What’s the point of Vancouver?

Vancouver is having an existential moment, as big businesses wonder where they fit into a city becoming a ‘lifestyle bubble’ for tourists and the rich

Andy Clark/Reuters

Andy Clark/Reuters

Vancouver residents are rightfully proud of their “most livable city” accolades, but at least one of the region’s most important employers warns of an emerging “lifestyle bubble” that threatens to squeeze out big business.

The term appears in a recent update to the Port Metro Vancouver’s long-range planning document, which attempts to set out a vision for the region through 2050. Among the four scenarios contemplated: a future in which Vancouver’s only significant industries are those that service tourists and the wealthy people who move to the rain-slicked B.C. city to retire, relax and enjoy the pristine ocean and mountain views from their pricey condos. Needless to say, there isn’t much room in this seaside Shangri-La for a busy commercial port and its towering cranes, piles of rusty containers and fleets of exhaust-spewing trucks.

Robin Silvester, the port authority’s CEO, can already feel the window walls closing in. While booming trade with China resulted in the port handling nearly 140 million tons of cargo last year, up three per cent from 2013, the 16 municipalities surrounding the port’s 27 bustling regional terminals are increasingly wary of living next door to heavy industry. The drawn out fight over Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion project in neighboring Burnaby, which would pump Alberta crude to tankers at the port, is just one high profile example of the emerging schism. The local handwringing that followed the spill of 2,700 litres of bunker fuel from a grain-carrying ship in English Bay last April is another.

For the port authority, a key issue is the dwindling supply of industrial space near marine terminals. Municipalities in the Lower Mainland have responded to soaring demand for real-estate by re-zoning commercial land for condos and retail. But Silvester warns the trend will soon begin to choke off the port’s operations if big companies like, say, Canadian Tire can no longer find adjacent land to build or expand their distribution centres. “We’re at a risk of hitting an economic brick wall,” he says, adding that it’s not just a local issue since one out of every five dollars of trade with Canada moves through Vancouver. “We think there’s less than a 10-year supply of industrial land left in the Lower Mainland.”

It’s hardly the first time someone has suggested Vancouver is at risk of becoming a “resort city.” Nevertheless, it’s jarring to hear the words come from the lips of an organization that, by its own count, supports nearly 100,000 Canadian jobs and contributes nearly $10 billion a year to Canada’s economy. It also raises the question of whether Vancouver could function with a primarily service-oriented economy—a city of millionaire homeowners (and would-be ones) and their support staff.

Admittedly, it’s an extreme scenario. But as local newspaper columnist Barbara Yaffe recently pointed out, it’s hardly far-fetched. The port authority’s study, written by consulting firm Deloitte in consultation with dozens of stakeholders, sketched out a vision that, with few exceptions, sounds remarkably like 2015, never mind 2050. It foresees: more foreign investment further driving up local housing prices; a flight of middle class families to cheaper suburbs; growing local environmental opposition to big energy projects like pipelines, prompting their owners to relocate them to other ports in northern B.C. or south of the border; and a gradual transformation of Burrard Inlet’s industrial waterfront into a playground for local condo owners.

David Ley, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, says rising property prices could indeed one day prompt the city to convert low-density waterfront lands in East Vancouver over to residential use (although not the lands directly managed by the port authority, which are owned by the federal government). It’s happened already in other neighbourhoods. “Much industrial land has been lost in central Vancouver since 1970, when all of False Creek was still industrial,” Ley says of the finger of water that stretches inland from English Bay and is now ringed by condos. He adds that a key issue for the city going forward will be the tenacity with which it preserves industrial real-estate—hardly the sort of issue that’s likely to light a fire under local politicians or the voters they represent.

Beyond the port, other Vancouver businesses are expressing concern about the impact of soaring property values—and the mainland Chinese money believed to be driving it—on the health of the local economy. Earlier this year, VanCity credit union released a study that warned rising housing costs could push young professionals out of the city within 10 years, potentially sparking a labour crisis. Meanwhile, a poll by Angus Reid found that as many as 150,000 families in the region were considering moving away from Vancouver, sparking questions about who will fill all those service-oriented jobs. Even Vancouver’s burgeoning tech sector, anchored by fast-growing firms like Hootsuite, has complained about the challenge of luring management talent. “The big question for the future of the city’s economy is [how] to make the lifestyle amenities here a magnet for footloose businesses,” Ley says. “But for that to happen there also has to be more affordable housing or new transportation links to cheaper land.”

