Urban enclaves: Massive mixed-use transit-oriented developments taking root in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia

Urban enclaves: Massive mixed-use transit-oriented developments taking root in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia June 3, 2019

There has been an ongoing process towards the establishment of what I’ve termed urban enclaves – massive mixed-use transit-oriented developments – throughout Metro Vancouver with the first phases of these projects being delivered in 2019; however, there have been a couple of key junctures in this process that led to this rise of ‘cities within the city.’

The birth of this process locally began with the July 2011 adoption of MetroVancouver 2040: Shaping Our Future by Metro Vancouver, a regional federation of 21 municipalities, one electoral area and one Treaty First Nation. (A Treaty First Nation refers to a First Nation that has signed a modern treaty with the Government of British Columbia.) This regional planning document laid out the details of a regional growth strategy (RGS) that provided recommendations to guide municipal development decisions in order to sustainably accommodate the addition of more than 1 million new residents anticipated to arrive by 2040. Among its many recommendations, the RGS laid out the locations and definitions for what it termed “urban centres (UCs)” and “frequent-transit development areas (FTDAs)” among several other similar designations for the entire region. These designations in the RGS, particularly UCs and FTDAs, provided direction to not only municipalities, but also developers and investors and specified where growth and density would be encouraged in Metro Vancouver’s highly land-constrained market.

The second phase in the evolution of urban enclaves, which ran from 2012 to 2017, was the result of a confluence of factors. Ongoing price increases for all commercial asset types, declining rental vacancy, rising house prices, the increasing pinch of the perennial region-wide shortage of developable land and (at last!) definitive planning direction that specified where higher densities could occur. This planning direction provided greater certainty to developers and investors, allowing them to re-examine retail assets with a large land-use component (primarily, but not exclusively, traditional car-centred regional shopping malls) that were located in many of the UCs and FTDAs outlined in the RGS. This (re)evaluation by developers and investors used different metrics than were previously utilized to determine the value of shopping centres. Developers and investors who understood the potential advantage in unlocking the new value of these sites positioned themselves during this period to acquire building assets or land and/or review their existing portfolio holdings in these areas (although a couple of key sites were acquired in 2010 – while the RGS planning document was in process – by purchasers who, perhaps saw the writing on the wall.)

Concurrently in this five-year period, municipalities in Metro Vancouver were responding to the RGS document that required them to update their respective zoning bylaws or, in many cases, the community or master plans for the UCs and FTDAs identified in their communities to mesh with the goals outlined in the RGS. The earliest of these plans were ready by 2012 and continued to be rolled out through 2017 in communities such as Burnaby, Vancouver and Surrey. Construction had largely commenced by 2015-16 on this first wave of urban enclaves with their first phases set for delivery in 2019. Similar developments in other municipalities, including Richmond and Coquitlam, remain in progress. The idea of building up density on nodes along rapid transit is not unique to Metro Vancouver – it has been occurring in some form or another in land-constrained markets around the world for years – but the scale and number of such developments occurring in such a small geographic area likely represent a phenomenon that is likely unique to the region.

These urban enclaves are the tangible manifestations of the future that Metro Vancouver staff envisioned and planned for back in 2011 in order to keep the region liveable as it grows and expands. As more and more people start to call these high-density nodes home, people’s expectations of how and where they live in the region will change. People moving to, and living in, Metro Vancouver in the coming decades will become more accustomed to tower living, but the expectations of what will be available at their doorstep is also evolving to include not only retail, hospitality and entertainment options, but parks, community centres, medical services and the transit options necessary to get around the city as the cost of owning and operating a vehicle becomes prohibitive. Effectively, these compact communities will evolve into microcities, a trend already present in much larger global cities such as New York, London and various Gulf State cities. Metro Vancouver’s urban enclaves have come to represent the beacons of density envisioned by city planners, progressive politicians and transit advocates alike.

To learn more, please read Avison Young’s topical report Future Forward: The Rise of Urban Enclavesin Metro Vancouver.

(Andrew Petrozzi is a Principal of Avison Young and Practice Leader, Research (BC). He is based in the company’s Vancouver office.)