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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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