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episode # 168

Mount Pleasant, Railtown & Vancouver’s Most Up-and-Coming Super Star Neighbourhoods with MGBA Architecture + Interior Design

Vancouver is changing dramatically and so is the way we work, play & live in the city. And who better to advise on the most exciting future transformations than the owners of MGBA Architecture + Interior Design. These guys cut their teeth in ultra hip hot spots like Mount Pleasant and Railtown and now Principals PJ Mallen & Chris Gowing sit down with Adam & Matt to discuss how zoning changes in industrial, tech, and hospitality spaces relate to investing in residential real estate. How do firms like MGBA reinvigorate neighborhoods? Which areas are going to be great investments? And what can the world’s oldest profession tell us about changing land values? Huzzah! Turn it up!

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Episode Summary


About MGBA:

MGBA is an Architecture firm that was started in 2005 by PJ Mallen and Chris Gowing after working at other large firms around Vancouver in their formative years. They were joined soon after by a third partner Edwin Berzins. They have an office in Vancouver and an office in Toronto with just over 40 staff. They initially did retail and commercial projects mostly, but now work in hospitality and various other sectors – including government, multifamily & industrial.

In 2005 the architecture industry became very busy with a high demand for architects, which coincided nicely with the start of their firm. The industry is still going strong.

On the Toronto architecture market versus the Vancouver market:

Toronto is more of a design leader in retail and hospitality than Vancouver. They are the ‘centre of the universe’ for design for new restaurants and retail concepts in Canada. Vancouver has more of a cutting edge approach to residential housing with downtown Vancouver being a leader for Canada for how to create a vibrant urban environment.

On why they focus on commercial and not residential:

MGBA likes to work with repeat clients vs single projects. They also like to work with people that they find are interesting and dynamic. This has lead them to work more in the commercial space where they have developed long-term business relationships. A single client might bring you 50 projects and you foster a great working relationship together.

On the role of Architects:

Architects are basically the building designers. It is the oldest profession related to construction. On a given project, the architects are the team leaders that coordinate all the moving pieces to get the project completed, including: interior designers, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, landscape architects, code specialists, etc.

They coordinate the building design from all the different parties that are involved. They need to synthesize all the information to arrive at a suitable design that works for everyone. They are also working to protect the public interest – zoning regulations, building codes, social factors and historical needs.

On unique aspects of doing business in Vancouver:

Vancouver is under so much pressure to be re-developed all the time. The city tends to be on guard because they have a duty to protect the public interest. This is pretty unique for Vancouver, but the city has done a lot of things right in the past to create a great city – for example, saying no to a freeway through the city in the 1970’s. There might be some room for improvement in that the city could look to say ‘yes’ a bit more than they do now to ensure the long-term development needs will be met.

On areas that they are excited about:

Their office is in Mount Pleasant. They are very active in this area and very excited about it. They are also excited about Railtown. There is currently changes to zoning taking place in Railtown with a focus on preserving manufacturing and industrial space, while also providing room for residential and office space.

In both neighbourhoods, the city undertook zoning changes that were geared towards protecting the light industrial and manufacturing stock that has been active in these areas for a long time while allowing new projects. This was a learning opportunity for MGBA where they worked closely with the city on the best way to implement this new zoning and help develop these up and coming areas. Railtown has an entirely new zone that recognizes that there are new uses – influx of tech and manufacturing that is done in a new way. Generally, when there is a zoning change, the market responds immediately. In Mount Pleasant, there were no new projects for years before the update to zoning and now you will see multiple projects being undertaken in the area. It is exciting and important. If the city doesn’t get the supply online quick enough, there is a chance Vancouver will lose all of these new tech jobs to other cities like San Francisco and New York. The city has to respond to industry needs as best as it can.

On how the industries have changed over the last 15 years that MGBA has been in business:

Traditional industrial needs are changing quickly. Amazon is changing the way that things are delivered. The old 72 ft trailers out in the middle of South Surrey are not necessarily the way that we are going to get goods and services into cities anymore. We are going to see more micro delivery options, which is being driven by users.

Unfortunately, the way architects design industrial projects is to design them to what the cities and the city zoning entails. To some extent, this mean that the design is lagging a bit behind what the users want. Hopefully, in the next 5-10 years, users will communicate what is not being done correctly and the design will respond quite quickly.

On the relationship between industrial zoning changes in Mount Pleasant in 2012 and the residential market exploding in Mount Pleasant during the same period:

The reason that the city was so interested in protecting the industrial space is because there was a real push over the last 5 years to develop residential space. The market was screaming for it and the city needed to apply the breaks and ensure gradual changes to these neighborhoods and that the city was taking into account the ebb and flows of housing markets. The market has currently shifted in residential and we are seeing a market slowdown. The commercial space continues to be strong and there is not a lot of connection between the commercial space and the residential space. Developers that are multifaceted and work in both commercial and residential are in a much better position right now than developers that focus solely on residential development. The large players will adjust to the changes in the market and shift their focus to what is in demand at a given time. The market slowing might lead to consolidation of smaller development companies in order to survive the market downturn.

