February 1, 2018 - As Vancouver, currently one of the world’s least affordable cities for housing, seems caught between its utopian promise and increasingly dystopian present, a brave new project looms on the horizon. The redevelopment of Oakridge shopping centre as imagined by architect Gregory Henriquez, reads like the set from Dune meets Ville Radieuse.

A launch at the Audain Art Museum on Whistler mountain this week, took place in the midst of the annual ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centres) conference, appropriately entitled ‘The Future is Now: Embracing Change’. The ambitious project driven by Westbank and QuadReal Property Group, builds on a more modest proposal by Ivanhoe (with Stantec Architects), which was acquired by QuadReal in 2017, and promises to blow up the traditional idea of the shopping mall and turn it into a mini-city.

Billed as a new municipal centre, the project will take the transformation of the once sleepy Cambie Corridor, connecting Vancouver’s airport to its city centre, to the next level. The area has already seen its traditional single family bungalow typology rapidly subsumed by lucrative land assembly deals and multi-family housing, with small footprint midcentury houses on large lots selling for as much as $11 million. The proposed mini-city of the future will offer a mix of oblong towers and curvelinear low and mid-rises, carpeted in greenery and seemingly extruded organically from the landscape, that will house 6,000 residents in 2,600 homes.

In addition the project will provide nearly 500,000 sq ft of workspace for 3,000 creative economy workers and 1,000,000 sq ft of retail space. There will also be a performing arts academy, live music venue, a public art programme, a library and community centre with day care. External space will include an outdoor, pedestrian only ‘high street’ thoroughfare, and a ten-acre park. The entire complex, promise the developers, will be powered by a district energy system. ‘It’s a place you may never have to leave’, enthuses Henriquez.

This optimistic civic vision appears to offer an oasis of urbanism in a surrounding desert of suburban style housing. Carved out of the existing 28.3 acre land parcel that was once a green, forested area, Henriquez plans to re-insert the original topography (the site is one of Vancouver’s highest elevations) by creating parkland, green roofs and terracing - including an intriguing plan for elevated winding pathways that recalls a Vancouver version of the High Line. This will lend the formerly flattened parking-lot oriented mall a sense of high tech hilltown.

Westbank CEO Ian Gillespie points to the development as a futuristic carless community linked to rapid transit, and before long, to driver-less vehicles. And Wonderwall’s Tokyo based Masamichi Katayama – praising Vancouver’s ‘connection to nature’ – plans interiors that will open up the traditional closed-off mall to the surrounding future greenery, bringing the outside in quite literally with plans for indoor plantings. A brochure vows that, ‘the emphasis will be on catalysing a relationship with the consumer that transcends the store.’

It’s all quite a heady vision, and with completion several years away, in 2025, still one of broad strokes, not fine grain. One can only hope that Henriquez’s intention of reconnecting the shopping centre to the city, via new retail street walls to define the perimeter of the site, will bear urbanist fruit. Stay tuned.

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