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Vancouver’s big suburb to the east makes plans to create a downtown

October 29th, 2019 · No Comments

Apparently Google loved my story about Burnaby, Vancouver’s beloved neighbour that has served as its bedroom community for decades, is going to create a downtown at the mega-fortress-mall of Metrotown. (Full text attached below)

Burnaby did originally have a kind of town centre at Edmonds, but that sort of disappeared in the 1970s, as the city moved to a “four town centres” approach to planning as part of the big strategy to develop a set of interlinked regional town centres so that everyone wouldn’t have to jam into downtown.

As I discovered when I wrote the story, there were dreams back then, though, that Metrotown would be more than just a sprawling mall when it was redeveloped from what it had been, an industrial area of grocery warehouse and distribution buildings like those of Kelly Douglas. See this lovely report from Norm Hotson, back in the day.

It’s going to take 40 years or more for this re-make of Metrotown to be completed, so not holding my breath for an instant transformation, but it will be a pleasant difference to see more effort go into making an attractive public area in and around there over the years.

It was always puzzling to me and others how Burnaby seemed to require nothing from developers, who put up towers next to Lougheed or around Metrotown with apparently zero requirement to try to make the immediate precinct attractive or walkable. Gilmore Station, gah. Former mayor Derek Corrigan, who could be so assertive (ahem) on other issues, didn’t appear to want to push them on it. And, of course, developers loved it, talking about how easy it was to do business in Burnaby.

But, as this report approved Monday by council demonstrates, it looks as though there’s going to be a different approach now.

The Vancouver suburb with no downtown is about to get one through one of the largest mall transformations in North America.

Burnaby, the huge city that is about four-fifths the geographic size of neighbouring Vancouver, has been for decades a place with three large malls surrounded by some apartments and no discernible centre.

That’s set to change in the coming years, after Burnaby City Council finalized a plan this week transform Metropolis at Metrotown, one of Canada’s largest and most successful malls, into a completely new kind of city centre.

The idea is to break down the huge site – 18 hectares, or the size of City Place in Toronto – from what it is now, a fortress of a mall surrounded by 8,000 parking spots and one of the busiest SkyTrain stations in the region, into a walkable city centre with public gardens and plazas, new interior streets, thousands of new residents in apartment towers and possibly a new performing arts centre.

It will also mark a new, more assertive approach by Burnaby to demanding city benefits from developers, after decades of taking a timid or hands-off attitude.

“We need to be more firm and more visionary with respect to public open space here,” said Burnaby’s relatively new director of planning and building, Ed Kozak.

Burnaby recently instituted a strong policy on rental apartments that would mean 20 per cent of all the units built on the site would need to be rentals. It also means that the city will be asking the developer to meet sustainability requirements that include energy-efficient buildings, as well as rain gardens and 40-per-cent tree coverage on the now asphalt-dominated site.

Former Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan, ousted last year by newcomer Mike Hurley, had always said that Burnaby couldn’t ask for the same benefits from developers as Vancouver planners did because it wasn’t in the same position.

Many towers went up around Metrotown and along the Lougheed Highway in the past couple of decades, but there was almost nothing done at the street level to create a neighbourhood feel.

Only with massive new redevelopments at the Brentwood and Lougheed malls in more recent years did the city start making more forceful demands for public space and other amenities.


“We’re taking the lessons we learned from that,” said Mr. Kozak, appointed director by the new mayor in April.

Planners will also look at how to connect the new downtown neighbourhood better with an apartment area just to the south, which is currently cut off from easy access to the mall because of the SkyTrain guideway and road between the two sides. Mr. Kozak said planners are considering whether to severely constrain traffic on that road, Central Boulevard, or maybe even close it.

While there are obvious advantages to the city in redoing Metropolis, it’s a dicier proposition for the mall owner, Ivanhoé Cambridge.

The current redevelopment of a former Ivanhoé Cambridge mall in another part of the region, Oakridge Centre, is demonstrating how awkward it can be to build condos around an existing busy centre. There have been problems with parking jams and at least one long-time retailer was forced out in the first phase of construction.

“We learned our lessons from Oakridge,” said Graeme Silvera, the vice-president for development and retail at Ivanhoé Cambridge. “Here, we can phase this in small, bite-sized chunks.”

He said the first phase in the next decade will be in the parking lots facing Kingsway. The redevelopment of the current buildings that form Metropolis will take much longer and will depend on lease arrangements.

But it’s worth doing, he said. Malls need to adapt all the time; they can’t stay still no matter how successful they are.

“Retail is the only asset group that is constantly changing. So we’re taking a single-purpose site and adding diversity. This is what the mall needs to remain relevant.”


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