A good topic to chew on this week, 30 years after opening day. Business in Vancouver has done a good job documenting the backstory and the consequences:
The Expo 86 Effect
How Expo 86 changed Vancouver – The legacy of Expo 86, 30 years later.
One of Concord Pacific’s early plans for its industrial site was to rezone the land as residential and have a series of condominium towers surrounded by moats with bridges to enable access.
“The city rejected that plan for two reasons,” said former city councillor Gordon Price.
“One is that the plan didn’t extend the downtown grid, so it seemed to be separate. The little islands would effectively turn into gated communities. The second reason was that the hydraulics didn’t work, and it wouldn’t work with the impacts from False Creek.”
City council at the time, however, was ecstatic that the entire site was sold in one piece and that the price was seen to be low, Price said, because it made it easier for city council to comprehensively rezone the site to create a new community. The low price for the site also allowed the city to extract more public benefits and amenities from Concord Pacific.
“It put the city in a very good negotiating position,” Price said, “if you could even call it negotiating.” •
Gordon Price, who is on leave as director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, said the SkyTrain fulfilled the intentions of regional planners from the 1970s who wanted compact town centres throughout Metro Vancouver.
“It’s very concentrated density within walking distance of the SkyTrain station,” Price said. “It’s certainly, for many people, given them the option to live with more affordable housing without the transportation costs of having to own two cars if not one. It’s exceeded expectations from a planning utopia point of view.
“It’s taken longer than some thought, but, nonetheless, you want to build these systems for centuries.”
Price, who was elected to Vancouver city council right after Expo 86 ended in the fall of that year, said the region would have had to adopt a rapid transit system even if the world’s fair hadn’t come to Vancouver.
“Without it, it’s just unimaginable that Vancouver could function from a transportation point of view and be dependent upon the car.”
Expo 86 simply hastened SkyTrain’s arrival, he said.
As condo marketer Bob Rennie has often quipped: “We had Expo 86 and handed out our business card to the world, and they kept it.”
Veteran real estate consultant Michael Geller says Vancouver’s international exposure during the fair, coupled with Li Ka-shing’s deal for the Expo lands, made Vancouver an approved destination for capital from Asia.
“It was both the visits to Vancouver during Expo and the sale of the Expo lands that changed the course of the city,” he said. “As soon as Li Ka-shing bought those lands, a lot of other Asian investors – particularly from Hong Kong, but also from Singapore and Malaysia and Japan – all of a sudden, all of them started to not only look at Vancouver but to buy in Vancouver.”
The influx of capital and newcomers renewed historic connections between Asia and North America.
However, its impact on the city’s real estate market continues to echo through debates today over foreign investment’s role in a city happy to be cosmopolitan, yet unsettled at the cost of an unaffordability ranking second only to Hong Kong’s. But as young families look to surrounding municipalities for cheaper housing, one of Expo’s key legacy projects has come into its own.
SkyTrain stations have become nodes for high-density housing development, anchoring the compact, mixed-use communities considered key to a sustainable region. Thirty years after its development, SkyTrain is carrying the region’s real estate into the 21st century. •