November 25, 2019

Burnaby Builds A City – 1

Burnaby at Brentwood has gone full urban.

This is the Lougheed Highway at Willingdon – one the signature crossroads of our region.  On the right, a massive mixed-use development called (awful name) Amazing Brentwood.

Ian Wasson at Burnaby City Hall gave me a heads-up:  Brentwood was ready for a walk-through.  And easy to get to – seamlessly connected to one of the most beautiful SkyTrain stations in the region.

At the same time Brentwood Mall was under redevelopment, the City rebuilt Lougheed into more of a complete street.  There are at least four modes of movement integrated but separate, with great materials, thoughtful landscaping and exciting urbanism in three dimensions.

We’ll explore Brentwood this week.  But here’s the judgment:

Brentwood is now a distinct station on the Millennium Line – like Oakridge on the Canada Line.  It’s no longer car-dominant; it works more as a truly urban place, comparable to downtowns built before Motordom.   Burnaby and Shape, the developer, were prepared to push past suburban compromises like Metrotown.

It could be a huge success – an urban landmark that will pull in people from all over the region, notably SFU, where the students will make this their territory too.  It already feels like a place you’d want to come back to, just for the people watching and to meet others.  It’s easy to get to because it’s an extension of SkyTrain.

If it all works, it will be amazing.




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  1. Yup! Burnaby is *fascinating* to follow! This development really could be “amazing.” 🙂

    I also REALLY hope that they build a nice long high-capacity aerial tram to take people up to the Burnaby Mountain Simon Fraser campus. There are WAY too many *cars* driving up there every hour of every day. That area has such great potential! Clogging the streets with parked, driving & circling cars is definitely *not* part of a bright future for the SFU area. 🙂

  2. It is hard to imagine a better example of the the uglification brought to a urban landscape by Skytrain then Brentwood. Imagine what it would have looked like had it been light rail at street level. I want to weep every time I see what has been inflicted on our urban landscapes/

    1. Except I am pretty sure the original LRT proposal followed the rail line…so Lougheed would be just as many car lanes as today. As an aside Brentwood is sure a massive improvement over what was there before Skytrain. You could argue a Street running LRT MAY have produced a better urban outcome but looking at North American examples I could argue it may have produced a worse example. Lougheed is a traffic sewer that pre Skytrain did not have any destinations sufficient to attract people…so either they would have maintained the traffic lanes (making it even wider) or there would have been a lot fewer people travelling along Lougheed compared to today with Skytrain. Fewer people means less retail, less mixed use. Fixing a place like Lougheed is tough…as shown in pretty much every street running LRT built on similar roads. Maybe you could give me an example of where a similar traffic sewer away from major destinations (ie not the Pearl district in downtown Portland) was fixed with LRT? I am sure there are some and I genuinely would like to know about them. The ones I am familiar with produced Skytrain outcomes at best and that is being generous. All in all Skytrain Brentwood stacks up very well in terms of improvement from the pre-existing condition. Adding a street running LRT does not magically turn Lougheed or No. 3 into Strausbourg.

      1. The elevated SkyTrain works very well at Brentowood to feed people up the hill into the plaza of the new development.

        It would have been a lot harder to get masses of people from street level several storeys up to the plaza otherwise. There are stairs and elevators installed from grade up to the plaza.

        PS – remember that Lougheed Highway is a “stroad”. It’s not intended to the shopping high street of Brentwood Town Centre. That distinction goes to Dawson St. to the south – the same way that West Georgia St. is not the main shopping strip in downtown Vancouver, Robson St. is.

        1. Lougheed is definitely a stroad…although traffic sewer works for me as well. My point was it is unrealistic to expect a LRT to fix that and that despite Lougheed as a stroad the area around Brentwood has made remarkable progress. I do not intend to argue it is the best urban space in the world, only that it has improved more than I would have expected given Lougheed…and probably more than if a LRT had been built at grade on Lougheed.

      2. SO true, Rico! Light rail lines in the U.S. are almost entirely built in freeway gutters or along abandoned rail lines. If you want to see the most depressing land uses along LRT corridors, just take any of the LRT lines in Denver. There’s ZERO placemaking, ZERO added density (other than at a few stations), ZERO enhancement to any neighborhood that I’ve ever seen (not that they have any interesting truly *walkable* neighborhoods, anyway–I’ve memorized every block of every one of them), etc.

        LRT *sounds* good; it’s super great in theory. And it’s probably worked out much better in Canada than in the U.S. for creating real place and actually decreasing car trips. But in the U.S., the outlying “stations” (glorified bus stops) are surrounded by massive park & ride lots. In the U.S., LRT is just a way for people to head downtown without having to pay for parking–and they still drive a long ways in heavy traffic just to *reach* the LRT station. And, again, the *entire* ride into downtown passes through suburban (or abandoned industrial) hellscapes.

        Also, the headways are WAY too long, and the MAX ride through downtown Portland is *insanely* long & slow. It takes *26 minutes* to go all of *5 kilometers* in the central portion!

