October 11, 2011

Revitalizing Neighbourhoods

From once-polluted shoreline, industrial land and former sawmills, Vancouver’s False Creek, SoMa and River District areas are emerging as outstanding examples of urban renewal.

By STEVEN THRENDYLE

Decades after artists and bohemians sought cheap rents in vermin-infested loft space throughout inner cities across North America, the conversion of warehouses and industrial land into vibrant urban neighbourhoods – “gentrification,” as it’s known – continues. Vancouver planners and developers have been at the vanguard of this New Urbanism movement. False Creek, Mount Pleasant/SoMa (South Main) and River District/East Fraserlands are testing grounds for some of the most intriguing examples of urban renewal in Canada.

It all started on the south shore of False Creek with the creation of Granville Island, a partnership of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. and the city of Vancouver. Here and on the adjacent Fairview Slopes, a massive swath of polluted shoreline and industrial land was transformed into one of the most walkable, scenic, and affordable neighbourhoods in Canada – not to mention an international tourist attraction. “Locavore” markets featuring fresh meat, produce and fish, theatre companies, an award-winning micro-brewery, the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design have cemented Granville Island’s reputation as a truly special place to live.

Since that time, planning and development of the entire horseshoe of land encircling False Creek has stayed true to the original Granville Island spirit by creating new green spaces with dozens of kilometres of walking trails, and creating award-winning community centres and commercial space which bring citizens together. False Creek, however, is far from finished, thanks to the housing legacy left by the 2010 Winter Games Athletes’ Village, the new BC Place Stadium and expansion of the Canada Line SkyTrain system. South-east False Creek will soon be surrounded by several exciting new developments such as Cressey’s James, Bastion’s stunning 24-storey Opsal, and Aquilini Development’s Maynards Block. Stores and services are starting to establish themselves in an area that has been a retail no man’s land for decades, and the state-of-the-art Creekside Community Centre is open 24 hours a day for the “always on” breed of international worker that these projects hope to attract.

South and east of False Creek, it’s been six years since Time magazine first identified Vancouver’s emerging SoMa (south Main) scene. “Successive waves of artists, media types and other loft dwellers kicked off a gradual process of gentrification; the day young families started infiltrating its neighbourhoods, East Van’s journey to respectability was complete.” Actually, Mount Pleasant, as it’s also known, has always attracted families. Traditionally, Main Street businesses were the solid backbone of commerce that you might see along any arterial road – paint, used furniture, mattress, and appliance stores were here, along with a local Sally Ann. It was the kind of place where you went to purchase grout because a bathroom tile had worked loose and got a cheap haircut as well. Alas, Main Street north of Broadway had a decidedly seedier reputation after displaced sex trade workers were banished from the West End to a harsh industrial area nearby.

False Creek, Mount Pleasant/SoMa and River District/East Fraserlands are some of the most intriguing examples of urban renewal in Canada.

SoMa – the term first caught on when a hipster independent coffee shop opened more than 10 years ago – is a small portion of the much-larger Mount Pleasant neighbourhood which extends east to Commercial Drive and west to the border of the Cambie Street corridor. Some of the older businesses survive, but the scene has been considerably enlivened by cafés, book stores, restaurants, bike repair shops, art galleries and florists. North of Broadway, Amacon’s District and Onni’s Social are located a short walk from the SkyTrain station, while Bastion Development’s 3333 Main homes are farther south, in Mount Pleasant’s residential/commercial heart.

Whatever you call it, a walk around the neighbourhood confirms that there’s plenty of historical character (some of Vancouver’s most impressive home renos are located here), an abundance of community amenities, and outstanding access to public transit. While False Creek was re-created in the shadow of downtown office towers and SoMa was re-invented by stroller-pushing yoga moms, Vancouver’s River District is a complete re-imagining of a large parcel of land that still has connections to B.C.’s resource-based past.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the River District in South Vancouver a real estate project, or even a neighbourhood. It’s nothing less than a wholesale cultural and geographical transformation that will add a rather mind-boggling 7,000 new homes to a site formerly occupied by MacMillan Bloedel’s Canadian White Pine Mill. Freshly cut logs still lie nearby in booming grounds on the river, but the timber is now destined for processing in Asia. The 137-acre site is now better suited for family housing than it is for industrial purposes. There’s also an opportunity to learn from earlier development clusters west of the current site that were built in the 1990s. That first generation of homes suffered from lack of access to the river, and residents had to hop in their cars to get to big box retailers and services along Marine Drive.

With River District, Vancouver city planners and developer ParkLane Homes have learned their lesson. Forget being a LEED certified office building or apartment complex, River District is gunning for LEED Gold in the Neighbourhood department. Noted urban philosopher Andres Duany and architect James Cheng contributed their passionate ideas on how best to respect the significant history of the area despite the fact that the factory has been torn down.

Walking/biking trails wind along the banks of the Fraser. Wooden docks perched out over the river are peacefully occupied by fishermen trying their luck at catching salmon.

ParkLane’s building partner, Polygon, has successfully sold its first phase of New Water homes and it’s exciting to imagine what the place will look like when schools, community centres, commercial space, and kids of all ages are gathered together and interacting. It’s symbolic to note that the very first commercial development is already open. Like False Creek and SoMa, River District will become a community; yet another evolutionary marker on Vancouver’s historic journey.

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