New TOD in Town
By Sean Ruthen, Canadian Architect, Published March 9, 2017
Travelling through Metro Vancouver on any given day, one sees a few dozen cranes in the air assembling business-as-usual residential towers. More recently, however, a trailblazer has appeared among the usual suspects, wearing its residential and mixed-use density like a badge of honour: the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).
Unlike its predecessor, the podium-tower, which turned land-lift into a development and real estate windfall, the TOD is all about plugging residents into the Smart City. Among its many tenets, the Smart City model advocates for robust public transit systems, enabling healthy urban growth with less reliance on private automobiles. The outcome is that the catchment areas around transit stations become ideal places to rezone to allow for higher density. Because of the city’s Green Building legislation, creating a TOD in Vancouver also means providing a community amenity contribution and building to LEED Gold standard (soon to be upgraded to Passive House standard).
TODs can also provide opportunities for much needed affordable housing—the “missing middle” of the housing market, between single family homes and condominium towers—often built in the form of street-scaled townhouses, duplexes and triplexes. And of course, no TOD is complete without its commercial retail units. A major grocer, drugstore, movie theatre (or a combination of all three) usually anchors larger developments.
A handful of recent TODs in Metro Vancouver deserve attention. In Burnaby, both Metrotown and Brentwood Mall have massive construction on their peripheries next to their respective SkyTrain stations, with numerous residential high-rises among them. In Surrey, towers continue to rise around the new City Centre in Whalley, while in New Westminster, new towers are being constructed along the waterfront—all within walking distance of SkyTrain stations. With the region’s new Evergreen extension now open, the areas around those stations will surely become bustling nodes of activity, as is finally happening along the Millennium Line at both Brentwood and Lougheed Town Centre, the latter of which plans to redevelop 72 acres with nineteen towers.
By area, the future Oakridge Mall development, by Westbank and Ivanhoé Cambridge with Henriquez Partners Architects, is the biggest TOD project on the desk of Gil Kelley, the City’s newly appointed head planner. The developer’s original proposal provided 2,800 apartments and townhomes in a dozen towers over a 30-acre site. While the scale has been significantly pared down, there still remains the need to densify the immediate neighbourhood around the new Oakridge station, next to downtown Vancouver’s only stand-alone shopping mall.
Two stops to the south, one arrives at what is currently the City of Vancouver’s largest TOD: Marine Gateway, by PCI Developments and Perkins+Will, named for the Canada Line station it straddles. With south Vancouver’s largest bus interchange mere steps away, it is now one of the busiest hubs on the Canada Line, second only to Vancouver City Centre.
Writing about the recently opened Canada Line (see CA, March 2011), I observed that it would probably be a while until we saw towers rising on the southern slopes of the city around Marine Gateway station, given the area’s industrial composition. Since that time, seven towers have been built, with two more currently under construction. Of all of them however, it is the Perkins+Will development that has done the most heavy lifting for the area, since it shares the same corner as the Canada Line station with a direct connection to its entry plaza.
I recently visited the newly opened development with Perkins+Will principal and project architect Ryan Bragg, MRAIC. He was quick to point out the sound and tactility of the boardwalk along the commercial high street, which in the middle of a weekday was filled with people heading to the bank and to the 3,700-square-metre T&T grocer, the anchor tenant for this new mini-village.
Bragg said that as a commercial-oriented developer, PCI’s mandate for the development was primarily geared towards the commercial success of its retailers, with the size of the residential yield a secondary goal. This was clearly visible when standing in the lobby of a soon-to-be opened fifteen-storey office tower, featuring a breathtaking foyer of polished Vancouver Island marble and a prominent wall display of carved cedar basket lids by Coast Salish artist Susan A. Point. Her work is also featured in the TOD’s main plaza through several other public art commissions, including sculptures next to a water feature representing the Fraser River at the north end of the high street, paired with a Thinker-like statue of Simon Fraser at the south end. Bragg noted that the materiality of the building at its podium level also complements the public art components of the project—with exposed structural steel, brick and a terracotta cornice that harken back to the area’s industrial past.
With equal parts given over to retail, office and residential uses, PCI has created an enviable elixir. In addition to its residential market and rental units, commercial tenants include a Cineplex Odeon, a Shopper’s Drug Mart, two banks, and several coffee and food chains. At the south end of the high street is a neighbourhood pub, and at the north end, a 1,100-square-metre soon-to-be-opened dim sum restaurant. Marine Gateway is exceptional since the high concentration of commercial activity makes it a destination as well as home to its residents—a no-brainer given its central position on the Canada Line. With only a few units left to lease, one can imagine the plaza as a constantly busy locale, particularly after the office tower opens.
The buildings themselves are examplars of sustainability, no surprise given the firm’s legacy of environmental stewardship. Seventy per-cent of their energy is generated from geothermal exchange beneath the site’s massive footprint, along with recovered waste heat from the commercial units. The residential towers represent a departure from typical Vancouver podium towers: the 25- and 35-storey highrises have a relatively low 50 percent glazing ratio, minimizing solar heat gain to meet recently upgraded energy-efficiency requirements. Between the glazing units, Perkins+Will has used bright green metal panels instead of glass, painted in two directions so the buildings change colour depending on how you look at them.
According to PCI, the Marine Gateway station has experienced a 35 percent increase in ridership since the development opened, and this is prompting further development around the node. This includes two towers by Intracorp and James Cheng, FRAIC directly across the street, and another pair of towers kitty-corner to the site by Onni Group, currently under construction. The Official Community Plan allows for two more 20-plus-storey towers on the intersection’s fourth corner. And Concord Pacific is also in the process of rezoning a site to the east for further development.
Clearly, Vancouver has reached a crucial moment: the old Expo brownfields are gone, and the only place left to develop is in existing inner city neighbourhoods, mostly populated by single family homes. If the “ missing middle” is going to make a difference in accommodating the region’s anticipated population growth and pressing need for affordable housing, it is most likely going to be concentrated around the transit nodes. In this regard, Marine Gateway, along with its neighbours, is a great leap forward.
However, TODs are not a given, as evidenced by a recent decision to disallow new towers around the Broadway-Commercial Skytrain station, the busiest transit node in the entire Lower Mainland, and an area currently surrounded by aging two- and three-storey structures. Despite this, the local community voiced their opinion and in a recent public hearing prevented tall towers from being built adjacent to the station, arguing that a 35-storey tower-and-podium scheme was grossly out of scale for the neighbourhood.
What are the opportunities for architects and architecture with this new building type? Bragg believes that the architect’s skillset is well honed to resolve the complexity of all the different pieces—whether the balance of retail to residential, or the social sustainability of the enterprise. Architects are also well positioned to explain why cities need to adapt for increased housing density—and why affordable housing, including in TODs, must be part of the solution. Architects need to keep pushing the envelope, encouraging their clients to embrace sustainability and architectural excellence in the finished product, perhaps more with TODs than any other typology. At Marine Gateway, one can see the outcome of a successful collaboration in the project’s transformation of a major Vancouver intersection.
The profession will have a set of interesting opportunities to unpack the latent challenges and opportunities of this new typology, as TODs continue to proliferate in Vancouver, in the Toronto region, and across Canada and the United States.