News / Vancouver

Railtown businesses fear area will be ‘gutted’ by proposed rezoning

The measure is an attempt to protect scarce industrial land in Vancouver

Steven Fast, a property owner in Vancouver's Railtown, worries that a new rezoning proposal will mean tech businesses are no longer welcome in the area

Jen St. Denis/Metro

Steven Fast, a property owner in Vancouver's Railtown, worries that a new rezoning proposal will mean tech businesses are no longer welcome in the area

Property owners in Vancouver’s Railtown neighbourhood fear a proposed zoning change meant to protect industrial land will instead put the brakes on a thriving design and technology hub.

“Our own building, we’re in jeopardy,” said Steven Fast, the owner of a building at 329 Railway St. “This fantastic, small, functional community is, we think, going to get gutted by this zoning.”

Railtown, located between the port and Alexander Street, is a mix of heritage and newer warehouse buildings. The area is zoned for heavy industrial use, but many of the buildings are no longer used for a strictly industrial purpose. Vancouver tech darling Hootsuite got its start in Railtown, before moving to Mount Pleasant. The city rezoned Mount Pleasant this fall to attract more tech companies.

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Fast’s building houses a design firm, an animation company, video and film production and 14 artist live/work spaces.  When Fast first bought the building in 1997 and redeveloped it from a fish storage facility to a tech workspace, he did so under a software manufacturing licence. His building will be grandfathered in under the new rules.

But city hall recently removed software manufacturing as outmoded, and rolled software production into “visual entertainment and information communication technology,” which will now be allowed in areas zoned for office use.

If the office use will be restricted in the Strathcona Business Improvement Area, which includes Railtown: 32 per cent of the space in buildings built before 1951 will be allowed for office use, while 25 per cent of the space in buildings built after 1951 will be permitted for office use.

The city has also created a new category for the area, designed to encourage the kinds of design-and-prototype businesses that are now common in the historic waterfront neighbourhood.

The creation of the category, creative manufacturing, is a good step, said Joji Kumagai, executive director of the Strathcona BIA.

But creative manufacturing is a “conditional” use, Kumagai said, meaning that businesses who get the designation but then want to expand their operations may need to get additional permits or be forced to do expensive building upgrades.

Kumagai agreed with Fast that the current proposal needs work. But overall, the zoning change is meant to protect industrial land and prevent the huge property price increases that hit Railtown recently, where this year values more than doubled. When too much industrial space is turned into office space, that can squeeze lease rates higher than what industrial users can pay, Kumagai said.

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