The future of Vancouver’s best neighbourhood

How False Creek, a neighbourhood that began as an experiment, became a model community–and why some are worried about its future

April 8, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Sebastien Launay

If you’d given legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs a blank cheque and a few dozen acres of land back in the 1970s and asked her to design a model community, she probably wouldn’t have been able to do much better than False Creek. The neighbourhood, which is bounded by the Burrard and Cambie Street bridges to the west and east and Sixth Avenue to the south, has all the hallmarks of what Jacobs saw as an ideal urban community: mixed-uses, mixed incomes, a variety of architectural forms, and plenty of public and green space. Now, more than 40 years after its creation, it’s being recognized this year as Vancouver’s Best Neighbourhood.

The creation of False Creek’s unique tapestry of social housing, market rents, public space and private property was the result of a unique confluence of political events. The interventionist Trudeau government at the federal level had just created the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs in 1971, and appointed Vancouver-Centre (and former Vancouver-Burrard) MP Ron Basford to head it in 1972. That year saw even bigger shifts at the local level, with Art Phillips and his TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement) slate of candidates taking over at city hall and Dave Barrett leading the NDP to its first provincial election win in the fall after it knocked off the Social Credit government. “There was a lot of compatibility from all levels of government towards doing something great for that part of town,” says Richard Evans, an architect and False Creek resident since 1986.

Evans has been the chair of the Re*Plan Committee of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association since its creation in 2010. Their work has largely been directed towards encouraging the city to protect the character of the community by the creek, renew the leases that it holds on most of the buildings in the neighbourhood, and help their residents plan more effectively for the future. Failure to do so, he says, could put one of Vancouver’s most successful—and unusual—urban planning experiments in jeopardy. Given that its managed to produce a level of affordability and accessibility that’s difficult to find elsewhere in the city, that could be a major loss. “There’s a search going on for what the alternatives are, and in south False Creek we’ve got a mix of tenures. We’ve got non-market housing and rentals, we’ve got co-operatives like the one that I live in, and then we’ve got market stratas, and if we could find a way to maintain that and go forward I think everybody finds that to be an attractive aspiration. But actually achieving that is very, very difficult.”

That’s no secret to Andrea Reimer, the councillor who’s been tasked with shepherding the conversation between the city and the community towards a productive resolution. “The challenge in this neighbourhood is that we’re also the land owner and the leaseholder,” she says. It’s not the only one, mind you. There’s also the fact that there’s been confusion as to which city department—housing, planning, and the department that actually holds the leases—ought to take the lead in the whole process. But, according to both Evans and Reimer, acting city manager Sadhu Johnston’s decision to appoint a case manager to stickhandle that situations has made a huge difference—a positive one. “We’re very clear now on who needs to lead this discussion,” Reimer says, “and it really does need to be planning.”

The problem there is that the city is still without a chief planner—and may be for some time to come. Both Reimer and Evans say that deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston’s decision to put a case manager on the file has made a “huge” difference in terms of improving the quality of communication between the various silos at the city and False Creek residents. But while Reimer says there’s a widespread desire to get something done soon, that can’t happen until the city knows what the long-term vision for the community will be. “It’s quite difficult to get any certainty around the value of the lease without getting certainty around the long-term aspirations of the land.”

That said, the co-operatives that are at the heart of False Creek are almost certainly safe, regardless of who gets hired as chief planner. “Whether you’re real estate or housing or planning or the city council or the community, I can’t imagine that anyone sees any different future for those pieces—the co-operative and non-profit housing—than what they are right now.” But despite that assurance, Reimer, who happens to be a renter herself, is aware that the city hasn’t always been a great partner for the residents of False Creek. “I understand what it’s like to have a landlord who’s not clear about what the future looks like. We literally have hundreds of units and several thousand people for whom we’re not being a great landlord if we’re not providing that level of certainty over time. I very keenly feel that, and I know my colleagues are quite anxious to resolve the issue.”

The resolution of that issue won’t mean business as usual for False Creek, though. Instead, it would kick off a new era of change and growth for a neighbourhood where both are almost certainly overdue. Its buildings are starting to show their age, and the overall population density leaves a lot to be desired, given both its potential capacity and the number of people who would be interested in filling it. But finding a way to balance the imperatives of growth against the wishes of a community’s existing population won’t be easy. “How do you take an existing neighbourhood, insert development within it that maintains its historic character, replace the pieces that need to be replaced and upgraded and fill in along the edges?”

The answer, he says, involves expanding the vision of the community itself. Rather than treating it like a hothouse flower that needs to be protected from its surroundings, Evans says the next stage of its existence should be about integrating it into them. The best way to do that, he says, is by transforming Sixth Avenue and the old CP train tracks that lie parallel to it from a road that divides the Creek from Fairview Slopes into a street that connects them. If that happened, he says, it could turn Sixth Avenue into something more like Denman Street, Commercial Drive, or, fittingly enough, West Fourth Avenue (which West Sixth turns into near Granville Island). “Right now, it’s a vestige of a freeway system that is rapidly disappearing in the city. We have the opportunity to knit the Fairview Slopes into our area.”

That opportunity isn’t without its costs, mind you. Any push for greater density, no matter how delicately it’s pursued, will run up against resistance in a community that was created in large part as a reaction to the density that defined the West End in the 1950s and 1960s. Ray Spaxman, the city planner who helped make the original False Creek South plan happen, says that there are those who fear the impact that greater density might have on the community. “The people I know are all afraid for what might happen, because it has turned out to be a very unusually successful place,” he says. “It was a brownfield site developed to a master plan, and it became what I would consider to be a major urban success. So having been a major success, everybody can now see the leaseholds coming in. They can see the high rises on the other side of the creek. And they can see the compromise that was drawn for the Olympic Village. And perhaps neither of those appeal to the first stage [of residents].”

There was a similar fear of the new and unknown back in 1973 as well, mind you. “I can remember, for example, in the early days of False Creek that there was a fair number of people complaining about the English tradition of putting in row houses, which was not the style in Vancouver,” Spaxman says. “The row houses were not appreciated by a whole group in society, but obviously not a majority. Today, we’ll have the same thing about higher densities, and so there’s a conflict that needs to be sorted out as to where we need to go. That’s of course what the False Creek community is trying to do right now.”

But, he says, that sorting process is ultimately about building on what’s already been created rather than simply replacing or replicating it. “Since 1973 we’ve gone the whole way around the creek, and here we are starting again. Here’s the first part of something that was done 43 years ago, and here we are again planning for the next 43. It’s a major example of updating the principles that applied to creating community, and they’ll be different from the ones we had in 1973.” The good news is that the odds of successfully updating those principles have increased substantially, he says, now that there’s a Trudeau in charge of Ottawa again. “We should rejoice that we’ve got rid of the last government at the federal level, and seem to have a government that has the same frame of mind for principled development as perhaps existed in the previous Trudeau government when we had the department of urban affairs. To have that renewed would be fantastic.”

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