald is the local daily paper for Ferndale/Cherry Point.