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Mixed-use project on industrial land gets support from several quarters

VANCOUVER- Vancouver city staff have unequivocally indicated that they don’t support the project that PCI’s Andrew Grant is proposing for next door to the new Marine Drive SkyTrain station, a mixed-used development with two towers — one market condos, one rental — office space, a cineplex and a plaza.

Head city planner Brent Toderian emphasized that allowing residential leads to land speculation and gets in the way of residential development. There was also lots of emphasis at the meeting on the project’s proximity to the waste-transfer station and potential problems with smells.

As well, Metro Vancouver’s planning department and Ports Canada, which has suffered itself from the incursion of residential onto industrial land, have sent in letters opposing any move to allow industrial land to be converted to even partial residential use.

But I was surprised at the level of support that came in from various sectors during the meeting Thursday night and at the questions from councillors and the mayor indicating to me that they are not prepared to dismiss this project (yet another one that’s been designed by the firm of Peter Busby, who consistently seems to take on politically difficult projects) out of hand.

The Marpole Business Improvement Association, TransLink, the Urban Development Institute, the Board of Trade, and the Canada Line office also sent in letters of support. As well, a couple of landowners down there, Ralph McLean and Paul McCrea, spoke or sent in letters saying they’d like to see a project that brings more life and residents to the area.

Greg Yeomans, the manager of policy and planning for TransLink, even sat hung in through four hours of meeting so he could deliver his five-minute message to council about TransLink’s support. Yeomans said this is the kind of development that should be fostered around all SkyTrain stations.

Yeomans assured COPE Councillor David Cadman that it’s NOT because TransLink will try to grab any of the increase in land value (”land lift” in developer jargon) around the station. They just like it because it will bring more riders onto SkyTrain and that’s a lovely thing when you’ve spent $2 billion to build a piece of infrastructure. (All Canada Line opponents can now chime in here about how, of course they want more riders because all their ridership projections that justified the line were lies, lies, lies.)

Mayor Gregor Robertson was unusually talkative during the meeting, questioning staff repeatedly about whether Vancouver’s industrial lands are really being put to the best use and whether the current zoning allows for new, 21st-century kinds of industries. “The movement we’re seeing is industrial morphing into low-carbon, green enterprise,” he said at one point, in one of his moments of fretting aloud about whether Vancouver is really preparing for the future.

Oh, and another comment he made at the end: “It seems like, as our city manager puts it, that it’s a triple-word score here (meaning, I believe, that the city would get density at a transit hub, a green building, and a tower dedicated to rental housing, under Grant’s plan). On the other hand, we’re on the edge of heavy industrial and the pitfalls of that. So we’ve got some homework to do.”

Council will decide Tuesday on this interesting project, which is also taking an unsual path through city hall. Toderian brought the project to council with a recommendation to reject it — to me, that’s a sign that PCI and Grant have decided to take a gamble on council approval instead of just meekly accepting the planning department’s refusal.

Frances Bula reports for Vancouver Magazine and The Globe and Mail.

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