As Vancouver re-examines River District plans, residents say amenities are slow to arrive

·4 min read

When Jana Jordan and her husband first moved to the River District in southeast Vancouver two years ago, they thought the budding neighbourhood had a lot going for it.

The Jordans were drawn to the abundance of walking paths along the Fraser River and liked the idea of having amenities like grocery stores and other shops close enough to walk to.

"It's very welcoming, especially when you've come from a busy day at work in the middle of Vancouver," Jordan said.

The biggest draw was the area's brand-new co-operative housing development — one of the few social housing options in the city without years-long wait lists. They applied for a townhouse, and got in.

The Jordans are still glad to have moved to the River District, a 128-acre area located on a vacant sawmill site south of Marine Drive between Boundary Road and Kerr Street.

But the growing pains of a neighbourhood created from scratch are starting to wear thin.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Families living in the area say amenities like a community centre and child care spaces have been slow in coming. They also say the area is poorly serviced by public transit.

This week, city councillors will examine a 176-page report to review and update the development plan for the community, officially known as the East Fraser Lands.

$234M amenities budget

The report highlights the challenges of planning and paying for a moving target of ever-increasing services and amenities that the city has added to its list of priorities over the years, including social housing, child care and active transportation infrastructure.

Amenities for the 7.8 million square feet of development include shops, parks and plazas, four child care centres, two schools and a 30,000 sq. ft. community centre.

The city usually pays for community amenities in part through fees charged to developers.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The total cost of all the amenities for the area are now $234 million — more than double what was originally budgeted in 2006, and which doesn't include a highly-desired library and fire hall.

The budget is short $50 million. The report blames the funding shortfall on rising costs, fewer development revenues than anticipated because of social housing requirements, and competing priorities within the neighbourhood and across the city.

Gordon Price, a former city councillor and urban planner, says it's not unusual for services and amenities in new neighbourhoods to lag behind the pace of residents moving in.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The first wave of residents often rent or buy at more affordable rates while the community is still under construction, Price says. The trade-off is that the amenities they were promised are still in the pipeline, waiting for a critical mass of people to pay for them.

"The dilemma for the city is, should we provide all of the expectations for a complete community — schools, infrastructure, transportation — and try to keep the housing affordable all of the time?" he said.

"The answer to that is no."

Community centre delays

Carmer Marer lives in the same co-op as the Jordans.

Marer says programs for families with young children in the area are virtually non-existent.

"There are only so many times you can happily go to the same playgrounds," she said in an email.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Marer also wonders when amenities like the community centre will finally come. The report says it was originally scheduled for 2025, when construction in the neighbourhood is expected to be half-way completed and about 50 per cent of the anticipated 12,500 residents will be living there.

City staff now anticipate it won't arrive until 2027. Planners are struggling with a $15 million shortfall to build the $35 million community centre.

One option proposed in the report is to ease the utilities development costs levy for the developer, Wesgroup Properties, in exchange for it to build amenities like the community centre.

City planners also propose adding an additional 1.5 million square feet of development, which would raise more Community Amenity Contributions from Wesgroup.

To offset the additional density, the report proposes adding 20 more childcare spaces and two new acres of park, and improving transportation.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University's city program, says he was surprised to see how few additional amenities and services city planners are proposing to tack on, given the proposed additional development.

"This is going to bring in some pretty important questions about ensuring the kind of support systems for the residents that might be moving there or who already did," he said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC