From the air it looks like a miniature Manhattan, with glass towers jutting from green parkland and access roads elegantly arcing through its mixed-use buildings. Though it may exist today only as an architect's rendering, the proposed $1.3 billion Vancouver Waterfront Redevelopment project is, simply put, impressive.
Last week, this picture of a harmonious mix of residences, hotel and retail space came a bit closer to reality as the city of Vancouver and developers Columbia Waterfront, LLC reached an agreement on the framework of the mammoth project's estimated 15-year-long build-out.
The agreement is contingent on approval from the seven-member City Council, which includes electoral rivals Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard and Councilman Tim Leavitt, both of whom have been supportive of the project. A vote is expected Oct. 19.
"It's great finally getting to this point in the process after four years," said Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, the firm heading the riverfront revitalization effort. "The city has done an amazing job marshaling all the different interested parties to participate."
In last week's agreement, Gramor agreed to contribute $8 million to constructing two railroad underpasses to provide access to the 32-acre site, a project estimated to cost $44.6 million.
With $2 million in federal funding awarded last month, 82 percent of the necessary funds have been secured for the city's Waterfront Access project, according to Eric Holmes, Vancouver's economic development director.
Holmes touted the flexibility of the project's residential component and its promise of huge returns for city and state taxpayers, while downplaying concerns that the access project will divert resources and attention from downtown's core – an area undergoing its own mixed-use retail and residential renaissance.
"The access project will not siphon off resources from the rest of the city," Holmes said. "It will have a catalytic impact on the rest of downtown."
The continuing weakness of the region's condo market is another potential sticking point. Last month, dozens of unsold condos went to auction in a 200-plus unit tower in Portland's South Waterfront development, prompting some questions about the viability of Vancouver's own riverfront ambitions.
However, Holmes says he believes those concerns are unfounded. He points out that Vancouver's riverfront plan, unlike South Waterfront, will be more integrated with the rest of the city's existing downtown.
The project would also include a phased construction of rental units and condos, built to match real estate market dynamics as each residential tower comes on-line, according to Holmes. The first residential building could be completed as early as 2012.
Included in last week's agreement was a $6 million pledge by Gramor towards the construction of a waterfront city park and trail. And perhaps most importantly, the development made a commitment to abide by the Vancouver City Center Vision agreement – a plan instituted in 2007 dividing downtown into six development districts.
The VCCV identifies guiding principles and policies encouraging residential development – a key component of the downtown core's "messy vitality," with a rich mix of residential, civic, retail and entertainment venues to promote round-the-clock activity.
In exchange, city agreed to complete the access project and to create, in conjunction with the Port of Vancouver, a railroad "quiet zone" downtown (see "Big changes for Port-owned land," on page 6).
"It's been a long, concerted effort by all of us, and it's going to have a profound impact on the city of Vancouver," Cain said. "We're glad to be part of it."