November 7, 2019

The Grand Bargain in Burnaby

This aerial over Burnaby was taken last Thursday, flying out of YVR.

From Collingwood Village to Royal Oak, from Gilmore to SFU, this is how Burnaby stung its apartment districts along Skytrain.

It’s a half century of shaping development according to the Grand Bargain.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, planners and councils struck a compact with their citizens – the blue-collar workers who had achieved the Canadian Dream: a single-family house in a subdivision.  The deal: City Hall won’t rezone a blade of grass in your single-family zones.  But we will pile the density up in highrises, lots of them, clustered around where we expect rapid transit to come.

This is what that looks like. A Cordillera of Highsrises and a prairie of low-scale suburbia. Little in between.  Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.

More here in The Grand Bargain, Illustrated.

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Following the election of a majority TEAM council in 1972, the residential highrise era came to a (temporary) end in the City of Vancouver.  In part it was a market and economic response to an explosive decade of overdevelopment, but mostly it was a blowback from citizens who feared the West End-ization of their neighbourhoods, particularly Kitsilano.
And so there were almost no highrises built in the city from the mid-70s to the late-80s, when the condominium boom began.  But that wasn’t true elsewhere in the region.
Indeed, the Metrotown urban centre was just picking up steam, particularly with the prospect of rapid-transit (finally) being built on the old BCER right-of-way.  But it was the openness of the Burnaby council to construction in their designated apartment districts that saw the construction of new towers, initially near Central Park.
Each decade since, new highrises have been built, with a notable increase of supertall towers in the last half decade.  Here’s a comparison on Patterson Avenue, where the Aldynne is rising above its neighbours.

Height is not the only distinction.  The problem with towers was typically how they treated the ground plane – in the past with parking lots and porte cocheres, like this:

Now the treatment is more Vancouver Style, with townhouses providing the building edge:

Compare this with the medium-rise apartment block down the street:

The uphappy front lawn is the last vestige of suburbia from the 1960-70s – and, given Burnaby council’s tolerance for the demolition of old rental apartment blocks, probably not long for this world.

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I asked below whether Brentwood Town Centre was the largest single project ever seen in Burnaby. Should have checked my e-mail to see that this just came in, via Vancity Buzz:


A master-planned community called Concord Brentwood is the latest development from Concord Pacific Developments Inc., renowned for its skyline-defining communities on Vancouver’s False Creek and Toronto’s lakefront.

Concord Brentwood will create a bustling community according to Concord Pacific senior vice president Matt Meehan. “Our next project in Burnaby, Concord Brentwood, will see 26 acres in the Brentwood neighbourhood transform into a beautiful and diverse mixed-use park-side community that completes the exciting revitalization of the Brentwood Town Centre neighbourhood.” …

Designed by award-winning architect James K.M. Cheng of Vancouver, Concord Brentwood will consist of 10 towers, most between 40 and 45 storeys tall. Tower 1 of Phase 1 will consist of 426 units on 45 storeys.

I don’t know if this a rendering of the massing for the proposal or the final product.  But if the latter, the architecture looks pretty blah.  I still have no explanation for why in this region there is such a reluctance to use colour, why the palette seems so constrained – off-white or gray, beige and green glass.

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Change and development along the rapid-transit lines as part of “Skywalking through Burnaby” on Sunday:

A big hole at the Brentwood Town Centre redevelopment.  Is this the the biggest single complex in the municipality’s history?


At the Commercial-Broadway station, the new east platform for westbound trains is visible:


Already the station handles more passengers in a day than YVR airport.  With the opening of the Evergreen line later, the crush would be unmanageable without a platform expansion.

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SKYWALKING THROUGH BURNABY: A Tour of Town Centres on Rail

Sunday, May 1, 2016

1:30 pm to 5:00 pm

Bob Prittie Metrotown Branch, Burnaby Public Library


Join Gordon Price for a Skytrain “walk” through the City of Burnaby’s town centres. This city walking tour will begin at the Bob Prittie Metrotown Branch of the Burnaby Public Library with a talk by Gordon and David Pereira about the development of the City of Burnaby and its town centres. Gordon will explain some of the planning theory and trends that have shaped the City of Burnaby and some of the forces likely to shape its future. He will then lead participants onto the Skytrain for a visit to Burnaby’s town centres. The talk will last about a half hour. The walk will begin at around 2 and conclude between 4 and 5 pm.