On what is unique about Vancouver from an architectural perspective:

Vancouver is unique by fully embracing of mixed-use projects in the downtown area. These projects commenced around the time of expo ’86 and quickly changed what was a particularly suburban place into an urban place. Downtown was not an area that people spent any time in on the weekends until Larry Beasley and other planners put a lot of really good, interesting mixed use in downtown. As a result, Vancouver attracts people from all over that might be interested in things other than outdoor amenities and are now attracted to the cultural aspects of the city.

Vancouver can be commended for the mixed-use projects in downtown. If we are going to address our housing needs going forward, the same type of projects will need to be developed in Kitsilano and other areas. There will be some push back from current residents and NIMBYs, but it is necessary for the long-term health of the city. There is going to be a lot of development coming to the south side of false creek. This will be a test to see how urban this area really is. Will there be resistance? We will see.

What are the challenges facing Mount Pleasant from a design perspective?

The main challenges are dealing with the city. We are even seeing the city’s views on their own rules evolve over time from what their original intentions were – this creates challenges. There are also geometric challenges. For example, you might have a small lot on a sloping piece of ground. How do you provide parking and make the building actually work?

Industrial areas are not subject to the same design controls that residential areas are typically subject to, so this might offer a bit more freedom in the design space to explore different options.

MGBA is currently working on 3 Railtown projects right now that they are excited about. They are providing interest and reinvention, which is something you appreciate as an architect.

On other cities they look to as models for what they are doing:

Precedents are important in architecture and you look everywhere for them. For Mount Pleasant and Railtown, it was a bit of an open book. It was a start from nothing approach where they could really explore the design to suit the conditions of the area. There is always the tendency to look to larger mature cities like New York and Paris to help solve any design issues – how did this city go about addressing this issue? Vancouver generally has been all about the vehicle when planning North American cities to make sure people and goods can move freely. This has recently started to change and Vancouver is becoming much more urban. It is quickly becoming a place where you do not have to own a vehicle anymore and ideas are changing in this regard.

For young people, there are two options. You see people signing up for car-to-go and embracing the full urban experience or you see people retreating to a place like Langley where it is much more suburban.

On where they would invest if they were looking to purchase residential real estate:

There was an urban planning study done in the 1980s that looked at what neighbourhoods get gentrified. The answer was: follow the prostitutes. You literally look at where prostitutes are working to discover areas close to the city that are undervalued. In Vancouver recently, this would have been Seymour Street, then Yaletown and now it would be sunset and north Commercial Drive.

This suggests that north Commercial drive, east of Railtown is poised to go next for development. There will be a lot of pressure on it and the city will have to react.

Other areas would include Marine Gateway. All this light industrial will start to see some heavy pressure for development. This coincides with the building of the Canada Line and this area is poised for development. Onni is looking to do a big set of projects down there. With big projects come some great new public spaces making the area very livable.

Another area to look to would be Oakridge. There is some great new development coming to this area that will provide increased density. There might be some pushback because the area is traditionally single family. We will see what happens with pushback in the long term.

On interesting characters of Vancouver’s elite development community:

Onni is an interesting character. They are a development leader in Vancouver and they always know how to get things done. MGBA has worked with Onni for 10 years and they would consider them interesting from how they operate and accomplish things. Onni is both a construction and a development company – a giant company. They were one of the first to structure themselves this way and other large developers have followed suit.

On what’s coming for the South False Creek and North East False Creek areas:

There are two stretches of land – one between Olympic Village and Granville Island that is all city owned leasehold land. These leases are supposed to be renegotiated, but we will see.

There is also a masterplan community that will bring a lot of density to the area. There is an appetite for this type of density in downtown, but it might not be as accepted in South False Creek. There is some First Nations land around the base of Burrard Bridge and this land is going to be developed. The next big push for development will be on the South Side of False Creek. This is going to bring increased density to this area, and it is really going to change how people think about the city.

The North East False Creek area has historically been separated by the viaduct. When the viaduct eventually comes down, there will be an increased fluidity in the area and we will see what impact this will have. Early plans suggest lots of great civic space and lots of great park space. This will be a nice place to live and an exciting development.

The five-wire:

  1. Favorite neighbourhood in Vancouver: PJ – South Side False Creek or 18th and Main; Chris – West End
  2. Favourite restaurant or bar: PJ – Cascade Lounge or Bishops; Chris – Espana
  3. First place you bring someone from out of town: PJ – Granville Island; Chris – Stanley Park
  1. What advice you would tell your 18-year-old self: PJ – in regards to real estate, find a place you like, buy it and stay there. It will be a good investment long term; Chris – don’t look at things in black and white and try to see the grey as quickly as possible. Be suspect of social media.
  1. Something you’ve bought for under $500 in the past year that has positively impacted your life: Chris – nice set of cooking knives; PJ – getting Crave TV to binge watch Game of Thrones; Beats by Dre headphones.

Find out more about MGBA

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