2024 could see real progress on Vancouver’s downtown waterfront

Comment: A new series of speculative designs illustrate a concept for what one local architect describes as ‘the station of the future.’

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Larry Beasley oversaw the development of some of Vancouver’s internationally renowned waterfront neighbourhoods as the city’s co-director of planning in the 1990s and 2000s. But one stubborn chunk of shoreline remained, in Beasley’s words, a “dead spot.”

Back in the ’90s, City Hall designed a plan for the central downtown waterfront — the property around the SeaBus terminal north of Waterfront Station, between CRAB Park and the port on the east end to Canada Place on the west. That plan went nowhere. Today, the land remains largely rail lines, gravel lots and service roads.

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VANCOUVER, BC - December 29, 2023 - Waterfront between Seabus terminal and crab park in Vancouver, BC, December 29, 2023. Redevelopment of property currently occupied by Helmet and tracks area. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) (Story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Waterfront between the SeaBus terminal and CRAB Park in Vancouver recently. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

The federal government, one of the long list of entities with an interest in the area, “just decided that they didn’t want to move on it,” Beasley recalled in a recent interview. “So it didn’t go anywhere. And that was typical of what the situation has been in the past.”

That has largely been the story for this prime but complicated area for decades.

But there is now some optimism there could finally be progress soon.

It’s hard to think of a single redevelopment in the region with the potential to be as transformative as Vancouver’s central downtown waterfront. But it is also a difficult endeavour for several reasons.

There is part of Canada’s busiest port to the east, active railways, a Helijet terminal, and one of Western Canada’s busiest multimodal transit hubs. There are private landowners, including Cadillac Fairview and Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot. All three levels of government and their various ministries and agencies are involved, including Transport Canada, the Port Authority, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Tourism B.C., PavCo, TransLink and the City of Vancouver. The Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations are also expected to participate in these discussions, as are Via Rail, CP and CN railways.

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VANCOUVER, BC - December 29, 2023 - Waterfront between Seabus terminal and crab park in Vancouver, BC, December 29, 2023. Redevelopment of property currently occupied by Helmet and tracks area. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) (Story by Dan Fumano) [PNG Merlin Archive]
Waterfront between SeaBus terminal and CRAB Park in Vancouver. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Beasley, who now runs a private planning consultancy firm, has been working on the project since he was contacted by Kerfoot’s company about five years ago.

From Beasley’s most recent meeting on this project, last month at City Hall, he said there seems to be “interest and an understanding that something needs to happen. And we’re feeling pretty optimistic about that.”

By the first half of 2024, the many interested parties are expected to commit to their roles and funding with a formal memorandum of understanding and “implementation agreement,” including “process, budget, staffing, roles and responsibilities” in the first half of this year, according to a memo in November from Vancouver city manager Paul Mochrie to the mayor and council.

Aerial looking at North Shore Mountains. Renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver's central downtown waterfront. - Image credit: Perkins & Will. For Dan Fumano
Aerial looking at North Shore Mountains. Speculative renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver’s central downtown waterfront. Photo by Perkins & Will

Describing the area as a “wasteland,” Premier David Eby hinted recently that while things were in the early stages, “very exciting discussions” were underway.

In a recent interview with Postmedia reporter Katie DeRosa, Eby said he sees a role for the province as a “facilitator” in talks between the various public and private entities “to work together on a vision for the waterfront that addresses some of the concerns that we have around, for example, a shortage of hotel rooms or extending the seawall or increasing tourism opportunities.”

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Several diverse groups are interested in this work, including some without any current authority or financial interest.

The Vancouver studio of Perkins & Will, an international architecture firm with dozens of offices in eight countries, has been working for about two and a half years on conceptual designs for what the waterfront development could look like. The firm has not been contracted by any of the property owners in the area, and has done this work purely on a speculative basis.

“It’s not common” for a firm such as Perkins & Will to take on this kind of work on spec, said Adrian Watson, design director of Perkins & Will’s Vancouver studio, although “it’s not without precedent.”

But this is no ordinary piece of land, Watson said.

Lower concourse level. Renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver's central downtown waterfront. - Image credit: Perkins & Will. For Dan Fumano
Lower concourse level. Renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver’s central downtown waterfront. Photo by Perkins & Will

“If you were looking for one site in Vancouver that, as an architect, you would hope to be able to influence, this is most definitely it,” Watson said. “I can’t think of a single site globally that has marine services, mass transit, heavy rail, potentially high-speed rail, and aviation services on one site. … This seems to be quite unique in that respect, and its complexity is immense.”

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Some of Perkins & Will’s earlier renderings circulated publicly last year. A new round of illustrations, created in recent weeks and seen publicly here for the first time, show greater detail of what Watson describes as “the station of the future.”

This speculative design envisions a public realm that allows pedestrians to walk from Cordova Street to a public waterfront park, through an expansive, day-lit concourse over the rail lines. To the west of the park, the illustrations include six towers of varying heights standing over the approximate location of the SeaBus terminal, and another two new towers where Granville Square stands today. The illustrations also include reimagined rail, air and marine connections.

Whatever development, if any, eventually moves ahead on this site will probably “look nothing like what we’ve drawn,” Watson said. “But if the fundamentals are right, that’s the important thing. … What we’re trying to say to everyone is that the city needs to take this site seriously. It needs committed vision. This is an idea. Hopefully, it’s provocative enough for people to sit up and take notice.”

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In April 2022, ABC Coun. Lisa Dominato and Green Coun. Pete Fry introduced a motion directing city staff to “re-engage” the various partners as well as the public, with an aim to “reinvigorate a comprehensive plan for the central waterfront.”

Dominato said the project could be “a legacy for future generations,” with myriad benefits to the local economy, transportation, and tourism, as well as creating public access from Cordova Street to the waterfront.

Activated public realm. Renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver's central downtown waterfront. - Image credit: Perkins & Will. For Dan Fumano
Activated public realm. Speculative renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver’s central downtown waterfront. Photo by Perkins & Will

It’s been slow going, she said, but “I do think it’s gaining momentum.”

Fry said: “Even though this is a big building opportunity for the city, we are almost junior partners” to other entities such as the federal government and First Nations.

Cory Douglas, a Squamish Nation member and Coast Salish cultural consultant, and Ginger Gosnell-Myers, another prominent figure in the local planning sector and the City of Vancouver’s former manager of Indigenous relations, have also been contracted by the private landowners.

“My purpose on this project is to identify forms of Coast Salish cultural expression within the overall conceptual design,” Douglas said.

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Aerial looking downtown and beyond. Renderings created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver's central downtown waterfront. - Image credit: Perkins & Will. For Dan Fumano
Rendering created by the Vancouver studio of international architecture firm Perkins & Will, illustrating a proposed concept for the redevelopment of Vancouver’s central downtown waterfront. Photo by Perkins & Will

A working group, including some prominent names from the local urban planning world, has also been working for a decade on this project.

They have no financial skin in the game — “no axe to grind” — and are working on an entirely volunteer basis “only interested in the public interest,” said group member Mary Pynenburg, New Westminster’s past director of planning.

“It’s been an absolute ton of work over many years,” said fellow group member Christina DeMarco, former lead planner for Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy.

But, she said, it has so far been “a lot of talk and no action.”

They will be among many, many interested parties hoping 2024 will be the year for that action.

— with files from Katie DeRosa

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