Frances Bula is a Vancouver-based journalist who has been covering city politics and urban issues in the region for 20 years. She is the urban columnist for Vancouver magazine, where her work has earned multiple awards, including best column in Canada and best in British Columbia.
The new transit line has sparked a development boom unlike anything in the region’s history.
VANCOUVER, Canada — Vancouver’s Canada Line is an international transit model because of the innovative public-private partnership that built, funds and operates it.
But the light rail line is also becoming a model for spurring environmentally responsible growth around stations, where people will ride transit more and drive less. The Canada Line has sparked a development boom unlike anything in the region’s history.
The most striking transformation is happening in Richmond, a suburb south of Vancouver. Richmond was a bedroom community for decades. Since the late 1990s, it’s turned into the region’s primary settling point for Chinese immigrants. However, Richmond has still retained the look of a North American suburb, with a highway-like main street pocked with large malls and parking lots on either side.
Now, Richmond is the southern terminus of the Canada Line, with easy transit access to both Vancouver and the international airport. The train runs on an elevated track above the main street, No. 3 Road. Since the rail line opened in 2009, clusters of mid-rise apartment towers have gone up around stations. More are in the works. By 2040, Richmond expects to see 30,000 more people living around the line in its city center, and all the parking lots covered with buildings.
Richmond got a jump on development because officials there went into high planning gear as soon as plans for the line were announced. It had a new city center plan before the line opened. Developers lined up early with projects and kept coming after the 2010 Winter Olympics focused the world’s attention on Vancouver.
"It was a big priority for us," says Terry Crowe, Richmond’s planning director. “We wanted to take advantage of the line and we took the planning very seriously."
Vancouver is also seeing a development boom around the Canada Line. Near one station, a 1950s era indoor shopping mall called Oakridge is being redeveloped with 13 new apartment and office towers and more retail space. Oakridge is owned by a subsidiary of the Quebec credit union that is one of the main investors in the Canada Line project.
Elsewhere on the line, Vancouver currently has 12 projects approved, 13 applications underway, and 10 more inquiries. If everything gets built, that will add another 4,100 housing units to Cambie Street, whose previous life was as a sleepy row of single-family homes.
"The province and the city made a significant transit investment and now what we’re seeing is that people are greatly attracted to it," says Brian Jackson, Vancouver’s general manager of planning. "It's been a magnet for new development."
Vancouver got to its planning work a bit later than Richmond did. A Cambie Corridor plan was not finalized until 2011. But even before that happened, land values along the line soared and properties started trading hands.
The city’s major developers say they have one priority when they look at project sites these days – access to transit. “It used to be about location, location, location,” says the city’s most influential real estate marketer, Bob Rennie. “Now it’s transit, transit, transit."
Top image: The two largest islands in the forground are Richmond's Lulu and Sea Islands. The cities of Vancouver, North Vancouver and West Vancouver can be seen at the top. Photo by Donald E. Waite of Global Air Photos
This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.