Editorial: Why the Molson lands don’t need saving

The new owner of the Molson lands has finally been revealed. Brace yourself for a hurricane of NIMBY nonsense

April 13, 2016

By Max Fawcett

In case you weren’t already clear on what the future holds for the soon-to-be-former Molson Coors brewery site on Burrard Street, the name of the property’s buyer should end any confusion. As Business in Vancouver reported on Monday, Concord Pacific Developments has purchased the property for $185 million—a substantial premium over the assessed value of the land, which was reportedly just $33.6 million. Now, why would a developer pay nearly six times the assessed value of a piece of property? Because that developer believes—or, perhaps, knows—that it will be able to convince the city to rezone it for higher-value purposes.

Given that Concord Pacific is best known for its residential condominium towers, that’s almost certainly what it has in mind for the Molson site. Indeed, as Concord Pacific’s vice-president Peter Webb told the Globe and Mail’s Kerry Gold in a statement, “Concord plans to work with the approving authorities and the public to create a new community. The vision is to include a mixed-use residential neighbourhood with a knowledge-based work centre, to attract both local and international tech firms. The reimagined Molson lands will become a vibrant addition to Vancouver.”

This, by the way, isn’t actually a bad thing. In a city where housing prices continue to skyrocket and the rental vacancy rate is below one percent, we should be actively cheering any company that declares its intention to add to the available supply of residential housing. Replacing a big corporate brewery that sits awkwardly in a mixed-use neighbourhood with a well-designed combination of industrial, commercial, and residential space should be a no-brainer. But, of course, it isn’t. Like virtually every proposed development in this city, this one (which is still years away from breaking anything even resembling ground) has run into opposition from locals who don’t want to see things change.

In this case, it was Vancouver city councilor Adriane Carr, who argued that the elimination of industrial land was an unacceptable cost for the rest of the city—and, indeed, the region—to pay. The city, she told CBC’s Rick Cluff, has already lost industrial land in False Creek, Coal Harbour, and the Fraser lands—losing any more of it could permanently damage the city’s capacity to create good jobs and support economic activity. And that might be true, if we were talking about a different piece of land in a different part of the city. But we’re not. That parcel of land is simply too valuable to be put to a purely industrial use, much less one that’s forced upon it by a zoning status that’s the byproduct of what the city used to be rather than a reflection of what it needs to become.

Meanwhile, if Ms. Carr needs an example of why protecting industrial land for its own sake isn’t always a great idea, she need only look east to False Creek. As Rick Cluff quite rightly pointed out in his interview with her, Yaletown—and the millions of dollars in property taxes it kicks up to City Hall each year—would never have happened if that land had remained zoned as industrial use only. Neither would the neighbourhoods across the water, from False Creek south to Yaletown, have developed into the model communities they are today were it not for a decision to break with the past and the zoning decisions that defined it. “Remember what False Creek was? It was an open sewer at one point,” Cluff said. “It was sludge.”  Today, of course, it’s anything but.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that we need to find ways to create good, high-paying jobs in this city. But I’m not sure we do that by clinging to the economic formulas of the past. Yes, industrial land is valuable, and yes, we need to protect it—but not everywhere, and not always. Some people may want to wind the clock back to before the Expo lands were re-zoned and redeveloped, before the influx of foreign capital turned the grubby and gritty post-industrial northern shore of False Creek into an urban mecca. But were things really better back then, when we had all that extra vacant industrial land kicking around? And would the citizens of the future really be better served by us sitting on the Molson lands and preventing them from being developed in the name of preserving things as they were? I doubt it.

There are those who will see the eventual rezoning of this land—and mark my words, it will happen—as yet another victory for big developers in Vancouver, another sign that the city only really exists now as a canvas upon which to design new projects and sell them to an apparently insatiable global market. But we should ignore those people—or, at the very least, be willing to ask them how they would solve the city’s increasingly urgent affordability crisis when they insist on opposing density and redevelopment at every available turn, even the blindingly obvious ones. There is an obvious contradiction that’s inherent in the fact that so many of us want to live in an affordable and accessible city but don’t want to see it developed in a way that might actually achieve that outcome. I think it’s time for us to explore that contradiction, and to start challenging it more openly. The Molson lands, and the conversation that’s going to surround them, is as good a place as any to start.

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