Vancouver's Olympic-Sized Billion Dollar Burden

Olympic VIllage in Vancouver, CanadaIn Vancouver, as in other Pacific Northwest cities like Seattle and Portland, sustainability is an overriding principal for architecture and urban planning. So it was with pride that the city's Olympic organizing officials crafted a public-private partnership in which an inner-city, former industrial zone became not only the site for the Olympic Village -- housing for more than 2,700 Olympic athletes during the during the games in sustainably constructed buildings -- but a laudable mix of market-rate condos and subsidized affordable housing afterward. Given how such recovery of inner city land reduces the need for sprawl at the edges of the Vancouver metro area, the development actually embodies all three components of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra.

The Olympic Village, once the games are completed, will give way to what's being called the Millennium Water development, featuring about 1,100 units, 250 of which will be set aside available for low-income households, and 120 for rentals. The buildings are targeted to save up to 50 percent on energy (versus code), while up to 70% of electricity needs are provided by an innovative system that recovers heat from sewage.

The waterfront condos are winning high praise from Olympic athletes, who are not used to having such cushy housing; most units have high-end finishes such as marble countertops, as well as expansive views of the downtown skyline and distant snowcapped mountains. "It's blown us away, to be honest," American speedskater Chad Hedrick told Time magazine. "They really went big on this. It's a million-dollar view, for sure."Located along Vancouver's SkyTrain transit line and adjacent to downtown, living in a post-Olympic Village condo would give future residents a front row seat for one of the most vibrant and livable cities in North America. Vancouver is inherently Canadian, polite and well mannered. But it is an urban crossroads of numerous other cultures, a more diverse city than most Canadian metropolises. Over the last decade, a forest of tall, thin condo towers have added enough density to help Vancouver pass that crucial urban tipping point wherein there becomes a reliable array of restaurants and shops along every major avenue.

At the same time, the development-conceived during the economic boom and opened amidst an historic recession-has been controversial given its cost to the city of Vancouver. The city planned to invest about $47 million in the project back in 2006. But by early 2009, new Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson conceded that the city (and angry taxpayers) would be responsible for a $1 billion project, thanks to a combination of cost overruns and the impact of the recession. The city had to bail out the private developers financing the project. Some people now fear that the city will be forced to put the low-income and rental units on the market to refill its coffers.

What are these units going for? A recent look at the website for local realtor Imran Ali of Sutton West Coast Realty, found a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the 1661 Ontario building had sold for $752,521. On another site for Parker Realty, a 1,189 square foot unit in the same building, also with two bedrooms and two baths, was going for $1,042,721. According to an analysis by Vancouver real estate professional Maggie Chandler of Chandler Realty, the most expensive listing is $1,590,000 for a 1,225 square foot penthouse and the least expensive is a $319,000 studio.

Some of these units could ultimately go for less than that given the pressure on the city to make sales. At the same time, Vancouver condo prices were up 15% in January 2010 compared to the same period a year earlier. And given that the Olympic Village is centrally located on potentially prime riverfront property, the ensuing condo developments needn't necessarily be seen as boondoggle. Millennium Water and comparable post-Olympics developments are part of a holistic effort to stitch together the places where Vancouverites live, work and play.

In its vision for South East False Creek, for example, the city describes the neighborhood as: a community in which people live, work, play and learn in a neighbourhood that has been designed to maintain and balance the highest possible levels of social equity, livability, ecological health and economic prosperity, so as to support their choices to live in a sustainable manner. SEFC will be a mixed-use community, with a focus on residential use, developed at the highest density possible while meeting livability and sustainability objectives. This complete community will ensure goods and services within walking distance and housing that is linked by transit and in proximity to local jobs.

Regardless of whether this is a boom or bust period, Vancouver has long demonstrated that having a healthy city is the key to long-term value for homes and communities.
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