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Banking on transit’s power to drive growth

Three-part BIV series examines the business and development potential of Metro Vancouver’s ambitious Regional Growth Strategy
District of North Vancouver planners Susan Haid (left), manager of sustainable community development, and Tegan Smith, transportation planner, in North Vancouver’s Lower Lynn area, which is slated for transit-driven revitalization

It’s an area peppered with vacant lots, low-rent housing and light industrial operations, so it takes some imagination to see Lower Lynn’s development potential.

But the North Vancouver neighbourhood has a key asset: it’s been designated for a future rapid-transit connection to downtown Vancouver and the rest of the Lower Mainland.

To hear District of North Vancouver planners tell it, that future transit link will be a key driver of future business and residential development in the area.

“If there’s [bus rapid transit], new jobs that sprout up in Lower Lynn will now be well-connected to SeaBus and to the SkyTrain network,” said Tegan Smith, the district’s transportation planner. “So it becomes easy if, for example, you live in Surrey to take a job in North Vancouver and take transit there.”

But also, in a chicken-and-egg scenario, North Vancouver’s development of the area will create the transit demand TransLink needs to justify improving transit service to that node.

“We don’t know what the timing of the investments from TransLink and frequent transit would be,” Smith said. “But what we can do is start to build a transit-oriented community that will support those increased service levels.”

Banking on that transit service eventually being funded, North Vancouver is planning for 3,000 new residential units in Lower Lynn over the next 20 years – the largest volume of new residential development envisaged anywhere in the municipality. It’s also planning commercial and office space as well as community facilities, while retaining adjacent light industrial uses.

North Vancouver is not the only local municipality that’s looking to marry transit plans with neighbourhood revitalization projects. With this approach developed and encouraged through Metro Vancouver’s recently adopted Regional Growth Strategy (RGS), municipalities throughout the region are examining ways to put this approach into practice.

The plans for Lower Lynn are just one early case study of how the RGS will start shaping Metro Vancouver land use and transportation.

Regional Growth Strategy

The RGS, which replaces the 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan, sets the course for land use across Metro Vancouver until 2040. Christina DeMarco, regional development division manager of Metro Vancouver’s policy and planning department, said the plan set out to tackle two central contentious issues: job sprawl and the loss of industrial land.

On the job sprawl front, she noted that between 1990 and 2006, 49% of all new office space built in the region – 9.1 million square feet – was located outside of urban centres.

“Low-rise office[s] in the middle of nowhere, basically.”

That kind of job development, she added, has left employees without transit options and increased the number of commuters.

“It’s hugely detrimental to a compact region and efficient transportation when you’ve got these [offices] scattered everywhere.”

Linked to that problem, she said, has been a significant loss of the region’s industrial land.

“It was a stupid American idea that we adopted, very much driven from the development industry: ‘OK, I’ll buy cheap industrial land, I’ll go to council and see if I can get it re-zoned to office.’”

Between 1996 and 2005, she said, Metro Vancouver lost approximately 3,000 acres of industrial land – more than 10% of the region’s entire stock.

The 73-page RGS, which was adopted July 29, is Metro Vancouver’s answer to those major issues, plus smaller-ticket planning items.

Transit-driven development

Viewed through a transportation lens, the RGS’s key new concept is the development approach being applied to Lower Lynn. In RGS language, these new nodes or transit corridors are called Frequent Transit Development Areas (FTDAs).

To meet RGS parameters, FTDAs need to be within 800 metres of a rapid transit station or within 400 metres of TransLink’s Frequent Transit Network. The RGS notes that the areas will include medium and higher density housing, employment, services, commercial activities and possibly cultural and community uses.

Once a potential FTDA is identified, municipal planners must get TransLink’s sign-off on an area. From there, the municipality starts developing the area, with the understanding that TransLink will, as budgets permit, provide the transit services that are on the books.

North Vancouver, by virtue of having just finished its new official community plan, is ahead in the FTDA planning game. Aside from Lower Lynn, it has identified Lower Capilano/Marine Drive as a second FTDA – and gotten TransLink’s approval on both nodes.

The City of Surrey has launched into the process to identify FTDAs, but still has a way to go.

Don Luymes, Surrey’s manager of community planning, said the municipality is working with TransLink on the Surrey Rapid Transit Study. Once the plan has been firmed up and transit stops identified, he said, Surrey can start looking for areas that need revitalization.

“There may be an area where there are large lots but smaller buildings that have seen better days. Or maybe there’s an area where there’s an old dying strip mall that could benefit from redevelopment to much higher densities.”

But like Smith, he noted the chicken-and-egg “dance” between municipalities and TransLink over what comes first: transit or increased density.

“Part of working together with TransLink on the Surrey Rapid Transit Study is we’re able to work together so there’s some expectation of transit delivery and the city is then able to come to the plate with the kind of densities of jobs and living that would support that transit investment.”

Pretty please, TransLink

Municipalities aren’t the only ones working out their dance with TransLink.

DeMarco said one key challenge for Metro Vancouver in mapping out the RGS was the regional board’s 1999 loss to TransLink of its jurisdiction over transportation planning.

“It’s a big challenge,” she said. “What we’re saying in this plan … is ‘Please, TransLink, support the objectives of our plan. Pretty please.’”

DeMarco said that in North America, there’s approximately a 50-50 split between jurisdictions that unite land use and transportation planning and those that separate the two functions.

“But in many of the progressive cities around the world like Stockholm and Copenhagen, they wouldn’t have that separation; it would be done together.”

TransLink, however, emphasized that the RGS is well-aligned with its own long-range strategic plan.

“We’ve been trying to refer to [both entities’ strategic plans] as a box set – they really go hand in glove,” said Tamim Raad, TransLink’s director of strategic planning and policy.

“Our legislation requires that the strategic plans of both agencies be integrated and supportive of one another. So we’ve worked quite closely with Metro Van over the course of the last number of years to look at the long-range goals for transportation and the long-range goals for development to make sure that they both support one another.”

Goods movement

While the RGS includes a few policies geared at improving goods movement, DeMarco said the regional district’s key plan for improving goods movement is to get more commuters off the road. But that approach is drawing flak from the transportation industry.

How well is the RGS going to serve the trucking industry and port traffic?

“The short answer is, it’s not,” said Louise Yako, president and CEO of the BC Trucking Association.

She said the region needs to look at ways to enable trucks to travel during off-peak hours – by, for example, relaxing noise bylaws so that waste management trucks can pick up in the evening or early morning.

Yako added that promoting transit options, alone, won’t solve all goods movement challenges.

“As our population ages, is the transit solution really going to work for them? It’s part of the solution but not all of it, and I think if we put all of our eggs in one basket, we’re going to find that that’s not going to solve the problem, because there is no silver bullet.”

Tom Corsie, vice-president of real estate for Port Metro Vancouver, also voiced doubts about how well the RGS will serve goods movement and enable the port’s competitiveness.

“Has Metro Vancouver evolved to understand that this is a port economy? – well, kind of,” he said.

Corsie noted that, unlike its predecessor plan, the RGS at least touches on transportation and the importance of the economy.

Corsie said he sees a disconnect between senior governments’ support of the port economy and what happens at a more local level – and in the RGS. “Port businesses support 80,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Lower Mainland, 129,000 jobs across the county. The senior governments ‘get it,’ and they’re investing to keep our Gateway competitive. The rub with all that with the municipalities, and this to a degree comes out in the regional plan, is that they’re not really participating.” •