The City of Burnaby is on track to win an award, if it exists, for the most extreme residential densification in western Canada.
Tower development at Metrotown has leapt into an affordable rental housing zone and displaced hundreds of long-term tenants. People protesting against these “demovictions” occupied the office of Mayor Derek Corrigan in early March. At Lougheed Town Centre further east, Shape Properties has set up a site office for “The City of Lougheed”, promising 23 or more “stunning high-rise towers” in close proximity, stretching as high as 55 storeys. The same developer has started construction on “Amazing Brentwood”, depicted here, to include 11 residential towers as well as a redeveloped shopping mall and street-facing retail space.
Brentwood is located 20 to 25 minutes by rapid transit from downtown Vancouver. It’s sometimes promoted as a new Yaletown, referring to a noisy but fashionable district in the city. The comparison comes, perhaps, because Yaletown was also built over an old industrial area. But Yaletown has water views and quick access on foot to culture and entertainment; Brentwood, as its 1996 development plan points out, is bisected by the provincial Lougheed Highway, and at this moment it’s struggling to put together a single block of walkable street life.
The hope, as expressed in the plan, is to salvage livability by enabling walkable retail use on the side streets, and by creating medium density housing zones on the perimeters.
“The “village” concept is one related to human scale, streetscape character, and an integrative approach to differing proximate uses. The general urban design concept for street frontages in the town centre is to create low-scale and continuous building frontages along streets. A promenade quality is encouraged for street frontages with generous paved pedestrian ways, street trees, building canopies, and pedestrian related uses.”
Co-tourist Robert Smarz and I visited Brentwood recently to look for its softer side. Bob became impatient with the noise and the views. We ate at Brown’s Social House, part of a very successful and reliably average regional restaurant chain, and then we walked south and west through a landscape of disappearing one-storey industrial shops to the Gilmore transit station.
The Brentwood-Gilmore eruption reflects a Burnaby-wide development pattern that favours either tower clusters or wide tracts of detached housing. Where there are significant pockets of newer low-rise housing, they may be a 30-minute walk from the mall (McPherson Avenue, east of Metrotown) or a 15-minute walk from the mall (Noel Drive, west of Lougheed Town Centre) but they will not likely have quick access to a pedestrian-oriented commercial area. Such areas barely exist in Burnaby ; the big exception is Hastings Street, where the pleasant commercial strip is undernourished in terms of nearby housing density.
TheTyee.ca, a news website, published a friendly review in August 2016 on the “Amazing Brentwood” project. In the comment thread, prominent urban planning academic Patrick Condon offered an exceptionally polite but ambivalent note on Burnaby’s high-rise focus. He blamed the problem on the 1990s-era Metro Vancouver regional plan, a far-fetched idea in my view; past and current regional plans have had limited influence, and the BC Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that (quoting reporter Kelly Sinoski of the Vancouver Sun) “the regional district has no authority to dictate land use in individual municipalities.” However, I agree with Mr. Condon’s suggestion that Burnaby should turn its attention to more human-scale development.
“We all wait with bated breath for the completion of Brentwood Town Centre and there is reason for hope. It could be a great place. But Metrotown, the old man of the group, is, to be fair, never likely to be a tourist destination. Built around enclosed malls on a giant “super block”, it is the opposite of urban. And yet we have to admire the fact that its shops are affordable and that unlike other North American malls, more than half of its customers arrive on transit. We also have to admire how many people live within walking distance of burnaby transit stations, a number that will only increase as the massive new towers now under construction are completed.
Me, I personally think Burnaby and the region took a wrong road when we chose to intensify development at station areas as the expense of every other part of the city. Burnaby districts along Canada Way, Lougheed Highway, Hastings Street, Boundary Road, and Willingdon Street could have, by now, been vibrant districts like Vancouver’s Broadway, Main, or 4th avenue. I think the Mayor, council, and planners are doing what they can, but its an upstream struggle against the tide of incentives associated with the Livable Region Strategic Plan and massive subsequent skytrain investment.
My advice for Burnaby is to turn their attention now to the crucial network of arterial streets mentioned above, making them vibrant mixed use districts rife with urban amenities and more affordable housing. Burnaby has, under Mayor Corrigan, consistently argued for more affordable and distributed transit, transit systems capable of serving the whole city, not just regional town centres. I trust he and others will continue to do so.”