Posted on February 03, 2015

Developers flock to Metro Vancouver’s Evergreen Line hubs

Houtan Rafii, vice-president of residential development for Beedie, in Coquitlam
Coquitlam’s transit-oriented strategy allows higher density, taller buildings near stations

By Evan Duggan, Special to The Sun February 3, 2015 1:06 PM

VANCOUVER — The City of Coquitlam is emerging as one of Metro Vancouver’s hottest attractions for developers, who are putting their stamp on a transformation taking place in neighbourhoods near stations of the Evergreen Line SkyTrain expansion, city officials and developers say.

Approved in 2011 by the regional mayor’s council, the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line will connect Coquitlam City Centre through Port Moody to Lougheed Town Centre. The line, expected to open in Summer 2016, will also connect to the existing Expo and Millennium Lines.

In Coquitlam, much of the transformation taking place along the Evergreen Line is in and around the Burquitlam Station, Lougheed Town Centre and City Centre hubs, said Coquitlam’s general manager of planning and development, Jim McIntyre.

Past mayors and councils in Coquitlam had been planning for rapid transit for several decades, he said in an interview. “It’s really gratifying to see it actually come to fruition and move from plans to reality.”

The Evergreen Line caught the development community’s attention quickly, he said. “There was one developer who managed to assemble 12 single-family lots in a row. That’s a pretty daunting task, but it was done.”

To make way for increased density at select nodes along the Evergreen Line, city council in 2012 approved a Transit-Oriented Development Strategy that would supplement existing neighbourhood plans without having to overhaul the entire planning system, he said. The plan allows for more density and taller buildings within 400 metres of the stations.

“You start with a station and there’s a certain walking radius — five to 10 minute walking radius — and that’s the core area,” McIntyre said. “So in the core area we’re looking for the greatest densities … with mixed-use developments. A mini downtown, if you will.”

He said the development becomes less dense in the “shoulder areas” between 400 and 800 metres from the station, and then blends into existing single-family neighbourhoods beyond that.

The challenge, he acknowledged, is to get the right residential-commercial balance without overwhelming a neighbourhood with large buildings. “That’s a common challenge,” he said. “You’ve got to be patient. You need the people there — residents, customers, shoppers. You need the population there before you can support the commercial businesses.”

The existing residential neighbourhoods in Burquitlam will help to ease the transition to higher density, he said. “At least we weren’t just starting with a big wide open commercial strip.”

Roughly 2½ years ago, Beedie Living purchased a plot about 200 metres from where Burquitlam Station will operate. Set to break ground within two months, Beedie’s 26-storey Crown condominium will include among its 180 units 16 three-bedroom homes sized at 1,020 square feet. The building will be ready for move-in two years from now.

“Once SkyTrain was announced and once that particular Burquitlam station was announced, it really fuelled ourselves and other developers to purchase development sites,” said Beedie Living’s vice-president of residential development, Houtan Rafii.

“Typically … and especially when we’re talking about multi-family buildings along the SkyTrain, builders generally target investors in today’s market, and there are more smaller suites,” he said, adding that their goal is to bring families into the Burquitlam hub.

“Our building, 50 per cent of it is either two- or three-bedroom homes,” he said. “We’re seeing families really keen on living in them.”

Beedie Living has also partnered with the city, BC Housing and the YWCA to erect a second structure on the site with seven family units to be run by the YWCA, which already operates a neighbouring building for women coming out of difficult relationships, Rafii said. “It will be a free-standing building on the same site as Crown.”

He said Burquitlam’s transformation is already beginning on a smaller scale with new businesses moving into the area. Soon the towers will begin to rise.

“One of our competing projects has about 400,000 square feet of new retail and mixed use, so all of this helps really to revitalize that neighbourhood,” he said, adding that residents will see a “higher level of retail activity” emerge in the area.

David Munro, Coquitlam’s manager of economic development, said the Evergreen hubs are seeing an influx of offices, medical services, retail and restaurants.

Coquitlam observed how neighbours like Vancouver and Burnaby focused dense development near their mass transit hubs, and city planners took a few notes, he said.

“Being prepared for it before it gets here so we don’t miss the market,” he said, naming one. “And have the policies in place to be prepared by 2041,” he said, noting that Coquitlam’s population is expected to rise from 138,000 today to around 224,000 by 2041.

“The spinoff of that is that business licenses are growing and building permits are growing,” he added. “Over the last four years we’ve had building permit values of over $345 million each year.

evan@evanduggan.com Twitter:@evanbduggan