Todd: Burnaby mayor bemoans stark highrises, but sees few options

Opinion: Mike Hurley knows tower hubs can be intense and are “not cheap,” but says they preserve green space and offer a certain lifestyle

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Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim says Burnaby offers the answer to housing supply and unaffordabilty.

“We only need to look to Burnaby,” Sim said last fall. “That’s right, Burnaby.” The vast clusters of residential towers the suburb has allowed around Skytrain stations, Sim said, are a great role model for how Vancouver should pump up density.

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But the veteran mayor of Burnaby, former firefighter Mike Hurley, doesn’t share as much enthusiasm for highrises as Vancouver’s relatively new mayor.

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Instead, Hurley says the scores of massive highrises that have gone up in recent decades at Metrotown, Brentwood, Lougheed and Edmonds can feel “stark,” “intense” and sometimes “shocking.”

He’s realistic about their cons, as well as their pros.

“In general people, don’t like the density,” Hurley says.

Raised in Magherafelt, a small town in Northern Ireland, Hurley also doesn’t believe Burnaby’s residential towers, many of which soar above 50 storeys, have made housing in his ethnically diverse city of 270,000 more affordable.

But all this doesn’t mean the suburban mayor, who defeated long-time mayor Derek Corrigan in 2018 and then won unopposed in 2022, feels he has had many options.

More than 50 years ago, he said, Burnaby council decided that, to respond to a growing population, it would create four town centres in and around transit stations.

Later councils went along with the plan, more or less, Hurley said, as they worked to get voters to buy in. He knows that hasn’t stopped some other Lower Mainland residents from saying they don’t want the “Metrotowning” of their neighbourhoods.

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Still, Hurley says one advantage of high-rise agglomerations is they preserve spaces for recreation.

“We’re very proud of our green space. Over a quarter of our land is dedicated to green space. And residents like it. They like their parks. And we’re working on getting more trees and more cooling spaces.”

The trade-off for conservation has been ultra-high density, especially at Metrotown and Brentwood, where construction cranes pepper the skyline, adding more needle towers to the dozens erected in recent decades.

“When you drive down Lougheed Highway and all of a sudden you hit Brentwood, it kind of shocks you,” Hurley said.

“I think it will take a few years for it (Brentwood) to mature,” he said, explaining how the once-lowrise neighbourhood is being filled in with “some pretty spectacular” public spaces, facilities and a performance square, with a park and community centre planned.

“But it is intense. There’s no question about it. What are you going to do? We need the housing. Whether we like it or not, there’s nine billion people in the world right now. We’re told there’s 100,000 people coming to B.C. yearly. And there’s not much land left. So the only option, really, is to densify.”

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At one time, a lot of the condos in the Brentwood towers, not to mention those in Metrotown and Lougheed, were being “sold overseas,” Hurley said.

“But now I think it’s more young professionals who are buying, or trying to buy, in there. It’s definitely not cheap. But people who live there like it very much. They’ve bought into that type of lifestyle.”

Hurley Sim
“We only need to look to Burnaby. That’s right — Burnaby,” says Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, in admiration of its dense highrise clusters. Here, Sim listens to Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley at the UBCM Housing conference in Vancouver in April 2023. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /00100393A

While Hurley believes Burnaby council has basically been forced into approving its high-density clusters, he is not among those politicians who claim they’re the route to affordability.

“When senior levels of government keep throwing out there that the more houses we build the cheaper they’ll get, I think they’ve been listening to developers too much,” Hurley said.

“I haven’t seen anywhere in the world where that’s actually true. And I’ve asked people to provide me the data to back up what they’re saying. And no one has ever been able to. There’s just no proof.”

Asked if he’s familiar with people struggling to get into the housing market, he cited his daughter.

“She has a really good job. She’s living in a tower. She’s got a 650-square-foot one-bedroom and den that costs $2,800 a month. And she thinks she’s getting a good deal because any new people moving into the building are paying $800 more a month. How does a young person, though they might be able to pay the rent, save up for a down payment on a home? That’s a huge challenge.”

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Hurley said he and his council are continuing to “chip away” at providing more dwellings, especially affordable units, for Burnaby, where 57 per cent of the population is made up of either immigrants or non-permanent residents. “But I don’t want to mislead anyone to think that affordability’s going to be solved tomorrow or the next day. It’s not.”

Like B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, Hurley wants the federal government to begin to tie its migration targets to the ability of provinces and cities to provide new housing, not to mention more transit, sewage treatment, schools and other infrastructure.

Despite Prime Minister Trudeau announcing tens of billions of dollars for housing, Hurley said, Burnaby has received virtually nothing. “They keep announcing all this massive money they’re putting into housing, but I’m still trying to figure out where all the money went. Maybe it’s gone to other parts of Canada.”

The mayor also expanded on critical remarks he and other mayors made at a recent Union of B.C. Municipalities conference about the B.C. government’s push to force virtually every neighbourhood in the province to allow multiplexes.

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“We used to plan neighbourhoods before we allowed density. But now, with the province’s one-size-fits-all approach, you can build a sixplex on a single-family lot anywhere in the city. That gets our planners and engineers tearing their hair out.”

It costs taxpayers an average of $1 million, he said, to upgrade the infrastructure of a typical 100-metre row of detached houses to allow for fourplexes and sixplexes.

If Sim, who presides over a city of 675,000 residents, sees Burnaby as a model for how to develop high density, he might want to also consider how it’s doing so while being careful about taxation levels. In Vancouver property taxes jumped 7.5 per cent this year and 10.7 per cent last year. In Burnaby, Hurley said, they’re going up 4.5 per cent, after increasing 3.9 per cent in 2023.

And, even though Sim doesn’t talk much about protecting Vancouver’s urban villages, Hurley is a little envious of Vancouver districts like Commercial Drive, which Time Out magazine last month ranked “the fifth coolest street” of any major city in the world.

Such shopping and restaurant zones are the pride of Vancouver neighbourhood organizations, whether in Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, South Granville or Main Street. That’s why many are critical of Sim’s push to drastically jack up Vancouver’s densities, which are already the highest in Canada, through the Broadway plan, and at Oakridge, the Jericho Lands, Broadway and Commercial, and elsewhere.

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Hurley understands why people want to protect walkable, vibrant, medium-rise shopping districts.

“We have a little bit of that along Hastings, in Burnaby Heights. It’s unique,” Hurley said. “People who live in the Heights wouldn’t change it for anything. But we definitely need more of that urban-village type thing. We’ve got some plans.”

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