By Jeff Lee, Matt Robinson & Brian Morton, Vancouver Sun March 21, 2016
Metrotown Towers in Burnaby, BC Wednesday, May 29, 2014.
Photograph by: Jason Payne , Vancouver Sun
Burnaby is putting up a forest of highrise residential towers over the next 25 years, far outstripping anything contemplated by Vancouver.
Targeting land around rapid transit nodes and four malls — Metrotown, Brentwood, Lougheed and Edmonds, developers have at least 106 highrise residential buildings with more than 30,000 units proposed or under construction. Of those, 47 are 40 storeys or more in height, according to data collected by a real estate expert with Colliers International. By comparison, there are 68 highrises under development in Vancouver, of which only 13 are 40 storeys or taller.
The scale of the development is dramatically reshaping Burnaby, which has long been content to be a bedroom community to Vancouver and its job-centric downtown core. Burnaby’s town centres developed as local or regional malls surrounded by low-density rental housing or single-family neighbourhoods, but they are now transforming into dense urban communities with towers rivalling those in Vancouver.
Around Brentwood and Gilmore no less than 46 towers, ranging from 25 to 65 storeys, are planned. And at Lougheed Town Centre, on the eastern edge bordering Coquitlam, at least 23 towers up to 65 storeys are planned around the soon-to-be finished Evergreen SkyTrain line. The expansive former Dairyland and Safeway industrial complex near Edmonds will have 19 towers up to 44 storeys tall.
But this pace of development also highlights a disparity between how developers are treated in Burnaby and Vancouver and what the cities expect from them. Many proponents of Burnaby’s biggest projects are developers like Shape Properties, Concord Pacific, Onni, Ledingham McAllister, Polygon, Beedie Industrial and Anthem Properties.
David Taylor, a specialist with Colliers International, said Vancouver’s restrictive building policies and the lack of developable land are largely why developers now target Burnaby with such dramatic results.
“In Vancouver, outside of downtown there are effectively less than a handful of projects where you can do towers. You are not going to find a site in Vancouver to build a highrise, so where are you going to build it? You are going to find it in Burnaby or Coquitlam,” he said.
Taylor pointed to problems the Kettle Society is having building a relatively simple 12-storey building at Venables and Commercial Drive and the recent backlash in Grandview-Woodland over the Vancouver planning department’s plans for towers at Commercial and Broadway.
“You’ve got neighbourhoods that don’t want any development. If you could build towers anywhere in Vancouver, you would see hundreds of them. There is that much demand for that. But the reality is that to build a 40-plus storey tower in the city of Vancouver, even downtown, is extremely difficult.”
Anne McMullin, the CEO of the Urban Development Institute, said Burnaby’s planned development closely aligns with its regional growth strategy. What makes the difference, she said, is that a lot of the land being redeveloped is non-controversial and doesn’t pit neighbourhoods against the developers.
“It’s a lot easier than in Vancouver. These are malls or industrial areas like the Safeway lands,” she said. “It is a lot less controversial and it involves higher densities around transit hubs.”
But Michael Geller, a well-known developer, said many of his colleagues choose Burnaby over Vancouver for simplicity’s sake.
“I think most developers will tell you they like working in Burnaby because it is the place where the political side and the staff side are on the same page,” he said. “For years, developers have been saying that given the way Vancouver manages its planning and approval process, we’re not building in Vancouver.
“In Burnaby it is very clear. They have a policy that makes it absolutely clear how much you pay for extra density. It is almost like going to the butcher shop. You buy your density by the square foot.”
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said defined community plans around the town centres and clear rules for how extra density is awarded are why his city attracts big developers.
“We stand out for being consistent in our policy decisions. Every developer who comes in can expect to get the same deal as the developer before him and the one after him,” he said. “They don’t want to think that the next guy might do better than them.”
Burnaby levies extra fees from developers for community benefits. Corrigan said 20 per cent goes into an affordable housing fund and the rest toward local benefits such as libraries, parks and pools.
“We extract a lot from our developers, too. I don’t want to leave the impression that we are leaving anything on the table. We’re very aggressive. We are very clear about what you have to do and how much you have to pay.”
Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs dismisses such comparisons. He said his city applies a rigorous rezoning process that may be slow compared to Burnaby, but it gets better results.
“I think they’re different places at different stages of development,” Meggs said. “I don’t think the numbers by themselves tell us anything. I’m not sure how many people in Vancouver would want to win that race anyway.
“It’s not like a race to get as many built as possible in the shortest timeframe. It’s to get a good job done. I don’t have any comments on their processes, but I think ours is pretty careful,” Meggs said. “The people who complain about the timing are developers, but the community feels that things are going far too quickly.”
Jane Pickering, Vancouver’s acting general manager of planning and development services, couldn’t say for sure why developers are building highrises in Burnaby instead of Vancouver.
“I can only speak to the ones built in Vancouver. I think Burnaby has done quite a few new plans around some of their town centres like Lougheed Town Centre. So land that was previously not available has now been made available.”
Pickering also said she doesn’t believe highrises are the only way to address affordable housing, noting that Vancouver is more focused on a diversity of housing types, such as laneway houses.
Pickering disagreed with complaints that Burnaby’s process is clearer than Vancouver’s.
“I think Vancouver’s process is clear, (but) our regulations are sometimes a lot more complex than other places. So it takes a bit more attention. Plus, we have included some things like view corridors that other municipalities don’t have that add a whole layer of what you can do and where you can do it,” she said.” So we have a lot of things aimed at protecting certain specific issues that are very dear to the hearts of people who live in Vancouver.”
Vancouver’s acting mayor Raymond Louie, who is vice-chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional District, said Burnaby is less built out than Vancouver and has more development potential given its lower densities.
As well, he noted: “We have a comprehensive development plan that we’ve developed in order to ensure that there’s a balance between the needs of the future with the current residents, which are typically concerned with the impacts of development in our city.”
Louie said that Vancouver has seen a boom in office developments compared to the rest of the region, and that the Burnaby residential highrise boom may be cyclical.
“We have the highest density in the region and the largest amounts of residential towers, I’d say, anywhere across the region. When other regions were contracting, we had record years. It might be a bit of cycle. We’ve enjoyed good growth in our city (and) now the cycle has turned to Burnaby.”