Metro Vancouver’s industrial zones directly employ about 235,000 people, or more than 20 per cent of workers in the region. Waterfront and trackside industry are important to the success of Port Metro Vancouver, a complex that stretches along 600 kilometres of coastline and river’s edge.
However, most of the region’s available industrial land is occupied, leaving limited room for growth. One result is that land costs are high in comparison with other Canadian and U.S. cities. The federally-regulated Port authority is currently conducting a public review of land use, and has made noises about annexing agricultural land in the municipality of Delta. A consultation report from the process suggests that this proposal has run into considerable opposition.
Metro Vancouver’s regional government authority is focused on making better use of land that is already dedicated to industry. In addition to a recent land inventory and maps, the authority’s website offers an extensive discussion on whether we can ”intensify” industrial land use, creating more jobs and cash flow from existing space.
The consultants’ report that kicked off the intensification study in 2011 is pessimistic. (The consultant team included our friend Jamie Vann Struth.) The report notes that manufacturing, wholesale trade and warehousing are the key uses for industrial land in Greater Vancouver, and technological change is tending to reduce employment in these sectors. Further, Greater Vancouver already has “better overall utilization of its industrial land than most comparable jurisdictions,” and there is no compelling economic reason for further densification. “The densities being achieved reflect the types of users seeking industrial land, many of which have a transportation component that requires large surface areas for loading and tractor trailer manoeuvring.”
In more recent work, the regional government authority appears to disagree with its consultants. A May 2012 staff report suggests that, in many cases, local governments have helped to create industrial sprawl. ”In typical industrial developments, site coverage is seldom maximized. Using the airspace above warehouses is rare. Surface parking and poorly used storage yards are prevalent…a number of municipal industrial zones limit building height, building site coverage, and floor area ratios, and may require excessive building setbacks and landscaping which reduce building size potential.” The same report presents four examples of more intense industrial land use, including the property shown at the top of this post.
My own bias is to look for opportunities for densification. It has to be recognized, however, that the clearest opportunities in this direction are related to allowing non-industrial uses in industrial zones. Our newish “business park” in Maple Ridge combines milling and fabrication with dance and martial arts studios and retail outlets. In the words of the Vance/Vann Struth report, “even the more conventional industrial areas have significant employment in sectors that appear to have little requirement for industrial land.”
This trend jacks up the price of land for bona fide industrial customers and sucks potential jobs and leasing revenues from walkable, transit-friendly urban villages. But the consultants waffle about what should be done, and so will I; except to suggest that if dance studios are permitted in industrial parks, then small fabricators and wholesalers should be allowed to operate in commercial and even some residential areas, as in Courtenay’s Tin Town. This recommendation may be trivial, given the scale of industries that the port and the railways are concerned with, but it would open up new business opportunities and make urban life more interesting.