False Promises for False Creek (City Conversations No One Else is Having #4, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including this 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.”

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City Conversations No One Else is Having #4
False Promises for False Creek

By Brian Palmquist (first published 5-Jul-2021)

Leg in Boot Square, south shore of False Creek. Photo: Brian Palmquist.

“What do you mean “False Creek is toast”! We just cycled through it—it’s gorgeous!”

My son and I were enjoying a beer at the Wicklow Pub on Leg in Boot Square at the east end of the original False Creek development, built out in the 1970s. He was incredulous at my casual statement. I tried to explain.

“The city recently passed a report with the innocuous title Methodology for Co-operative Housing Lease Renewals but it’s really all about selling out the original False Creek South for major redevelopment, which goes from a bit east of here to a bit west of Granville Island. A UBC prof, Patrick Condon, has covered the details quite well, including some minor concessions to residents, in a recent article.”

“How can that be?” my son asked, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “Didn’t you and mom live in False Creek for a while? You’ve always said such nice things about it.”

“I guess nice doesn’t cut it in today’s Vancouver,” I responded. “We did live there for a few years, starting from when it and Granville Island were still under construction. We lived in a social housing project, were among the folks who were not in need, so paid a premium rent for our home as compared to those who had less cash—it’s called cross-subsidization. But we never minded, in fact we enjoyed seeing teenagers there a decade after we left who were toddlers when we were there. All good.”

“So, what’s happened?” he asked. “And surely “toast” is too strong a word?”

“I wish it was,” I continued. “Long term residents of False Creek South have been trying unsuccessfully to engage the city in conversation about the future of False Creek for at least a decade.”

“But why for so long? And why has it come to a head just now?”

“False Creek South is built on city-owned land,” I replied, “which was leased to the various co-ops, rentals and stratas built on it, typically for 60-year leases. This policy was implemented by TEAM (The Electors Action Movement), the city council that got False Creek going in the 70s. The leases are mostly up for renewal over the next several years. Knowing this, the residents have been trying to engage in negotiations with the city for the past decade, with a view to arriving at a solution where they can mostly stay in place.”

“And?” he responded, “what’s wrong with that picture?”

“What’s wrong is that, in spite of residents attempts to illustrate ways to increase density on the south shore, encourage aging in place (we are all of us getting older), city staff have deflected serious discussion, tabled this report and got it passed by city council on short notice, which is the death knell for the original development.”

“Surely,” he continued, “you’re exaggerating? Have the existing residents been greedy about retaining their amazing waterfront homes?”

“It hasn’t even got to the point of such details,” I answered. “60 years ago, the various organizations that built False Creek South were 1/3 market strata, 1/3 co-op and 1/3 rental social housing. They prepaid the lease on their lands. Regardless of their place in the marketplace, the city now proposes in this report that they should pay “close to market rates” for their lease renewals. Patrick’s article notes a few minor concessions to Vancouver co-ops in general, but they don’t look like they’ll help False Creek South much.”

“” Close to market rates” sound innocuous enough,” he suggested.

“Yes, until you realize that land values have appreciated at least tenfold since the original leases were signed. So, the occupants, who have already paid for their lease once, may now expect to renew at ten or more times that original amount—they simply can’t afford it.”

“So,” he responded, “what does redevelopment look like?” He had moved past the existing occupants.

“Well,” I answered, “if an original project was four storeys in height, as most were, their replacement would need to be forty storeys to finance the higher land valuations. That’s probably simplistic, but not too far off. Newer development such as Olympic Village is twelve or more storeys, with less green space, so the change is significant, also for folks living on Fairview Slopes behind False Creek.” I sketched what 12 storeys means from Fairview Slopes—it’s the line with “12” atop it:

What 12-storey development looks like from Choklit Park. Photo: Brian Palmquist.

He studied my markup for a moment. “So, no more views of the city, water or mountains from anywhere south of False Creek.” He paused a moment. “Wait a minute,” he added. “we cycled all the way to Tap & Barrel and back to here. I noticed in Olympic Village that much of the cycle path was in shade from those taller buildings. Is that the future of the seawall?”

“I’m afraid so,” I responded with a pout. “False Creek North benefits from the buildings being north of its seawall. The south side seawall will be mostly in shade if the densities and heights that follow this deceptive report are adopted. Setting aside the politics and economics, False Creek South has been a fixture in Vancouver for almost fifty years, used by thousands more than its residents. They have been happy to share, but if this report is adopted, there will be nothing left to share worth sharing.”

“Let’s return along the seawall,” my son suggested, rising from the table with a view over the marina to the water and the city. “And let’s put this on our regular bike route.  Soon it may all be gone.”

As he rode off ahead, I noticed he was riding a bit slower than usual, looking left and right, drinking in what might soon be gone for his children and their children.

Yaletown viewed from False Creek. Photo: Brian Palmquist

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Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. He lived in False Creek South for several years. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.”

2 thoughts on “False Promises for False Creek (City Conversations No One Else is Having #4, Brian Palmquist)

  1. It absolutely does not make sense what Brian wrote. Just because, THEORETICALLY, land is worth 10 times what it was worth when False creek South was originally developed, does not mean that 4 storey buildings should be built.

    The City of Vancouver owns that land. They can calculate the returns any way that they want to. Maximum return on investment should not be their only objective, or even an objective at all. The land under schools, parks and community centres is worth more than it was in old days too. Should we tear them down and build something that provides a “better return”?

    Developers all over Vancouver are buying up development sites and building 4 storey and 6 storey condo buildings, even 3 storey townhouses. If they can do it, then the city can do it. Of course, one of the ways that they manage to make it work financially is by building high value products (luxury, some wold say). That is not what we want in south false creek.

    The people who work in the City of Vancouver real estate department think that they are real estate developers, striving for maximum return. That is wrong. They should quit and go work in the private sector of the industry.

  2. IF the land in False Creek South is worth 10 times more than it was 50 years ago, the reason that it is so is because the land was undervalued in the first place. Land value is based on zoning. The land was underzoned deliberately, to keep housing prices down.

    Now the city’s real estate development department looks across the creek at the 40 storey condos, and gets dollar signs in their eyes. They should not do so. The zoning is different.

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