The UniverCity project: An experiment in suburban urbanism
Photo: Jonathan HiskesBut the Trust knows those prices are out of reach for a lot of people, according to planning manager Dale Mikkelsen. When the neighborhood reaches an eventual population of 10,000, the plan is for even division between affordable, “moderate,” and market-rate units. So far, “it’s not as good as we want,” Mikkelsen said.
The 60 units of the Verdant building were sold to university staff at 20 percent below market rate. The Trust kept 140 units above the shops as rentals with affordability in mind — a 600 square-foot two-bedroom goes for about $1,200, Mikkelsen said.
The Trust takes another innovative approach to affordability through “flex suites” that buyers can purchase next-door to their main dwelling and rent as mortgage-helpers. If a family grows and needs extra space, the units are designed to allow a doorway to be added and the extra kitchen removed, for about $10,000. When kids grow up and move out, families can convert the suite back into a rental unit.
“The idea was how do you build a basement suite for an apartment owner, as a mortgage helper,” said Mikkelsen. It’s an idea that Victoria and Kelowna, B.C., have since adopted, he said.
Residents will also save on energy costs if they live in one of the newer buildings, which are developing centralized heating and district energy systems. The first towers, built in 2001, are not especially well-sealed, Mikkelsen said, so the Trust began offering a 10 percent density bonus to developers that better insulate their buildings. It’s an offer that’s been well-received, he said.
Residents might also save on transportation costs, since data shows that households in dense, walkable neighborhoods typically spend much less on getting around than families in auto-centric suburbs.
But UniverCity’s benefits are less clear in this regard because it sits atop Burnaby Mountain, surrounded by protected forest except for the SFU campus and two winding roads. In this way it resembles a gated subdivision more than a neighborhood woven into a metropolitan grid. While the grocery, stores, and campus provide a lot of nearby amenities, UniverCity is still too removed from the rest of the area to make car-free living practical, Wright said.
“Although I do know a (very small) handful or residents who don’t own a car, and I myself do not have a driver’s license, I would say that in reality most people have to have a car to live at UniverCity,” she wrote.
The Trust has focused on providing other options. Residents can buy regional transit passes at a steep discount, and developers are required to buy a year-long transit pass for each unit they sell, on the theory that if residents try using them, they’ll like it.
Buses run every few minutes from the SFU campus to a light-rail stations that connects to downtown Vancouver and Surrey, another employment center. Mikkelsen hopes to persuade the regional transit authority to build a gondola to run from the top of the hill to the rail station, shortening the trip from 14 minutes (by bus) to an estimated (and more scenic!) 7-minute gondola ride.
It’s a lot of effort to make up for the challenge of the hilltop location, and it builds the case that “destination accessibility” — building homes, workplaces, and services near each other in a well-connected grid — does more good than any particular amenity.
Mikkelsen, who was previously the lead project planner for the Olympic athletes’ village in Vancouver, said the Trust is willing to spend on transit because it’s trying to prove that compact urban forms can work outside of cities proper. Its work with Burnaby has helped convince zoning officials to allow denser development elsewhere in the town, he said. If the transit investment helps UniverCity convince the rest of the world that it’s possible to reap the benefits of urban design in a suburban setting, it could prove to be money well spent.