While Vancouver’s predicament is somewhat unique in Canada, residents can take comfort in knowing other cities around the world face similar challenges. In London, where sky-high home prices are also the norm, commercial landlords warn that efforts to transform vast swaths of office space into residential homes could have a serious economic impact down the road. In Westminster, a neighbourhood in central London, it’s estimated that 4.4 million square feet of commercial space has been lost over the years, according to the Financial Times. “We need to look carefully at the balance of homes and workplaces and the full range of housing needs,” the newspaper quoted the Westminster Property Association as saying. To completely replace offices with housing would be to “replace one problem with another.”

Back in B.C., the Vancouver port authority hopes the city won’t ever face such a stark choice. Hence, the federal agency and its stakeholders have embraced a future vision where shipping and trade becomes much greener and is therefore allowed to thrive alongside Vancouver’s increasingly wealthy and environmentally-minded residents. Silvester, for one, points to the port’s steps in this direction by being among the first to employ a dedicated environmental staff and a recent decision to deploy hydrophones in the Georgia Strait to monitor underwater shipping noise, which is believed to have an adverse impact on whales. “We’ve got this triangle of land between the mountains, the [U.S.-Canada] border and the sea,” Silvester says, noting that the Lower Mainland’s  population is expected to grow from 2.5 million now to 3.5 million within the next three decades. “All these different things need to be accommodated for it to continue to be a vibrant and sustainable region. If we don’t get that balance right, we’re going to have a problem.”


What’s the point of Vancouver?

  1. What a poorly researched article. The Port report hardly creates a complete economy picture of Vancouver – even without crude they plan to increase volume 70 percent by 2020. And you pick ONE scenario from the Metro Van report which includes several other scenarios. And you fail to mention the Conference Board of Canada reports that Vancouver has the fastest growing economy in Canada and will remain in that spot for the next 5 years…… Pretty one sided article obviously looking to illicit a knee jerk response.

    • vancouver has one of the worst economies in North America , strip away all the people trading real estate with each other and there isnt much of anything going on in vancouver…scary actually

      vancouver has no big companies, no head offices, no innovation,

  2. Also failed to mention that the region now has protections in place for remaining industrial land including 450 acres of the False Creek Flats

  3. Opposition to more oil tankers is not opposition to all port activity. People were upset with the bunker oil leak from a grain ship not because it was a grain ship, but because it showed that the Coast Guard was woefully unprepared for even a small spill on a calm sunny day. The Port of Vancouver is also home to an $800 million a year and growing cruising industry that barely existed before the 1980’s. What would happen to that and the related jobs if we had an oil spill and poor clean up like the one in 1973?

  4. The points in Mr. Sorensen’s article are all well understood by many within the region. While we are by no means at a crisis stage, the long term prospects for economic growth in greater Vancouver are certainly limited by the lack of an integrated and regional approach, parochial politics, and an intransigent and influential activist movement that views growth as an all-or-nothing affair that does not include any involvement of Canada’s extractive industries – such as forestry, mining or oil and gas development.

    The Vancouver Economic Commission is a case in point. That organization’s focus is driven not by the business sector as it was when it was established, but by the office of the Vancouver mayor. Its interests end at the city’s boundaries — Vancouver is only one of over 20 municipalities in the region, and its 600,000 population is a fraction of the region’s 2.2 million inhabitants. The city has no formal economic accord with neighbouring jurisdictions to improve the business climate, and it has for the past 7 years taken a combative approach to senior levels of government on a long list of issues.

    To move forward the region needs leadership that promotes a regional plan for economic growth and diversity, and one that includes the private sector as well as senior levels of government. There is no sign on the horizon, however, that this will happen anytime soon. Some of us remain hopeful nonetheless that action will be taken as more of us comprehend the challenges we face.

