Downtown Metrotown

I first read in the Georgia Straight, 24 Hours , BC Business and Vancouver Sun about the City of Burnaby’s plan to make Metrotown a “true  downtown”.It seems the Burnaby Now got “scooped” this time. 

Councillor Volkow is not certain Burnaby needs a downtown, and neither am I. Moreover, I’m not convinced that Metrotown is the ideal candidate for that distinction. The success of planned downtowns is debateable; they tend to develop naturally and often thrive on their unplanned quirks and historic buildings alleyways and streetscapes. Also, the process is disppointingly reminiscent of the flawed public hearing process, where developers and the City work in advance on their plans, then present the “proposal” without fanfare and on a short timeline for adoption (8 months). Those  residents with concerns or opposed to the proposal have a brief window to speapk up. Their concerns are dismissed in writing and the proposal moves quickly to unanimous adoption by an uncritical group of councillors. 

Phase One (Preliminary Vision, Principles and Land Use Framework and Community Input: May – August 2016). Phase Two (draft Plan: September/October 2016) and Phase Three  Adoption: November/December 2016). The former plan, which went off the rails with the development of Metrotown Mall, is 40 years old. a planned review of Maywood in 2000 has never materialized. And, a public process , promised as a “first priority” at the time “supplementary” or “s-zoning” was introduced in 2010 remains nothing more than an unfulfilled promise



New plan

I have to admit, there is a sort of sexiness associated with the downtown core of major North American cities. When I first moved here as a student, my friends and I would go to the clubs in Vancouver’s downtown core, or go for coffee and stroll along Robson Street. There was always a mix of young and old. There were the office people in their suits, the buskers with their acts, the street venders selling their wares, There were students, shoppers and the panhandlers on the busy streets. At night there were the couples going out for dinner and drinks or attending an event, and there were the sports fans and and the partiers out for a good time. “Downtown has had the capability of providing something for everybody,” said urbanist Jane Jacobs, “only because it has been created by everybody.”

.New plan2


The suitability of Metrotown as a true downtown is questionable. Downtown is a term usually  used to refer to a city’s central business district (CBD). Metrotown sits at the edge of the municipality and is not the historical or geographical core of Burnaby, nor has it been the traditional economic core, save the fact that it boasts the second largest shopping mall in Western Canada. While Downtown Vancouver has a large mall, Pacific Center, this shopping area does not define the downtown. Vancouver also has an iconic art gallery and interesting street art installations that give the downtown a stronger cultural feel. In contrast, Burnaby’s public art is more reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union. I note that the City has given approval for the installation of a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China,  at the culmination of its “Art Walk”  at the entrance of Central Park. Art galleries are also not high on the Mayor’s cultural agenda.


Another component of most downtowns is the presence of high rise office buildings. There are a few, most notably Metrotowers 1,2 and 3 adjacent to the Metrotown Skytrain and the 32 year old Metro Vancouver building on Kingsway, which is slated to be sold by Metro Vancouver and possibly demolished. Finally, there is the boot-shaped Telus Building at Kingsway and Boundary. The Mayor has lamented how difficult it has been to draw office tower development to Burnaby.  According to a Vancouver Sun article from February 2015, about 45 per cent of the large office towers with 10,000 sq.ft. or more of space in Metro Vancouver are either in Vancouver’s Broadway corridor or its downtown core. The problem prompted Mayor Corrigan to even ask “Vancouver to reject new office developments.”


Despite renewed strength in the economy, office vacancy rates are over 13 percent in Burnaby and the inventory continues to grow.  Avison Young states, rates may soften in Burnaby as heightened vacancy persists and new supply is delivered. Vacancy will likely continue to rise in 2016. Additional office space is also included as part of the Brentwood Town Centre redevelopment and Onni Group’s Gilmore Station project. With leasing activity likely to remain subdued for the remainder of 2015 and only a handful of large users currently in the market with lease expirations in the next 12 to 36 months, landlords in Burnaby’s office market will need to be very competitive and creative by offering large inducements and extended deal terms to attract and retain tenants.

Aside from the fact that Metrotown does not seem to have the business base characteristic of downtowns, the “vision” proposed by City staff and put forth to be endorsed by City Council without any public input calls for additional residential density in Metrotown.  Somehow, they hope the office towers will miraculously follow. Metrotown is already incredibly dense. The City and region continue to include the area of Central Park in their calculations of density. Removing the park from the calculation puts Metrotown at densities well beyond those of downtown Vancouver.

2013 Downtown Density Report_8.22

When compared to other North American cities of varying size, residential densities in Metrotown and  downtown Vancouver are significantly higher than other downtowns. Conversely, Job density is lower than in other central business districts in North America.  So we have more residents and fewer good paying jobs than other true downtowns. We also have a growing surplus of empty office space.

The Mayor’s “vision” to make Metrotown a true downtown is nothing more than a ploy to help his developer friends build more tiny, expensive condos with better views and protect single family neighbourhoods from densification. This plan only expedites the demovictions of low income renters who will ultimately be forced out of Burnaby. The vague plan purports to be inclusive but has no provisions for affordable housing (Burnaby ranked worst among 523 municipalities in Canada for rental affordability and accessibility according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index)

The most disappointing aspect of the plan is that the initial visioning process excluded the residents directly affected by the proposed changes. This is a repeated pattern demonstrated by Burnaby’s leadership.  In the fall of 2014, the Metrotown Residents’ Association organized a debate in Metrotown for the civic election. All candidates were invited. Independents and the coalition opposition party attended, yet not a single incumbent councilor or trustee could find the time to attend and answer questions from residents of Metrotown. Jane Jacobs, one of North America’s foremost urbanists has stated, “The remarkable intricacy and liveliness of downtown can never be created by the abstract logic of a few men.” If Burnaby hopes to achieve a vibrant place that draws people not just to shop but to enjoy a truly “downtown” experience, the few men who control this city should let the citizens decide what end results they want, so the residents can adapt the rebuilding machinery to suit them.