People from Burnaby or anywhere in the region interested in how a vision from the mid-20th-century (“Cities in a Sea of Green”) has shaped a city for the 21st century. Some understanding of urban planning and design ideas is helpful. Anecdotes from the past are also welcome.

This is a walking tour. Participants will ride the Skytrain, visit Burnaby’s town centres and then return, if they wish, to the Bob Brittie Metrotown library. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes and be prepared for rain if necessary. The walk is free but participants are expected to cover the cost of their Skytrain ticket.


This event is brought to you by the City Program.

For more information, visit Continuing Studies online.

REGISTER for this event.

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809 West 23rd Avenue

The last PT Guest Editor wrote about comparing Burnaby’s density to Vancouver’s in Who Does Density Better?
A 1920s-era church at 23rd Ave & Willow could be saved if it’s turned into 6 townhouses with the flexibility of 4 lock-off suites. It’s 600m from King Edward Station and the neighbours are outraged it will no longer be a Single Family Home (SFH). There seems to be more outrage about this lot than there is about skyscrapers going up in Burnaby.
Let’s start with what we know then learn a bit more:

  • Metro Vancouver has mountains to the north, a border to the south, and an ocean to the west. Therefore it can only expand to the east, which it has been doing. We need to limit urban sprawl for all kinds of environmental, health, and economic reasons.
  • It is estimated that by 2030 the region’s population will be about 1 million more people than it is today. They will need places to live.
  • The City of Vancouver has, for about 2-4 mayors now, been encouraging density and running on platforms of density.
  • Friendly-density or “gentle densification” describes alternatives to high-rises such as 3-7 story multi-unit dwellings, townhouses, quadruplexes/fourplexes with a coach house, etc. and this density debate article is more amusing/sad 4 years later, depending on your point of view.
  • Transit-oriented development (TOD) “is a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport and often incorporates features to encourage transit ridership.”
  • The Marpole Community Plan, approved in 2014, allows for RM8 (Townhouse, Rowhouse) and RM9 (Townhouse/Rowhouse/Low-rise).
  • The Cambie Corridor Planning Program Phase 3 was approved by City Council in April, 2015. It covers Ontario to Oak Streets, 16th Ave south to the river. Since then the City has held launch events, walking tours, and workshops on Phase 3. It is currently in progress.
  • There was an open house in September, 2015. From the City’s website: “Staff have completed their initial review of the rezoning application and have requested revisions to the application including changes to improve the heritage conservation approach, explore further on-site tree retention and improve the relationship of the proposal to the surrounding residential neighbourhood. Once revisions are received staff will notify the public and invite further community feedback.
  • I asked staff what “improve the relationship of the proposal to the…neighbourhood” meant. Basically, due to feedback, revisions have been requested. They want to give people more time to give feedback. They would like to hear from people why this church is worth saving.
  • There is still time to provide online feedback on this development application (with no clear deadline in sight).

Hair splitting leads to split ends:

  • This property is within the Cambie Corridor near Douglas Park but about 1 block outside the area where changes are likely to be permitted.
  • Once Phase 3 is complete, it could be applicable without rezoning but this application was submitted months before the completion of Phase 3.
  • The residents who don’t want it say it’s spot zoning.
  • The City and developer say it’s not spot zoning it’s an application to rezone from RS-5 (Single Family) District to CD-1 (Comprehensive Development) District under the City’s Heritage Policies and Guidelines, including the Heritage Action Plan.

This Vancouver Courier article from October, 2015 explains what’s going on in depth.
What do you think?
SFH – (Single Family Home) is also the abbreviation for at least 2 other meanings. Those who don’t want more density in Vancouver – are they Stronger, Faster, Healthier or So F’ing High?
When people are outraged at building townhouses on a large lot in Vancouver, is it a sign that the reality of density, the people who want different housing options, and the future Vancouverites who don’t usually get a say are winning?

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This is astonishing, and not in a good way:



From Business in Vancouver:

A wave of land speculators led by mainland Chinese buyers is snapping up old Burnaby rental apartment buildings, driving per door prices above $350,000 and razing the units for high-rise condominium construction.

The land rush is centred around four transit-linked Burnaby town centres where at least three dozen apartment buildings have been bought for demolition in the past year. Unlike Vancouver, Burnaby has no restrictions on tearing down low-cost rental apartments and building condominiums in their place. Last year, the suburban city issued 419 demolition permits and are averaging 34 per month so far in 2015. …

“The apartments are mostly in two and three storey wood-frame buildings that are 40 or 50 years old, with rents below the Metro Vancouver average.