    • You make it sound as though economic growth is the result of planning and policies. In fact, growth is what happens when the planners and policymakers aren’t looking. If you want the region to grow, get rid of the commissions and economic development agencies (easy enough), and neutralize the anti-growth activist groups (much harder, but certainly their funding can be cut off). I’ve never heard of a region growing because of better coordination between the municipalities. That is largely irrelevant.

      • The main legal and policy tool to address land use planning (including the preservation of industrial land) in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (aka Metro Vancouver) is the regional growth strategy: refer to section 849 of the Local Government Act, which sets out the purpose of a regional growth strategy. Member municipalities’ official community plans must include a regional context statement that is accepted in accordance with section 866 of the LGA by the Metro Vancouver board. All bylaws enacted or works undertaken by a municipal council (or Metro Vancouver’s board with respect to unincorporated areas of the regional district) or greater board (such as the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage or Water Districts, after the adoption of an official community plan must be consistent with the relevant plan. OCPs accordingly impact whether land can be rezoned or not.

  5. The point of Vancouver to all three levels of government is to turn it into a luxury resort for the world’s rich. Developers are making billions raising the city to the ground and filling it with sterile glass cookie cutter condos intended to be sold to overseas investors. The same developers have made generous campaign contributions (looking at you Gregor Rennie-Robertson and Christy Clark) that have significantly influenced decision making. In a nutshell, if you are a young person in Vancouver and not inheriting any property, you should be making plans to leave. Things can change, but people will need to start paying better attention who they vote for. Political leaders with smooth voices and good looks, who make noises about being progressive and green – are not always what they seem.

    • Right on point. Plus there is no understanding or ‘will’ to stimulate entrepreneurship — the life-blood of a successful, modern society.

  6. The most absurd part of this article is the notion that anyone would take seriously any propositions put forward by a federal commission serving the interests of Canadian industry, in the planning of the future of Vancouver. Anything that Port Metro Vancouver has to say on the future of Vancouver is undoubtedly NOT in the best interest of the people of Vancouver. The article promised much and delivered little. Raising the London analogy was valid enough, but concentrating on Vancouver’s port activities as a primary factor in planning its future is way off base. Residents here don’t really care if port lands are squeezed out of some of their current locations in the central lower mainland, nor should they. Manhattan was once a bustling port and is now not a port at all. The most promising future for Vancouver is one of trade, commerce and R&D. We have exceptional universities, highly skilled workers, and a great lifestyle to attract the best and brightest.

    • Your last sentence is part of the problem. Vancouver has become like a giant lulu lemon ad: a lifestyle statement and little else.

    • Port activities/port jobs and industry are far more higher paying and far more stable than the other non industrial jobs in Vancouver. My nephew just got a job at the docks last year and his annual pay is over $100K and that is before overtime. He is 28. His friends working in the service industry are making in the $25K range and his friends in the software industry are in the $40K range. The proof is in the numbers.

  7. Good article. Some interesting points. The citizens of Vancouver are causing their own demise. This demise is occurring from the environmentalists and the “greenies” as I like to call them. Leave aside the price of housing for a moment and consider the following. Anyone or any company that proposes an industrial project these days is shouted down as being harmful to the environment. Projects are marred in delays and litigation. Investors look elsewhere to source their products and in all cases they are able to find an alternative supplier. Take LNG for example. Fine. Let’s not build any plants here in BC. Guess what. The plants are and have been built in the Gulf Coast USA. What did BC gain from thing? Absolutely nothing. If anything people in BC lost out on an opportunity to work at good and high paying jobs. During the plant construction phase as well as when the plant is in operation. Make no mistake about it. Jobs in the industrial sector ARE well and high paying jobs. These are jobs in the six figure range and are jobs with benefits. The type of jobs where you can raise families on. However we are driving these jobs away and with it any chance for people to earn a very decent living wage. All that is left here in Vancouver are low paying service sector jobs. Even the software industry here in Vancouver is not as well paying as jobs in industry.

  8. B.C. Has zero going on of real value other than an out-of-control Immigration Industry diseased with fraud.

    Hundreds of thousands of pigeon holes in the sky spring out of the ground and everything in them, including their glass comes from China. Canada cannot bring itself to MAKE anything.

Sign in to comment.