Editorial: Development in the Arbutus corridor? Bring it on

The City of Vancouver and CP Rail have finally reached an agreement on the future of the contested Arbutus rail corridor. Now, the real fun begins

March 9, 2016

By Max Fawcett

First, the good news. After more than a decade of negotiations, the City of Vancouver and CP Rail have reached an agreement on the future of the company’s Arbutus corridor lands. Under the terms of the deal, the city will pick up the nine-kilometre line from CP for $55 million—far more than the $20 million the city says it offered two years ago, but less than the $100 million that CP was looking for. Mayor Gregor Robertson told reporters on Monday that he envisioned the corridor being transformed into a West Coast version of New York’s famous High Line, and it’s a vision that’s being celebrated by those who wanted to see the lands retained and repurposed as green space. “This is a monumental moment,” Hans Finken, a co-chair of the Arbutus Greenway Improvement Society, told the Globe and Mail’s Frances Bula. “This will be an attraction equal to Stanley Park.”

Perhaps. But if anyone thinks that Monday’s announcement marks the conclusion of the ongoing fight to save the Arbutus corridor, well, they’re dreaming. No, it’s merely the end of the beginning—and the heaviest lifting is still yet to come. That’s because the deal included a clause that will see CP get a substantial slice of any revenues attached to the development of the lands alongside the corridor—lands that splay out as wide as a city block at points on both its southern and northern ends. If the city generates more than $150 million in development-related dollars, CP will trouser an additional $75 million—putting its total take from the sale at $130 million. And while the prospect of CP profiting from the development of those lands will rub some people the wrong way, it strains credulity to believe that won’t happen in a city where housing prices are so preposterously high and the supply of available land so perpetually short.

Indeed, there may not be any guarantees in life other than death, taxes, and a bad hair day for Donald Trump, but the development of the Arbutus corridor lands is about as close as you can get. That, in turn, will dump a few tanker cars worth of fuel onto the long-simmering debate over density in this city. But this is an opportunity that the city should seize upon rather than shrink from, because it gives it—and us—a chance to make a stand on behalf of density. Yes, you can bet that the “crème de la crème,” as one of the residents who lived near the corridor once called his neighbours, will object to the addition of residential density in their collective back yards. Good—let them object. In fact, let them object as vociferously and publicly as possible.

In the end, it’s important that the city demonstrates that it can (and, more importantly, that it will) stand up to such a privileged and powerful group of protesters. Density isn’t something that belongs in one part of the city, or, more insidiously, that ought to be restricted to one socio-economic class. Instead, it’s the key that can unlock this city’s immense potential, one that can make it more inviting to those who didn’t happen to have the good fortune of winning the demographic lottery. But those in favour of a more livable, accessible, and equitable city are going to need to fight hard in order to turn that key, and the stretch of land that CP will spend the next two years clearing of train tracks and other industrial debris is a natural—and inevitable—battleground. Bring it on.

Max Fawcett is the editor-in-chief of Vancouver Magazine

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