Tangible Turnarounds - The Vancouver 'Miracle' and Leveraging Developer Profit

Post date: Jan 3, 2020 12:11:27 AM

The land appreciation that took place on the Vancouver 'megaprojects', gave the city leverage to use development-cost charges to extract money from developers for a host of amenities, including seawalls, parks, daycares and community centres. The taxpayer didn't have to pay a dime but gained a more livable downtown. 

Whilst this rosy scenario is not quite as achievable in the UK, things are improving despite the recession as government introduces initiatives such as the New Homes Bonus and toys with Tax Increment Finance to add to s106 developer payments as a means to enable councils to leverage value creation to fund infrastructure and amenities. The key is to get the development right, as they did blindingly well in Vancouver's 'downtown' - a place people move to for the cosmopolitan lifestyle and what people describe as the a 'neighbourhood treasure chest of stories'.

This is part of the buzz known as the Vancouver Miracle. Vancouver has the fastest-growing residential downtown in North America. Since the late '80s, more than 150 highrises have risen within a mile radius of the central business district. Downtown condo fever is so feverish that developers market lifestyle as much as units…selling the cultural premium that's based on the neighbourhood. People bus or walk to work downtown and typically live in beautiful but small appartments but with good views have an expansive feel. Shops tend to be ‘just next door’ as is coffee culture and eateries. Locals accept Vancouver is not a world capital, but the sense of vibrancy that one feels walking in downtown here is similar to some of the areas New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

This vitality has been sudden. Development in Vancouver's central city has escalated at a pace far exceeding the expectations of city hall and is 10 years ahead of its original schedule. There are 80,000 people living in the downtown peninsula -- a figure expected to rise to 120,000 by 2021. They have experience in making mixed-use work with all kinds of people and know how to provide community infrastructure, and can apply that knowledge to meet the needs of all new development. 

A recent book on the subject, The Vancouver Achievement, British author John Punter said Vancouver is no longer a setting in search of a city. He described the False Creek North and Coal Harbour projects as the most ambitious high-density residential neighbourhoods on the edge of any downtown in North America in the '90s. Punter said that Vancouver has achieved 'an urban renaissance more comprehensively than any other city in North America.'

Downtown is having a baby boom, a new primary school, fewer cars commuting into the city than 10 years ago, and more than 60 per cent of all downtown trips now by transit, bike or on foot. Not so long ago, tall buildings, were not in favour in Vancouver. Highrises, as popularized by the legendary French architect LeCorbusier and others, were seen as part of the modernist nightmare, a dystopia of skyscrapers, declining inner city neighbourhoods and car-clogged freeways. But over time, a perfect storm of factors led the descendants of the '70s reform movement to embrace the tower as the form best suited to create a livable downtown in Vancouver.

There was an intense demand for housing in the period after Expo 86. Sprawl was limited by geography -- the Pacific Ocean to the west, mountains to north and east, the U.S. border to the south. So it was natural that city planners looked towards the inner city. Around the same time, there was a glut of office space throughout North America, and developers returned to housing. Sensing an opportunity to meet the housing demand and protect single-family neighbourhoods, the city in the early 1990s developed its "living first strategy" to develop the margins of the downtown and waterfront megaprojects. The West End had prospered through the '80s, showing that highrise living could thrive in the downtown. Gradually, condo developments proved popular with a new middle class of white-collar professionals who rode the economic boom of the '90s. Professional people became over-represented in the inner city and under-represented in the suburbs - the reverse of what happened in most other North American cities.

The dominant architectural form in Vancouver's new downtown -- the tower with 2/3 storey townhouses at street level was also unique. When pedestrians walked by they didn't see the blank wall of a monolith -- they saw a townhouse door or window or a shopfront. It was high-rise living with a human face. The tower-townhouse prototype -- developed by local architects like Richard Henriquez, Paul Merrick and James Cheng -- was a modernist form that provided the mixed-use vibrancy in Vancouver sought by anti-modernists such as urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who is a huge fan of Vancouver's downtown. ‘Developers successfully changed the image of the apartment unit. Now they were selling granite countertops and lifestyle in a unit that was an investment as well as a home.’

According to Vancouver's chief planner 'towers often get a bad reputation based on how they land and often that’s true. But I just as often see mid-rise buildings land poorly...this isn't the tower vs. mid-rise issue, this is the how you do the ground plane well, a universal question no matter what form you’re designing.The trick is to be very rigorous with urban design standards and planning out the where, why and how of siting skyscrapers. 'We likely take more of a design approach to the height question than any other city in North America, and we regulate, locate, shape and even limit height more than other cities, based on our civic values and goals'.

‘The basic reality of the economics of the Vancouver Miracle is that the large development sites were originally of very low value and then, through public decisions, became very high-value…the land-lift was huge meaning the city could leverage a lot of public goods…and because much of the redevelopment occurred through megaprojects, the amenities came on stream quickly without having to be built up incrementally.’ The lesson of the Vancouver Miracle, is that high density works - if done right. 

This is an amended extract from the Vancouver Sun 24 September 2004.