Earlier this month, the Province of British Columbia announced that it will introduce new legislation requiring municipal governments to designate transit-oriented development areas in their cities and allow high-density development.
Those transit-oriented development areas will consist of two types: those within 800 m of a SkyTrain station and those within 400 m of a bus exchange (with variations for municipalities outside of the Metro Vancouver region).
In those designated areas, municipalities will have to allow housing developments that meet the Province's new height and density standards, defined in tiers based on proximity, with the highest density in the centre of the area. Additionally, municipalities will be asked to remove restrictive minimum parking requirements to allow that amount of parking to be determined on a project-by-project basis.
Housing developments within 200 m of a SkyTrain station will have the highest minimum allowable density — a floor space ratio of 5.0 — and the highest minimum allowable height — 20 storeys. Minimum densities and heights will then decrease for sites further away from transit hubs, to an FSR of 3.0 and a minimum height of eight storeys for sites in the Metro Vancouver region.
Minimum density and heights per transit-oriented development area.(Province of British Columbia)
The Province projects that this change could result in an increase of 100,000 new housing units across BC in the next 10 years, and it appears to be a more achievable vision than other recent announcements, such as allowing secondary suites and multiplexes, as there will likely be more interest from large-scale developers in high-density developments than there are homeowners in secondary suites and multiplexes — although those undoubtedly do not hurt the goal of increasing the housing supply.
One such developer with plenty of interest in transit-oriented development is PCI Developments, whose Marine Gateway project around the Canada Line SkyTrain's Marine Drive Station has been cited as one of the earliest examples of a successful transit-oriented development. PCI Developments is also working on the King George Hub around the Expo Line SkyTrain's King George Station, as well as two projects at future stations of the Broadway Subway.
In an interview with STOREYS, PCI Developments President Tim Grant discusses what PCI has learned from its previous projects, the complexity of these kind of projects, and how sentiments around transit-oriented development have changed in recent years.
The Province won't be providing its policy manual with further details until December, but what is your initial reaction to the announcement?
I think the quick reaction to the provincial announcement would be that the Province's guidance and continued stated priority for transit-oriented development is making a difference in the region. We're seeing that it's setting a bit of a tone in that municipalities are hopefully increasingly adopting and understanding its importance.
Any concerns or questions you think will need to be answered?
I think it certainly seems like a high-level expectation and I think there are a lot of details that need to be worked out about how that gets addressed. The couple municipalities that we are working with have been indicating that over the last week or so that they're still figuring out how it all gets translated into community planning and the various developments.
But I think, just in general, that high-level tone is positive and really important.
The Marine Gateway project is often cited as a good example of a successful transit-oriented development. What did you guys take away from that project?
The Marine Gateway project was built shortly after the Canada Line opened, and that was after a four-year approval process that ultimately culminated in very strong support from the City and senior government. I think what we took away from that is that transit-oriented development really provides a unique opportunity to be building complete communities and addressing a number of priorities together.
In the case of that project, it was integrated with the station after it was built, it has proven to be a very in-demand area for people to live. The retail was much needed in that neighbourhood and has proven to be successful, and also at that time the City had a priority to make sure there was good job space there. That was more challenging, but we were able to incorporate that because of the success of the other components.
That model is something that we've tried to keep in mind as we moved to other parts of the city. I look at our South Granville project that's currently under construction and I think that was a similar approach of being able to address some of the priorities — notably market and below-market rental housing, office space, a grocery, all directly integrated with that station. I think our other proposals that are coming forward, within the Broadway Plan and our proposal for Marine Gateway II in South Vancouver, are kind of continuing that theme.
Some portions of the King George Hub have opened while others are still under construction, but what have you seen from the early stages of the King George Hub project?
King George is a very large project. We got involved with that property just over 10 years ago, and it started with the first phase — the Coast Capital Savings' head office. We're now building the fourth and fifth phase — we just recently started construction on a purpose-built rental tower, which is our fifth phase.
The King George Hub project was a bit of different one because it was an Expo Line station that, since it was built, had really just been a surface parking lot with a small hotel and a smaller medical/dental office building. So to add the retailers, the two office buildings, and a significant amount of housing, I think it's been really positive and it's turned into, in our view, a very vibrant and attractive place to live and a growing part of our region.
