What’s Happening in the River District?

Susan M Boyce
June 5, 2015

It spans 130 acres, an area three times the size of Granville Island. When complete, it will be home to more than 15,000 residents, making its population larger than the City of White Rock. This community will comprise 7.2 million square feet of residential space, 250,000 square feet of retail space, and 260,000 square feet of office space, plus a brand new elementary school, four daycare centres, and 25 acres of parkland – an area bigger than Gastown.

Yet, surprisingly, despite being poised to become the largest single development site in Metro Vancouver, River District remains a mystery to many. First-time visitors inevitably have the same reaction: “I had no idea there was all this space here.”

A Grand Scope

Now over a decade in the making, River District brings the visionary outlook of master developer Wesgroup to one of Vancouver’s last riverfront locations. When complete, River District will be comprised of five distinct yet interconnected neighbourhoods and provide a total of 7,000 homes ranging from townhouses to low-rise apartments to high-rise towers. The development has already garnered Wesgroup a number of accolades for community engagement and the extensive remediation work required to bring the once-industrial site back to life. Now the vision is becoming reality.

On the site’s western edge, where Romer’s Burgers is a popular dining spot, is where Polygon, Wesgroup’s residential partner, has already built approximately 600 homes in the first three phases of this community. They are currently marketing a fourth project, Rhythm, while their fifth and final contribution is in the permitting process. All future buildings will be built by Wesgroup.

Breaking ground in July or August this year, One Town Centre will introduce the neighbourhood’s the first tower component, followed by the low-rise Two Town Centre. The town centre is designed to become a central, social hub that Ben Taylor, Wesgroup’s director of sales, says will be the heart and soul of the community. TD Bank has already set up its first BC mobile banking branch to have an immediate onsite presence.

Taylor anticipates the public plaza and commercial components will be complete within three years, and the High Street, with what Wesgroup hopes will be an eclectic mix of boutique retail as well as a few key retail anchors, will be done within five. There will also be a 14,000-plus-square-foot, residents-only amenity building with features including an aquatic centre, state-of-the-art fitness facility, yoga/dance studio and squash courts.

Future phases of residential development further east will be completed gradually in the following five to 10 years, with the timeline until total completion of the master plan likely to be around 15 years.

Making the Community Work

Peeter Wesik, Wesgroup’s president, notes that with four previous master planned communities already in its Lower Mainland portfolio, Wesgroup has adopted four cornerstones that aim to make up a vibrant, happy place to live.

Schools, he says, have over and over been ranked as buyers’ number one must-have element. “Schools, especially elementaries, bring a natural, authentic social network because kids bring neighbours together,” he explains, adding two sites within River District have already been set aside for schools.

Shopping ranked number two. “There’s a social aspect to shopping within your own community that increases a neighbourhood’s desirability — to being walking distance to where you can meet friends for coffee, breakfast, or a beer after work.”

Proximity to nature is Wesgroup’s third component, and Wesik stresses that from day one, River District has been meticulously planned to capitalize on its spectacular location. As soon as the company bought this site, they built a temporary trail connecting with Burnaby to the east and to an existing pathway system to the west. There are also formal salmon preservation and songbird enhancement strategies in place.

Finally, Wesik notes, walkability is critical to a community’s health. “The definition of new urbanism is all about moving away from reliance on the automobile, about creating communities were people can simply park their car after work and walk or bike everywhere. River District is designed to be highly walkable – you’re never going to be more than 10 minutes away from coffee shops or other amenities. And once you’re off Marine Way, you’re on side streets so it’s quiet and safe.”

Even though the site is not near any current transit hubs, transportation options are coming. For those homeowners who prefer to live without a car, Modo, Evo and Zip Car are already on board to provide designated parking and Car2Go recently signed on. It’s also anticipated that TransLink will ultimately provide high-speed shuttle service to the Canada Line as well as the Metrotown and Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain stations.

Legacy for the Future

“What I find personally exciting is seeing how River District will grow and evolve,” Wesik says. “In five years, I’ll be able to bring my grandchildren here for lunch and walk my dog along the river. We’ll go for ice cream, check out the farmer’s market, and hopefully catch a sunset or two.”

Susan M Boyce
Susan M Boyce is a Vancouver-based freelance writer specializing in real estate and residential development. She has co-authored four books on writing and business and is a regular contributor to REW.ca and Real Estate Weekly newspaper.