When dignitaries cut the ribbon on the 128-acre brownfield site in South Vancouver now known as the River District in May 2011, the vision for a new urban community with a full range of amenities was front and centre.
“River District will attract a wide range of residents,” then-Mayor Gregor Robertson said at the time. “It will also include retail space, amenities that will allow people to live, to work, to play and go to school here in this neighbourhood.”
But many of those elements hinged on funding from government. With plans calling for 15,000 people when River District is fully built out, two schools are envisioned but the province has yet to commit funding. Civic funding for a community centre intended – in the words of Robertson – to “give the local community a place to connect to the river and … be a solid anchor where people can come together” never materialized.
But the community centre is now moving ahead after Vancouver city council approved a rezoning July 12 that handed River District developer Wesgroup extra density and a partial exemption from the city’s utilities development cost levy bylaw “in exchange for neighbourhood amenities including a community centre and required site drainage work.”
The result is a win for the community, and a testimony to the importance of collaboration in making sure projects live up to their original vision – and perhaps even exceed them.
“The city was underfunded to deliver the amenities that they had committed to from the original rezoning, so we found a value-add together to address how things had changed over the years and to get to that positive outcome that we want, the city wants … but that most critically the community needs,” Wesgroup director of development Graham Brewster said.
Wesgroup will deliver a 30,000-square-foot community centre with a 10,000-square-foot childcare facility as well as a public plaza in exchange for 443,442 square feet of residential density for a mix of residential strata units, secured rental housing and social housing.
The solution, developed in collaboration with the city, shows that megaprojects don’t have to be monolithic or inflexible.
“I think we’ve demonstrated that it’s not set in stone at the beginning,” Brewster said. “There are more positive outcomes to be had for the community.”
Brewster discussed the project’s challenges as part of an online panel discussion focused on megaprojects which the British Columbia chapter of the Urban Land Institute hosted on July 14.
While many megaprojects are launched as game-changers, nothing happens overnight. While the lead developer may have a vision for a site, it can run into changes within the surrounding community and municipal approval processes.
This is where key relationships need to be cultivated for long-term success.
“There’s a ton of bright people at the city that are extremely capable that understand the complexity and nuance of what the city has grown to,” Brewster said. “Those relationships, and that understanding with those core staff members who do understand how all these things come together and can help to guide something that’s got a greater objective through the process, is absolutely vital.”
The relationships were also critical when Wesgroup realized it would have to build a community centre because the city wouldn’t be able to deliver.
“When it became evident that it was on the never-ever plan based on funding, we look like the bad guy,” Brewster said. “We flipped that on its head and came to this solution, but it still took seven years.”
The result was not just a community centre, childcare spaces and a public plaza, but additional density that will provide more homes for more people.
It also answers the question fellow panellist Andrew Browne of Starlight Investments posed: “How can we do them better?”
“It’s not them and us,” added Gordon Harris, principal of Urban Land Advisors Inc. in Toronto and former CEO of SFU Community Trust in Burnaby, encouraging a collaborative approach to megaprojects. “We’re in it together, and together we can create more affordable housing, together we can perhaps shorten approval cycles, we can work together to plan infrastructure so we can open up some of those parcels that seem prohibitively expensive to develop today.”
“The common benefit is key to the success,” he said. “Let’s define what we really need, what we really want. How then do we work together? Common goals and shared outcomes are a wonderful thing.”