PCI's Spring Street project in Port Moody, another transit-oriented development, had an open house this week. How has the community there reacted to that project?
That community has more of a history in terms of being concerned about transit-oriented development. It's a unique station in that it's one the lowest-performing stations in terms of ridership in the whole transit network, and I think a large part of that is because development around it has been very slow to pick up.
But I think now, this new mayor and council group is very much recognizing the importance of transit-oriented development and is working closely with the Province to not only make sure that developers like ourselves in close proximity to that station are able to move forward and build the kind of projects that Port Moody needs, but also the Province directly has land at that station and is planning on supporting a number of new developments in that area. It's a really interesting collaboration between ourselves, the Province, TransLink, and other private developers in that area. That station, I think, could change very positively in a relatively short period of time.
Our open house, we feel that there was a good level of support for what we're proposing and people are recognizing the opportunity here. In the case of our development, there are various aspects of it that I think are resonating well with a lot of the different community organizations. The biggest thing is housing. I think everyone is experiencing our extreme affordability issues. I think there's an awareness that new developments like this on transit are hopefully a potential way of addressing the issue and encouraging people to make sustainable transportation choices.
Any interest in any future transit-oriented developments, perhaps along the upcoming Surrey-Langley Extension?
We'd love to. I think our desire to be located near transit is, hopefully, fairly obvious. We're doing a project on Broadway and Arbutus in direct partnership with TransLink. We're really proud that they were willing to partner with us on that development. It's the first development TransLink is directly participating in as a developer. We're always keen on opportunities.
Have you seen a wider shift in sentiment around transit-oriented development in the last 10 or so years, since around the time of the Marine Gateway project?
I think we've definitely seen a sentiment shift. I think one of the best examples of that is the Broadway Plan. When that went to Vancouver City Council in Spring 2022, I think that was a bit of a turning point in that there was more balance to that discussion and it was less just about height — which has traditionally been a big topic of discussion in Vancouver — and more recognizing the opportunities around housing and housing on transit.
One thing I have been thinking about is how the work-from-home phenomenon aligns with transit-oriented development. Do you think it changes or impacts transit-oriented development in any way?
I think our transportation patterns have changed. I think what's interesting for a region like Vancouver is its transit ridership has recovered, I believe, almost better than any jurisdiction in North America. So, although people's travel patterns or times may have changed, the importance of transit and the use of transit hasn't.
Transit-oriented development and having a full mix of uses in those developments — I think experts would say that that's also a way you leverage transit investment best, because it's not just about a commute every morning and a return home in the evening. You're gonna have some people coming to work at those developments, you're gonna have people coming to shop at those developments, and you're gonna hopefully have more people coming to live at that development. It creates a more efficient use of transit and counter-flow instead of making it purely commuter-driven.
I think the other angle that's important is that one of the biggest barriers to come out of the questioning of the office environment is that commute. I think people don't want to make the commute. So if you're located near transit and making that commute more seamless, less expensive, more environmentally friendly, we think that offices that are positioned in close proximity to transit are going to be prove to be more successful in the long-term.
What advice would you give to other developers who are looking at transit-oriented developments? Anything to keep in mind or be cautious about?
No question, it is more complicated, especially just making all the different uses work together. When you add in the element of working with the transit authorities, there's certainly additional complication that is brought to that.
The two examples that come to mind are our Marine Gateway project, where we were excavating a five-level parkade right adjacent to an operating transit station, so we had to spend a lot more time than typical development ensuring that we weren't doing anything to disrupt that critical transit infrastructure. The second example is South Granville Station. We had to go through a unique approval process so that we could also deliver components of that station and we're working under a very rigid timeline with the Broadway Subway Project, and there's lots of additional reporting and checks and balances that come with that.
Transit infrastructure is really scarce, and it's really important that the best opportunity be realized at all these stations, and I think that's the big thing out of the Province's legislation — highlighting how important it is that we're getting suitable density and mix of uses at all stations. I think it's more complicated, but from a broader civic perspective, it's the right thing to be doing.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
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