Saturday, 26 February 2011

Musing Urbanist on Tour - Vancouver Olympic Village

Following a previous article on the Vancouver Olympic Village back in 2010 (and seen here), I could not pass up a visit on my recent trip to the city. With my visit coinciding with the one year anniversary of the Winter Games, the media was full of reflective stories on the legacy of the event. Unfortunately this reflection was not wholly positive as it focused on leaked emails surrounding the death of Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili and the ongoing troubles of the Olympic Village. Unsurprisingly, I have chosen to focus on the latter.

Pricing the Market

Following the exodus of the 3,000 Olympic athletes and officials in February 2010, the 600 apartments in South East False Creek were placed on the market. Very little happened. As a result the developer (Millennium South East False Creek Properties) went into receivership, owing the City of Vancouver approximately $740 million in loans. At a time of fiscal tightening in the public sector, the local tax-payers are understandably desperate to see a return on the investment. As a last role of the dice the City have slashed prices to stimulate activity and try to overcome the 'ghost town' feel. With some prices cut by 50% and a rebranding exercise underway, it appears there is light on the horizon with the developer claiming that 128 units have since been sold over the course of a weekend (see here).

During my short visit the lack of commercial activity was notable. Very few of the promised retail occupiers have started trading from the ground floor units (although the standalone liquor store may have been a sign of the times!). This is understandable as until the Village is populated with sufficient people and visitors there is no demand for groceries and restaurants. Therefore the City will be hoping that the recent sales, though representing a loss, will be enough to kickstart commercial interest and activity will snowball from there.

Key lesson to learn - the developer bought the land at too high a price. This required the apartments to be sold at levels which were not appealing to the local market. Vancouver is awash with condominium developments and the Olympic Village offers very little to distinguish it from surrounding schemes.

Design Review

Reading Owen Hatherley's masterful deconstruction of much of Britain's recent waterside urban regeneration (here) weeks before my visit prepared me well for what the Village offers. The scheme provides all the notable characteristics that define much of recent high density urban development. Overly small apartments - tick. Token splashes of colour on external elevations - tick. Wind swept public space with misplaced public art and street furniture - tick. Whilst the overall lack of people did not help the ambiance, I felt it offered nothing different to what I have seen in Greenwich, Salford, Leeds or Newcastle.

Most of all, the Village felt isolated and out on a limb. Downtown Vancouver is across the water but it feels worryingly distant. Being a grid city, Vancouver finds it hard to connect up the key parts of the city with a mass transit system. The metro and bus system are both too infrequent and lack the coverage required to connect the Village to other parts of the city. Whilst the Village benefits from the Sea Wall walkway, it still felt frustratingly disconnected.