        Streetcars (even with their ridiculous headways, slow speeds and being constantly stuck in heavy traffic) have proven to be an INCREDIBLE urban development tool. I never take them, but I still always enjoy seeing them. They remind me of a wonderful European scene, even though the land use around them is still pathetic in the U.S. 🙂

        But SkyTrain is *life-changing* to any American who studies transit. The wait time is literally *seconds* (or at least it feels that way whenever I take it). And you go FAST, and the stations aren’t so ridiculously close to each other. So, you actually GET places quickly! It’s mind-boggling to get to a place like Metropolis at Metrotown in minutes–an entirely different atmosphere from downtown Vancouver. And it’s *incredibly* diverse, and you can live within a 5-minute walk of the SkyTrain station and have everything you need.

        And I love seeing bike paths alongside the lines–and actually SEEING great scenery from the elevated position! And riding in the very front of SkyTrain is totally fun for kids of all ages. 🙂 And with *elevated* stations, there’s no limit to how you can improve the stations and modify them over time as needed.

        Mostly, I’m super impressed with how *bold* Vancouver and numerous surrounding cities are with density, height, SkyTrain & LRT expansions, etc. ALL of this is nearly impossible to achieve in the U.S. People FREAK OUT about “height” like you wouldn’t believe…

    2. If there HAD been surface LRT on Lougheed, instead of he elevated skytrain, then probably the design of the Brentwood mall redo would have been different too. The plaza would have been at ground level, for one thing.

      It would be interesting to compare the Brentwood mall development to recent developments in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo, which all have surface LRTs.

      Also, consider Oakridge Centre and Pacific Centre. Both have, or will have, public gathering places at the surface, the underground, AND the above-ground levels.

  3. hmmm… I concur with Bob Bose. The thing that gets missed every single time these new urban “villages” emerge out of the sands of suburbia is there is ZERO attention to what a pedestrian might experience going to and fro the mall, the condo and the skytrain. Its all colourless, generic -and a glowing suppository-shaped skytrain station cant redeem the bad planning

  4. There is definitely a lot going on in the area. To some extent it may succeed through sheer densification, something that wouldn’t have been possible with LRT, which might have looked pretty but would have been a disaster from a practical standpoint for the reasons Rico explains.

    In terms of accommodation for pedestrians, Burnaby has done a fair bit in the area.

    There are the wider sidewalks and multi-use paths along Lougheed as mentioned in the post.

    There is also the linear trail along Willingdon which is quite nice and feeds the area to the North of Lougheed down to the mall/skytrain and makes a good bike/pedestrian connection between Brentwood and Hastings corridor.

    Further west, the realignment of Douglas to line up with 1st and the extension of Brentwood Park seems to be coming together nicely and, along with the new bike path on Gilmore and the sidewalk improvements associated with the new developments should really improve what was previously a pedestrian-unfriendly part of the area.

    Dawson seems to be coming along as well, piece by piece. All the new surrounding development should help bring more life to the street.

    Even in the older developed areas, there are some nice accommodations for pedestrians. Rosser is pretty good, and the pedestrianized stretch of Buchanan (between Rosser and Madison) is very nice, and fills with picture takers when the cherry trees blossom in the spring.

    The streches east of Beta, where most of the development has turned its back on Lougheed (although maybe the recent Seasons development signals a change in pattern) are the most disjointed, and don’t really cohere into a neighbourhood feel, although the extension of Dawson will help somewhat.

    Hopefully there is good execution of the final corner of Lougheed/Willingdon, the redevelopment of the massive Carter dealership on the SE corner.

    One final note is that the extension of the Millennium Line to Arbutus (and hopefully UBC) should be a boon to this area, along with every other spot on the Millenium/Evergreen line.

    The area is still a mess in many ways, some developments are better than others, there is a lot of through traffic and the different parts of the area are poorly connected, with gaps in streets and paths and sidewalks where the city waits for certain lots to redevelop, but given that the area started with a deeply flawed street grid, is centred around two big arterial (st)roads, and started off filled with small industrial lots, car dealerships, strip malls, gas stations and an old school suburban mall, hemmed in by a railway and swampland on one side and surrounded by single family home on the other side, it is actually fairly remarkable what has been achieved to date and what seems possible based on what is in progress.

    1. The once aptly-named Willingdon Greenway (now renamed ‘Linear Park’ — an exemplary example of the healthy mediocrity of Plannese) will be fully completed only when the Burnaby Heights Square is built at Hastings at the north end of the Greenway to help balance with the gravitational pull of Brentwood at the south end.

      This square was originally envisioned in the 1,000-1,500 m2 range with high quality materials (granite, basalt, stainless steel), a big crashing fountain on the corner to screen the traffic noise, seating, gathering space for cultural and sporting events, the planting of large, specimen trees and possibly a restaurant frontage on one side.

      And before someone in the Burnaby Planning Dept. attempts to take credit for the 1.5 km Greenway, it was the Parks Planning and Design studio that had to step in and rescue the project in order to provide the initial urban design effort needed for political and financial approval (this process produced a 6 m long conceptual drawing in block-by-block increments that was key to approval) and to see the project through to fruition. The Engineering Dept. with Parks managed the detailed design, tendering and construction of the $12 million project with the private sector players (including rebuilding the road).

