The aim of preserving Metro Vancouver’s dwindling industrial land base to support jobs is increasingly running into conflict with other goals in the regional district’s growth strategy, some area mayors warn.
Metro’s 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan, which sought to halt urban sprawl, did nothing to stop the conversion of industrial sites into more lucrative residential and commercial developments.
The result has been an eruption of condo towers on former industrial areas of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster and an exodus of warehousing and manufacturing east towards the Fraser Valley. Farmland prices have also been bid up and road congestion has worsened from trucks that now spend too much time crisscrossing the region.
Port Metro Vancouver has called for an industrial land reserve to secure suitable land for long-term port expansion.
Metro’s 2011 Regional Growth Strategy didn’t go that far, but it does require a vote of the board to approve any future conversion of industrial land to mixed employment lands, which allows broader business uses.
In many areas that amounts to closing the barn door after the horse has left.
“At one time we had 17 mills on the river in our city,” New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright said. “Now we have zero.”
Farmland defender and Richmond Coun. Harold Steves has been among the most adamant that industrial land be preserved lest even more development pressure fall on embattled agricultural land, threatening Metro’s food security.
But others say rigidly retaining all remaining industrial zones may also backfire, bringing yet more unintended consequences.
Oil refineries once occupied more than 600 acres of Port Moody, but Mayor Mike Clay said the land is now largely unused and won’t be replaced with any similar heavy industry.
The city has designated the lands as special study areas that may eventually be proposed for conversion from industry.
Meanwhile, Metro’s growth strategy expects Port Moody to take nearly 20,000 more residents in the coming years – a 50 per cent increase by 2041.
“They need to go somewhere and the only place I can put them is on that now-abandoned, undeveloped industrial land,” said Clay, who argued preserving industrial sites in the heart of the region’s urban core “doesn’t always make sense.”
Trucks can no longer easily get in and out of Port Moody and residents would be up in arms in the unlikely event smokestack-style heavy industry returned to their inlet, Clay said, adding high tech parks and research centres would be a better fit.
He wants Metro planners to signal their support for redevelopment rather than let Port Moody first go through a long planning process and then find itself at odds with the regional government, possibly even fighting it in court as Langley Township has over development of farmland.
Crews are now building the Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension from Burnaby to Coquitlam and that brings up another “chicken or egg” problem for Clay.
An additional SkyTrain station at the west end of Port Moody will only be built if that area densifies, which Clay says depends on Metro letting the city upzone another smaller industrial site in that area – the former Andrés winery.
“So here we go around our circle,” he said.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan told Metro’s regional planning committee Friday the rising value of industrial land, especially after a transit line goes through, is a significant challenge.
“Many people are speculating on industrial land and many companies are choosing not to rebuild on industrial land because they believe there’s more money in potential residential,” Corrigan said.
New SkyTrain lines have also spurred the exit of industry, said Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer.
“We put transit on industrial land because that’s where we can afford the land and where it has the least impact on existing residents,” she said.
“And then we want to have transit-oriented development, so we build up around it. Which is a fantastic policy, but as a result of it we’ve lost industrial land.”
Metro officials have proposed new guidelines for cities on how best to protect and use industrial land.
Steves said he also favours Delta’s proposal for a large inland port at Ashcroft, where shipping containers can be resorted without contributing to worsening road congestion and rising land values in the Lower Mainland.