Ryan Holmes partners with big developer to build massive Vancouver tech hub

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A new personal partnership between Westbank Projects developer Ian Gillespie and Hootsuite owner Ryan Holmes could provide Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant with the boost it needs to become the tech hub that the False Creek Flats were meant to be.

This past September, a whole city block near Southeast False Creek was purchased for $40.5 million by the new partnership. Framed by Main and Quebec streets and East 4th and East 5th avenues, the site is zoned for light industrial and includes the three-storey building at 111 East 5th Avenue, which houses a number of organizations such as a 27,000-square-foot satellite office for Hootsuite, and the former RBC Visa Centre at 2015 Main Street.

Gillespie told Vancity Buzz the vision is to develop a digital media and high-tech campus on the site, with the intention of creating a spillover effect for the immediate area.

“These won’t just be buildings housing just Hootsuite,” said Gillespie. “What we want to do is bring a half dozen firms that are in that digital space altogether, and if other landlords do the same you’ll get an exciting critical mass of these companies.”

Over the past three years, Mount Pleasant – aptly named ‘Mount Pixel’ by some planners and tech moguls – has quickly gained a loose concentration of emerging technology and digital media companies that are looking for more flexible and cheaper space outside of the built-up downtown peninsula. The growing list of companies includes Evolve Digital Media, Gener8, Switch United, The Capital, Odyssey Media Inc., Capture Moment Media, and Citrus Pie Media Group.

Gillespie points to San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Los Angeles as examples of cities that have taken steps to develop policies that foster such clusters of technology businesses. The idea is not driven by any desire to have more office space.

“If you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles today, there’s two or three areas where all the technology are coalescing and it’s no different than any other business,” he said. “People coalesce around likeminded businesses because there’s a shared environment where they all want to be – and they all want to be close proximity to each other. And it’s no different in Vancouver.”

The Mount Pleasant area is also increasingly becoming an attractive place for these technology businesses to establish their home base. Southeast False Creek to the north continues to take shape with the Olympic Village acting as a catalyst for further mixed-use developments while Main Street’s retail strip to the south, beginning at Broadway, continues to grow with new dining establishments and service-based businesses.

As well, there are two Canada Line stations at the western corners of the area and the promised future underground extension of the Millennium Line under Broadway. A station is planned at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway, a short walking distance from Gillespie’s site.

Some concerns have risen over the use of industrial zoned lands for non-traditional industrial uses. A recent study by Port Metro Vancouver concluded that Metro Vancouver is rapidly losing industrial land to other uses such as business parks and residential developments.

However, areas like Mount Pleasant are not ideal for traditional industry as such businesses want to be closer to an energy source, raw materials, or the water where port facilities are located. They want to be located outside of a highly urbanized environment, in areas that are not in downtown or within the city proper. In an effort to use land and transportation infrastructure more efficiently, traditional industrial businesses should not be located near high-investment public transit services like SkyTrain.

In order for the Gillespie-Holmes campus plan and other similar technology-related projects to proceed in the area, some consideration will have to be taken for the City of Vancouver’s definition of what “industry” is.

The City’s 1995 Industrial Lands Policies, created three years before the formation of Google, only notes the traditional manufacturing of physical objects, such as floppy and compact disks, as key attributes of the digital industry. It does not include technological advancements that have made ‘cloud’ storage, transmittal, and creative design businesses some of the biggest global leaders of today’s technology industry.

Gillespie says the City is leading the initiative to change the zoning definition as it will affect a number of city blocks in the area, not just the newly acquired property. Planning documents indicate it will create a ‘transitional’ area between the residential developments along Main Street, identified within the Mount Pleasant Community Plan, and the light industrial zoning west of the site.

The proposal aligns with both the City’s 2013 Digital Strategy of supporting the innovation and growth of the local digital economy and Metro Vancouver Regional District’s overall policy for Mount Pleasant of encouraging the “development of services and appropriate office use to intensify employment without displacing light industrial production, distribution, and repair land uses.”

If a small area of Mount Pleasant is identified for the use of a digital industry, it could protect light industrial uses from the scattered encroachment of technology businesses. And it could be a win-win given the desire from technology business leaders to be located near other likeminded digital industry businesses.

“The conversation isn’t about building a bunch of residential around here, that’s not the case,” added Gillespie. “We’re looking to attract these tenants to Vancouver and let them grow.”

“We’re looking to make the tenants that are here grow and become successful, and it’s all about producing good jobs. At the end of the day, that’s all this is about – it’s how you use this space. Why I care is about the production of good paying jobs, and that’s what industry is.”

City Council is expected to review the zoning changes in the first quarter of 2016. If it is approved, Westbank could become the largest technology landlord in Vancouver.

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Kenneth Chan Deputy Editor & Social Media Manager at Vancity Buzz. He covers stories pertaining to local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, and anything else that makes a difference in the lives of Vancouverites. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]vancitybuzz.com
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