Posted on May 06, 2011

Evergreen opportunities

BY JOEL MCKAY - Business in Vancouver As property prices in Vancouver reach for the stratosphere, bedroom communities are rolling out the welcome mat for developers who want to build housing that’s still relatively affordable. Coquitlam is one of them. 

 The dumbbell-shaped community of 115,000 has launched several initiatives to revitalize mature neighbourhoods and jumpstart greenfield development. Earlier this month, city council approved a revitalization plan for its aging Austin Heights neighbourhood, which is full of mid-20th- century retail and office spaces that line Austin Avenue between Blue Mountain and Linton streets. 

 The 20-year plan would add 5,000 residents and 50,000 square metres of commercial floor space to the area. “We want to make sure it’s a very, very vibrant neighbourhood,” said Raul Allueva, Coquitlam’s manager development services. Like many other North American cities, Coquitlam consists of several distinct neighbourhoods that sprawl over a large geographic area. That’s forced city council to focus on specific areas rather than the whole city at once. 

Although the plan to turn Austin Heights into a high-density shopping destination is barely out of the gate, one of the Lower Mainland’s largest developers has already signed on. Burnaby’s Beedie Group has proposed a 24-storey tower on a former gas station site at the corner of Austin and Blue Mountain. The project has yet to be approved, but Houtan Rafii, Beedie’s vice-president of residential development, said the highrise represents a $30 million to $35 million investment that would kick-start redevelopment. “We think it has a tonne of potential,” Rafii said. “There hasn’t been any significant development in Austin heights outside of singlefamily homes and subdivisions for probably 20 to 25 years; we think there is a demand.” 

 Rafii hopes to go to market with the project later this year, but Austin eights isn’t the only part of Coquitlam that’s getting a facelift. City council is also looking to update development plans for the quaint French neighbourhood of Maillardville. And there’s no shortage of new highrises going up in central Coquitlam near Coquitlam Cent re mall, which at t racts shoppers from nearby Port Coquitlam and Port Moody. “We consider this the city centre for the Tri-Cities,” Allueva said. In recent years, major developers such as Bosa Properties, Cressey Development, Intergulf Development and Onni Group have built towers near the mall. 

In April, Polygon Development approached city council for a permit to build a new 27-storey tower and fourstorey apartment building a few blocks from the mall. And Bosa has plans to start phase four of its major highrise development near city hall soon. One of the main drivers for investment in the area is the proposed Evergreen Line, a rapid transit system that would link central Coquit lam with downtown Vancouver. 

 The line is expected to drive up area property values. “What we’re doing now is getting energized and getting all our opportunities for densification ready for developers,” said councillor Mae Reid. “I think once the shovels go in the ground that changes everything.” But no one knows when the Evergreen Line will be built. The $1.4 billion project has been on the books for years with little movement, prompting locals to rename it the “Nevergreen” line. The four-year construction period is expected to begin later this year, though TransLink has yet to come up with its $400 million share to fund the project. Michael Hind, executive director of the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce, said development in Coquitlam is going ahead anyway. “We’re hoping Evergreen is coming, we think it’s going to come, but right now [development is] going forward regardless,” Hind said. 

Reid pointed to nearby Burke Mountain, where the forest is being cleared to make way for new neighbourhoods that are expected to attract 25,000 residents to the area. In the last three years, statistics show that Coquitlam has added 2,498 new homes and made way for 20,652 square metres of new commercial and industrial space. 

Last year, according to Avison Young, the city recorded $16.5 million worth of industrial land deals. And even though the real estate market in Coquitlam isn’t as hot as Vancouver’s, it’s far more affordable. The average house in central Coquitlam is valued at $696,000 compared with $1.13 million for a 33-foot lot on Vancouver’s west side. For Reid, who’s been in the real estate business for 30 years, it’s a no-brainer. “We’re probably the last area this side of the Fraser [River] that has a lot of developable land,” Reid said. “That’s why people are coming out here; it’s greenfield.”