According to Williams, all of the apartments deemed for development are being replaced by condominiums that will be sold to investors. “Most of these will be put back into the rental market, but they won’t rent for $850,” Williams said. Generally, tenants are given one-year notice and are offered an opportunity to buy or rent in the new condo tower, he said. …

“I have 1,000 buyers looking for apartment sites,” said Bill Goold, a specialist in multi-family sales. He said it is not uncommon to have 15 buyers lined up for an open house. “We are seeing multiple bids.”

Goold confirmed that nearly all his recent Burnaby land development sales are to investors from mainland China, which he visited last month on a successful sales trip. “One buyer from China flew over here and paid $40 million cash for a Metrotown site,”  said Goold.


I’m shocked, actually.  I has assumed Burnaby had many of the same protections as Vancouver.

For decades now it has not been possible in this City to convert purpose-built rental apartment blocks to condominium, or even demolish them unless replacement stock was provided and the existing tenants had supported the changes in a super-majority vote.  Nor was it even possible in many neighbourhoods like the West End to replace an existing low-rise walk-up with a larger building, thereby diminishing development incentive, assuming it was even allowed under a rate-of-change provision that regulates the speed of change.

A problem had arisen in the late 1980s in Kerrisdale: a few 1940-50s walk-ups were demolished and replaced with condo highrises, generally around 20 storeys.  In addition to the loss of lower-income housing, there was also a drop in density – a 30-unit rental building was replaced with a condo of large expensive units with less people overall.  And then, of course, there were issues of view blockage, evictions and fear of accelerating change in the neighbourhood.

From council’s point of view, it was lose-lose-lose: less rental stock, less density, less affordability.  If that trend had extended to blocks of affordable housing in South Broadway, the West End, Mount Pleasant, it was obvious to the NPA council at that time that they would have a full-blown political crisis on their hands.  Indeed, they did.  Jim Green of COPE came close to threatening Gordon Campbell’s majority in the 1990 civic election on this housing issue.

So it was stopped through changes of policy and zoning.  Stability, over the objections of many apartment owners, was restored; demolitions and conversions were no longer serious options.  Rents, regulated provincially, have remained relatively constant, but the cash flow from the aging building stock has been sufficient to maintain them in good condition.  Other than the occasional ‘renoviction’, there has been stability in the rental market – still tight, but at least affordable for middle and lower-middle-income renters, particularly if they can save on the cost of transportation thanks to the frequent transit network.

But recent tremors seem to be shaking that stability in Burnaby.


South Metrotown in Burnaby


Unlike the previous trend, this one is being exacerbated by the impact of international capital, able to bid up properties beyond the constraints of rents determined by the income levels of local renters.  If this stock is now subject to speculative pressures disconnected from Vancouver incomes,

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From Stu Ramsey, the Manager of Transportation Planning in Burnaby:

In 2010, we began a process to develop new street standards for all the streets in our four Town Centres.  We went back to first principles to think about how we would design the entire street for all modes, ages, and abilities.  We wanted something that would be both attractive and functional, and would reflect the City’s environmental, social, and economic goals.  And we wanted it to apply consistently to entire neighbourhoods, not just a few high-profile streets.  We’re very excited about the end-product.

On January 19, Burnaby Council received our report on this initiative and supported it enthusiastically.  I’d be interested in any thoughts you may have on this.

Here’s the report, with excerpts below:




 The arising collective vision for the public realm is to design streetscapes to:

  1. Enhance the experience for visitors, the business community and residents by improving the safety, access, aesthetics and greening of boulevards.
  2. Be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, by adding to the natural landscape, reducing waste, conserving resources, and working with natural systems.
  3. Be strategic in nature by establishing a hierarchy of priorities and using design standards to minimize the on-going maintenance required.
  4. Enhance the experience of travel by alternative modes of transportation within the city by creating enjoyable and safe environments for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and the general travelling public.
  5. Be safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities, and not be a barrier to anyone’s participation in the community.



Some of the illustrations:

 Bike Path


 Centre Boulevard with Rain Garden and Pedestrian Lighting


Details and further illustrations here.

Comments can go to Stu  – stuart.ramsey (at) Burnaby (dot) ca

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