      Last, but not least, Burnaby Arts staff (a division of Parks) stepped in to manage a national public art design competition and procurement worth $2 million.

      Just a bit more detail on the recent history of the Brentwood area.

  5. Steps away from Skytrain is a strong motivator for this shopper. I would wager the Safeway ‘steps away’ from Burquitlam Station (a regular Skytrain stop for me) gets thousand of dollars of my grocery budget annually due to this proximity. Lougheed Mall’s distance from the adjacent Skytrain station is a deal-breaker, esp when time is a factor.

  6. Really like the terms “stroad” and “traffic sewer”.

    What would the appropriate terms be for the commuterats and their vehicular exoskeletons that infest these areas. “Cars” doesn’t work – Ford is stopping manufacture of all but the ‘Stang’ – trucks and Assuvs are the weapon of choice.

  7. From a cycling standpoint the Willingdon Greenway as well as the new 2-way bike path on Gilmore are steps backward. The Willingdon project, extolled as “innovative” by former mayor Corrigan, and given the dearth of design reports, or any reports for that matter apart from funding approvals, appears to have been cooked up in the Mayor’s office with the assistance of Parks staff. Innovation didn’t extend to finding a way to avoid crossing an intersecting street or lane every 45 metres. Opportunity for public input was minimal and what there was, largely focused on concerns about people on foot having to share space with people on bikes, was ignored. Nothing like this would currently be built in Europe, nor would it be in neighbouring Vancouver where old multi-use paths are being separated. Locally based research has shown that multi-use paths are among the highest risk environments for cycling, worse than major arterial streets with no parking. No-one knows how the transition from 2-way multi-use path to (presumably) one way cycle tracks at Brentwood will be managed. However, we can rest assured that protected intersections aren’t part of the plan. According to Burnaby staff there aren’t enough cyclists to make such an effort worthwhile. While I would contest their rationale, it’s undeniable that Burnaby’s approach to cycling facilities has generated a cycling mode share well below the provincial average and a fraction of neighbouring Vancouver’s.

    Meanwhile, on Gilmore, relatively safe bike lanes have been removed in favour of a 2-way bike path on one side of the street, configured in such a way as to require that intersecting cars block it when seeking to entering Gilmore, all on a steep grade made steeper (!) by the recent reconstruction of the 1st and Gilmore intersection. No bike facilities at all remains the status quo on the approaches to Lougheed, but we can console ourselves with the thought that this condition is a least statistically safer than anything Burnaby has implemented lately.

    Note that little of the above is contemplated in Burnaby’s current Transportation Plan. An updated plan is apparently in the works but, under-resourced, it’s running about a year behind schedule. One might think that having top notch cycling and walking networks in place would be a planning priority when inviting tens of thousands of new residents to a rapid transit-based community. Would have liked to provide links to sources in the text above but the form doesn’t seem to allow this. Here are a few:

    1. The Willingdon Greenway boulevard was never meant to be a commuter cycling route, and therein was designated as a recreational, multi-use linear park. Commuter vs recreational biking are apples and oranges. Both are valid causes.

      A designated, separated commuter cycling network is indeed needed in Burnaby and in all Metro cities. However, that is best accommodated as a stand-alone project for the road system, like Vancouver’s. The bike road design on Dunsmuir, Hornby, Burrard etc. is a much different beast than multi-use paths, yet both are valuable and justified public assets. Ergo the need for separation when you’ve got the space and few constraints.

      The case for specifically using the Willingdon boulevard for speedy bike commutes plus recreational use fell apart with the effort to preserve several groves of large, existing trees (38 in total) and in the constraints of the narrow 9 m stretch north of Curtis which would have required fence-to-curb paving for two paths and no room left for bus stops and trees. The whole idea was to give some separation between any kind of path and the street and the roaring truck traffic.

      The city had purchased 26 properties on the east flank of the road over the years for millions to create a greenway for everyone, not just single-use bicycling. One wheelchair-bound person who lives right on the Greenway was ecstatic about the shared path with slower bike speeds that would allow her to travel several barrier-free blocks to Brentwood Mall on her own. Several parents at the public meetings were also not keen to have their kids be subjected to dedicated bike commuting, and the majority of citizen responses in the questionnaire were in that vein but still highly supportive of bike trails in general.

      All of this was complemented by the addition of three new signalized pedestrian / bike crossings across a killer of an arterial. This, too, was unanimously supported by people of all ages and abilities, and because of this measure I believe the route receives even more foot and albeit slower bike traffic.

      Lastly, to provide space for separated commuter / recreational bikeways in the North Willingdon corridor would have required the purchase of the properties on the west side too, and council was not keen to spend tens of millions more at the time. That doesn’t mean a future council would be against building a commuter bike road network on the trafficked streets, or with future greenway projects near high-density destinations. Lobbying with a workable concept in hand could pay off one day, as long as the much different characteristics of commuting vs recreational biking and the associated costs are recognized.