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Municipal Politics
Urban Planning

Witness the Displacement, Destruction and Development of Metrotown

A decade of photos capture the growing pains and pleasures of a Burnaby in the making.

Christopher Cheung 30 May 2024The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on X @bychrischeung.

Renters evicted, old apartments destroyed and new condos erected.

For over a decade, these were the scenes visible from every pocket of Metrotown as the City of Burnaby, next door to Vancouver in the east, shepherded the neighbourhood’s dramatic transformation into a new downtown.

The foundations for this transformation have been long in the making. The neighbourhood is home to the province’s largest mall and is the largest employment centre in the region outside of Vancouver proper. It also boasts a transit hub that is a busy stopover for commuters hopping onto buses and SkyTrains.

Scattered throughout is a plentiful stock of walk-up rental apartments of two to three storeys, mostly built between the 1960s and ’80s. Low-income renters, from single parents to immigrants to refugees, have depended on them for years. And the mom-and-pop landlords who have been holding on to them have been patiently waiting to sell to developers and cash out.

In 2011, the city introduced special zoning for the neighbourhood. It allowed developers to pay cash or contribute an amenity to the city in exchange for bonus density.

It made Metrotown an attractive place to build, but it also fuelled the “demoviction” of tenants.

Back in 2015, Mayor Derek Corrigan of the Burnaby Citizens Association — an NDP-affiliated municipal party that dominated council seats for many years — told The Tyee that such change was “inevitable.”

“Buildings, like people, have a lifespan,” he argued.

As for why the city decided to channel development near transit stations: “Our situation is unlike places like Calgary. We can’t keep building ring roads that take people further out into the suburbs. We don’t have that option. All our [regional] growth is on the end of a peninsula, and we’re in a situation where we’re forced to make big city choices in a city that isn’t that big.”

In 2018, the demovictions were a major issue of the municipal election. Mayoral candidate Mike Hurley, a firefighter with a number of local and provincial leadership roles who threw his support behind the tenant protesters, won the seat.

Together with a new council, Hurley kicked off the introduction of tenant protections for Metrotown, touting them as the best in the country.

This June, the first tenants will be returning to a new development at their old address on Telford Avenue. The units might be smaller, but they’ll have the same number of bedrooms and be paying their old rents.

Developers who destroy rental units to build new projects must replace them, according to city policy. Also, they must help the tenants they’re displacing by helping cover some of the cost of their interim housing.

Even though they have to foot this bill, a developer told The Tyee, it is still profitable to build in the area.

One longtime advocate, however, says more needs to be done, especially on cooling rents as Burnaby has become the second most expensive place to rent in the country, according to a 2023 report.

Tyee reporter Christopher Cheung has covered the Metrotown demoviction story since 2015. With this milestone, here’s a look back at the changes in pictures.

A woman with dark hair tied up, light skin, a dark pink T-shirt and grey leggings stands on a sidewalk holding a toddler and beside a young school-aged child with medium skin and curly hair. They are in front of a grey low-rise apartment building.
Sherry Chen and her family immigrated from the UK and were surprised to find that Canada did not have a robust supply of public housing. Her household of five — she and her partner, her mother and her two children — were demovicted from their Burnaby home in 2015. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2015.
Matthew Hunter stands in a black tank top, shorts and high-top sneakers at the bottom of an apartment walk-up’s red carpeted stairway. White light shines through the door behind him.
Matthew Hunter was demovicted from his first home on Imperial Street before applying for another on McKay Avenue. There were many others who wanted the one-bedroom, so the landlord put their names on pieces of paper in a bowl and drew Hunter’s. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2016.
A two-panel image depicts, on the left, low-rise apartments before the sheer concrete walls of a large construction pit in the daytime; on the right, a single-family home sits over the pit at dusk, with highrise condo buildings to its left.
Deep excavations are a common sight in the neighbourhood. In the image on the right, the 1913 house of a former chicken farmer and goat rancher in the neighbourhood named Daniel Mowat is preserved as part of a new development. Photos courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2017.
A beige low-rise wood-frame apartment building stands partially demolished behind a large pile of broken wood.
Burnaby’s density bonusing program — which allowed developers to pay cash or contribute an amenity in exchange for the right to build bigger projects — made it attractive to real estate interests. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2017.
A black and white real estate ad reading 'The Centre' stands behind a construction fence amongst rubble from a demolition. A beige low-rise apartment building stands to the right of the frame.
‘The future of business.’ Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2017.
On the left, a yellow pile digger stands before a white low-rise apartment building in the process of being demolished. Broken wood is visible across the building on the right and its facade is visible on the left.
Burnaby has experienced the greatest net loss of market rental units in the region, according to the CMHC. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2017.
A pile of wood from a demolition sits atop a concrete fence. In yellow handwritten text, the phrase 'Save our homes' can be seen across the top of the concrete.
The neighbourhood has seen many protests from residents who were being displaced. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2017.
A white two-storey apartment building’s door glows white in the night. Behind it are construction cranes and contemporary highrise condo towers.
There has long been a plentiful supply of walk-up rental apartments in Metrotown, most of which was built between the 1960s and ’80s, depended on by everyone from single parents to immigrants to refugees. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2019.
A blue pickup truck is parked outside a one-storey row of bungalows behind a sign that reads 'Designated RM5s High-Rise Development Site.' Behind them loom contemporary highrise condo towers. It’s nighttime.
Listings for apartment buildings on the market all contain similar language: ‘well-run apartment complex,’ ‘redevelopment potential,’ ‘lots of development happening around the subject area.’ Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2020.
A middle-aged man in a white medical mask stands with his hands in the pockets of his grey jacket, which he wears with blue jeans. He is standing in front of a beige three-storey apartment complex.
Allan Fernandez rents in a building that’s been sold four times since he moved in in 2013. ‘Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s not the best-looking. But the people who live here, they’re priced out of everywhere else. It’s the United Nations of Burnaby.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung for The Tyee, 2021.
A green construction fence rises in front of a demolished white three-storey apartment building. In the foreground, a navy real estate sign advertises a new development called Artesia.
Real estate marketing campaigns stand in contrast to the demovictions that will be the site of future, newer homes. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2022.
A photo of a construction fence featuring a large wraparound ad for real estate features a highrise tower against a hazy orange sky. Behind it are construction cranes and towers.
Many marketing campaigns for Metrotown highrises emphasize living in the clouds, as Burnaby’s towers are some of the tallest in the province. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2023.
A construction fence holds a white sign that reads 'Demolition in progress' in red text. Behind it are highrise condo towers.
There is always construction at Metrotown, with the city’s 100-year plan for the neighbourhood in the works. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2024.
A low-rise beige apartment building features a red patio umbrella on one balcony.
The demoviction saga is still unfolding, with 29 other developments with tenant assistance projects underway, according to the city’s website. Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheung, 2024.
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