Woodwards sellout is an example that rapic transit does not work – People want to be close to the city & Skytrainis a waste of time

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

Bob Ransford

It’s little wonder the Woodward’s project sold so successfully last Saturday — 536 homes, 536 contracts signed in one day of selling. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside may be the last Vancouver neighbourhood in which development that ensures urban livability in the Lower Mainland can be created.

Signs are already pointing to the pending failure of all attempts at bringing downtown livability to the city’s first-ring suburbs.

These early signs are alarming. They seem to indicate Vancouver is prepared to abandon many of the opportunities that were supposed to flow from a deliberate collective decision to invest significant taxpayer dollars in improved public transit infrastructure.

Build SkyTrain and they will come. These rail transit lines were to link regional town centres that would intensify with mixed-use developments where people could live, work and play. Along the line there would be a series of stations where nodes of high density development would feed riders to the transit system.

That was the mantra behind the original Expo line running diagonally across Vancouver and Burnaby to New Westminster and Surrey. It was also the rationale for its twin, the Millennium line.

The RAV project, now expected by most to exceed $2 billion, was supposed to link Richmond’s rapidly growing town centre with Vancouver’s downtown and create all kinds of new development opportunities not just in Richmond, but at various nodes along the under-populated Cambie corridor.

These nodes and corridors are the places where Greater Vancouver can accommodate the next million people that will flock to this region over the next 30 to 40 years.

Densification at these nodes and along these corridors can provide the housing supply that will help to temper rising housing costs.

For a number of reasons though, reality is falling short of expectations.

Central Surrey is struggling to become a downtown. New Westminster has seen limited success, but that city’s downtown certainly hasn’t yet realized its full potential. There have been some good examples of transit-oriented nodal development around a number of Burnaby’s SkyTrain stations, like Metrotown and Edmonds stations.

But, with the exception of the area around the Joyce Street station, Vancouver hasn’t seen the kind of density that should have developed around the SkyTrain lines.

Neighbourhoods around the Nanaimo station, the 29th Avenue station, Rupert station, Renfrew station, Broadway station and Main Street station continue to be primarily singe-family neighbourhoods where the potential for in-fill density hasn’t been realized.

Most alarming is what is already unfolding in the planning along the new RAV line.

The RAV route was deliberately aligned not along the higher populated Arbutus corridor — largely for political reasons — but instead along Cambie Street where supposedly more potential riders would come from the job centres along the line.

But the RAV project promises to be a disaster in terms of cost-benefit if what is unfolding around one of the line’s best opportunities for higher density suburban renewal – Oakridge – is an indication.

Plans for re-development of Oakridge have been limited to the existing 28-acre shopping centre, instead of encompassing the larger neighbourhood within walking distance of the planned RAV station at Cambie and 41st Avenue.

The preliminary concept plan for re-development of the shopping centre, drafted after a number of meetings with neighbouring residents over the last year and a half, falls far short in terms of over-all density for a major first-ring suburban transit node like Oakridge.

Five mid-rise and a few low-rise buildings are proposed — bringing about 1,300 to 1,500 new apartments to the Oakridge node. This plan appears to reflect the influence of existing residents in the surrounding neighbourhood who have expressed opposition to the form of higher density development, opposing higher towers and fearing increased traffic.

City council won’t see the plan until later this year. But if the current draft is the benchmark for the intensity of re-development along the RAV line, then RAV will be a failure.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, planners and politicians seem to have missed the whole point of investing in rapid transit infrastructure. On the one hand, Richmond is willing to accommodate densities in the town centre slightly higher than those currently proposed for Oakridge. But Richmond is also penalizing developers wanting to take advantage of this density potential.

It is charging developers $4 per square foot for every new home they build to pay for what the city calls “transit-oriented improvements” in the downtown. This cost is in addition to the $2 billion plus spent on RAV by taxpayer. The city is willing to trade payment of this levy for a reduction of parking that a developer must build as part of a new residential development.

However, instead of automatically reducing parking to encourage transit ridership in a new transit node and make housing more affordable in a more location-efficient area, the city is penalizing land owners by charging an additional fee.

When are we going to learn?

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues. Email: [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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