The Towerization of N-Oakridge


Toronto at its worst, not Vancouver at its best!

Oakridge—Vancouver’s best suburban mall—is proposing towers in a BIG way. Adding density without urbanism will add sprawl and congestion. A subway stop by itself is not enough reason for towers. Oakridge neighbourhood lacks the mixture, number and quality of services and jobs available downtown in the only urban zone we have in the region. This is towerization at its worst! And the mistake is being repeated at Gateway minutes south on the Canada Line and elsewhere along our transit spines.

The project is a gigantic set of ‘spaceships’ that really belong in outer space… Or the moon. But not in our neighbourhoods! The profits are so large that they will hack our democratic process. This blow is one from which the neighbourhood will not recover. The streets and the intersection will be lost forever. The tell-tale sign is that just 30 years after the first make-over of the 1959 Woodwards shopping centre was approved—and after not moving on a 2007 approved proposal—they’re back for A LOT more.

The subway is cited as the reason to add density and double the retail area from its current 1 million square feet. However, experts tell us that there is very little correlation between density and transit ridership. Since the urbanism is not there at Oakridge—and this monstrosity won’t deliver it—most folks here are going to be hopping in their cars and driving. The congestion caused on the streets by this hyper concentration of density will be the real story here.

Subways all over the world serve high density neighbourhoods where the maximum building height is not greater than 50 feet. Copenhagen, Barcelona, London and Paris come to mind as the most famous. But there are countless other places that don’t get the press. Places with open government, social equity and stable economies where the dominant quality of place is the livability of the street and the walkability of the neighbourhood—rather than the soaring height of the architecture.

So, how dense is it? 2800 residential units in 27 acres is over 100 units per acre. That is about the density needed to support transit cutting through a cluster of urban neighbourhoods. Single family neighbourhoods are 6 units per acre. ‘Good’ urban neighbourhoods start around 50 units per acre and top out around 100 units per acre. Yet, good urban neighbourhoods are plugged into an urbanism that extends in all directions.

Here we are being shown an island in the sun. An intrusion in a neighbourhood that violates principles in good urbanism like: human-scale build out; short distances; private owned houses mixed with condos; a mix and variety of destinations; and many hands and many developers building one place.

This proposal has something more. The retail and commercial has to be added to the residential density. 2 million square feet of retail are the equivalent of another 2500 residential units. So double that density to 200 units per acre, or DOUBLE the density over the top end of ‘good’ urban neighbourhoods.

The consequences of this project are pretty clear. The intersection of 41st and Cambie will be lost to the flood of new cars, trucks and service vehicles. The present 3300 parking spaces will double with obvious consequences.  Traffic will be generated by this site, drawn to it like a vortex due to excessive clustering in a suburban part of our city. Grid-lock will set in on the street along with rising levels of air pollution.

Do we really need that in our city? Or should we be putting pressure on the Oakridge group to be model citizens and build ‘good’ urbanism instead. Be part of the solution, rather than just piling on for profit.

All these eggs put in the Oakridge basket will sag demand for product where revitalization is needed to achieve a better neighbourhood mix. The problems we should be addressing through redevelopment of Vancouver’s long-standing neighbourhoods include how to intensify neighbourhoods in order to:

  • Support social functioning,
  • Reduce traffic on the arterials
  • Create local destinations as generators of pedestrian trips
  • Revitalize our arterials with People Places nearby

Of course, neither the Oakridge plan or any of the other neighbourhood plans either approved (Mount Pleasant) or underway get the urbanism right. Outside the downtown where the urbanism is 130 years in the making City Hall has run out of ideas. They are hanging on to a planning ideology straight out of the cold war era. Our local government has stopped answering the call to shift paradigm from suburban to urban planning in the neighbourhoods.

The switch is stuck. Proposals like these just show how bad the condition really is.

We should be leveraging redevelopment to achieve walkable neighbourhoods and livable streets with a mix new fee-simple and incremental products that deliver density with human scale. Mixing row houses with apartments along urban spines and around new or budding neighbourhood places and destinations will articulate the neighbourhood footprint and reduce vehicular trips.  More walking trips means active and bustling neighbourhood centres with fewer cars. Plonking down gigantic podium with mega towers on the transit stop is not ‘good’ urbanism. If built this proposal will benefit one corporate interest and set our democracy on a slippery slope.

6 thoughts on “The Towerization of N-Oakridge”

  1. This is a nightmare! It a horrible ugly mess of towers. Towers that are destroying the character of Marpole and Oakridge. In my personal opinion it is all about greed … the same greed that is destroying this planet.

    1. It is also nothing like the rest of the nieghbourhood, Bob. In every direction I go, Marpole is a human-scale neighbourhood. I faintly remember the old Oakridge with shopping in the open air. Wouldn’t it be better to follow a kind of Granville Island design approach? There is also the matter of a park, in the order of 2.3 acres, that we heard last night is part of the land contract. That brings up even more possibilities for ‘good’ urbanism.

  2. As always, Lewis has made some insightful comments.

    May I add another point. What I think is interesting, is that we tax payers paid for that Millennium line. By “we” I mean those of us who live in this province. Yet, developers get to “cash in” on our largess.

    What if these developers understood that, without an adequate response to the issues raised by Villegas and others, they would have to make significant contributions to the cities’ public transportation system? This might be enough to discourage the production of this “ugly mess of towers.”

    1. Hi, Dan. I don’t know the particulars. It is an interesting question to ask just what the Community Amenities Contribution (CAC) is at Transit sites. In Japan, development of the transit site contributes towards paying for the transit project. In Coquitlam and Port Moody discussion centred around using station area development to pay for additional stops. Of course, asking the question and agreeing with this strategy are two different things. On the one hand, a Translink representative was heard to remark at a recent session that there is no correlation between tower density at the transit stop and increased transit use. On the other, people walk 10 to 12 minutes to ride subways, making the subway station area large enough to house a large enough population using just human-scale products.

      Of course, by doubling the shopping the developers are trying to do something altogether different, and comparisons to Metrotown are already being floated. One has to wonder about the benefit to the community of becoming a mega mall. Is shopping as far as the imagination will take us when thinking in terms of creating social space?

      1. I feel that community by community the city in which I have live most of my life is gradually being destroyed. In 10 years I may not want to live here any more!

  3. That is a very real sentiment that I share too. I examined some years ago how it would be possible to double the city’s population simply by building four-storey row houses and apartments on arterial-facing lots that today are occupied by small bungalows

    However, just because it ‘can’ happen doesn’t mean it ‘will’ happen. In order to double the Vancouver population we would have to greatly increase services, open space, schools, infrastructure and transit. The region as a whole, using San Francisco as the model, would have to grow to house 12 million people.

    I just don’t see it happening in the near term. Long term, who knows?

    That begs the question: Why do we need towers outside the downtown? And why do we need to turn Oakridge into the worst-possible example of mega-mall mania? I’m sure the developers want to build evermore. But, wouldn’t it be more profitable to reproduce a Rodeo Drive, if what they are after is high-end retail? Or an updated version of the Ramblas in Barcelona or Horton Plaza in San Diego?

    The developers are one thing. The city we get is another. As you quite rightly point out, if we are going to sell off the soul of our city for money that we could just as easily collect by borrowing against growth, then what point is there to stay here and watch Council giving it all away?

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