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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Vancouver’s medal-worthy Olympic Village, one of the greenest neighborhoods anywhere

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 12, 2010

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  Vancouver, showing site of SE False Creek Olympic Village (by: city of Vancouver)

  Millennium Water at SE False Creek, Olympic Village in foreground (by: MIllennium Water)

Vancouver’s civic leaders believe that the athlete’s village built for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and the planned neighborhood that will surround it, will be one of the very greenest neighborhoods in North America.  I am inclined to agree.

The village is the central parcel in a larger planned redevelopment of a section of the city’s old industrial waterfront called, somewhat awkwardly, Southeast False Creek When the Olympics and Paralympics are finished, the village will become a mixed-use community called Millennium Water, which sounds a lot more marketable to me.

  the site, pre-construction (by: city of Vancouver)  Vancouver's Olympic Village (rendering by: Bradley Fehr)

I haven’t visited the site, but I have sifted through virtual reams of information about it, and I have paid particular attention to its plans and progress for some time now because Southeast False Creek is participating in the LEED-ND pilot.  (It hasn’t been evaluated yet but the development is aiming for a gold level award.)  The city’s summary information sheet explains the project’s goals:

“While maintaining heritage ties to the past, SEFC is being planned as a model sustainable development based on environmental, social and economic principles where people will live, work, play, and learn. SEFC will be a mixed-use community, with a focus on residential housing. This complete neighbourhood will ensure that goods and services are within walking distance and that housing and jobs are linked by transit.”

  site plan for SE False Creek, Olympic Village highlighted (by: city of Vancouver)   

The 80-acre site’s mostly mid-rise buildings will provide ample density to support retail and walkability while still leaving 26 acres available for park land, including playgrounds and space for community gardening.  There will also be an elementary school and new civic center.  Some of the site’s historic buildings (notably including the Salt Building, shown in the photos) will be preserved, along with other reminders of its historic past.  Transportation options will include rapid transit, a “skytrain,” a streetcar, multiple bus lines, three new greenways with cycling facilities and, of course, a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.  The site also needed and received extensive brownfield remediation.

Most of the development’s buildings will qualify for a  LEED-gold building certification (in addition to the LEED-ND goal for the project as a whole).  One of them has been designated as a “net zero” building that will have no net carbon emissions.   It will be converted to 64 homes for seniors after the Games.  And the developer is aiming for a LEED-platinum rating for the community center that will be the village’s focal point during the Games and the most publicly visible of the neighborhood’s buildings afterward.    

  Salt Building (by: city of Vancouver)  athletes' village plaza, Salt Building in background (by: city of Vancouver)

Southeast False Creek/Millennium Water will also sport the city’s first renewable district heating system, which will provide heat and hot water to all the neighborhood’s buildings, including those in the Olympic village. It will be the first time in North America that heat recovered from wastewater will provide a primary source of energy for an urban neighborhood. The wastewater technology will be supplemented by solar hot water. 

The city began planning development of the site in 1997 and committed to a vision of sustainability in 1999.  Eventually it will be home to 16,000 residents.  Close to 3,000 will be housed there for the Games.

  green roofs at the Olympic Village (by: MIllennium Water)  solar panel on Net Zero Building (by: City of Vancouver)

The environmental accomplishments and goals of the Olympic village (officially Village A, since there is a second athlete’s Village B in Whistler, BC, where downhill events are being held) are summarized in an overview on the Olympics’ official site.  In addition to those mentioned above, they include ecological restoration of the waterfront; reintroduction of intertidal marine habitat and indigenous vegetation, and extensive green stormwater infrastructure.  As shown in the images, most of the buildings will have green roofs.  Other laudable elements include accessible design, job training and procurement for inner-city residents, and impressive (and sustainable) public art, including traditional and contemporary works by Inuit, Métis, and other First Nations indigenous artists from across Canada.  

The village’s sustainability features are seen by the Games as part of a larger goal of sustainability throughout the Olympic venues and events, and by the city as consistent with its’ leaders vision of becoming “the world’s greenest city.”

  wetland dock in the Olympic Village (by: City of Vancouver)  a block in the Olympic Village (by: City of Vancouver)

As with any large development, especially infill and especially one receiving subsidies in the context of a recession, the project has not been without controversy.  This is well-documented on the Web and was succinctly summarized by Jonathan Hiskes on Grist.  The project was planned to be financed largely by Millennium Water’s investors and recouped by them after the Games as its units were sold.  But a major source of the developer’s capital collapsed with other financial institutions and the city had to come to the project’s financial rescue (to be repaid when the development sells).  There were also the usual construction problems and cost overruns.  The financial squeeze meant that, unfortunately, some of the project’s Phase I affordable housing had to be scaled back.  In addition, some Vancouverites have long resisted the idea of the city’s hosting the Games at all, and the village became a bit of a rallying point for the opposition. 

  a walkway in the Village (by: City of Vancouver)  integrated design for stormwater management (by: city of Vancouver)

But now the village has been completed and was handed over to the city on schedule, in November.  It has received glowing reviews not just from environmental writers but also from real estate observers who believe Millennium Water will be a huge commercial success when it is handed back to the developer (see, for example, here and here).  Based on what we can see, that’s hard to argue with.  I can’t wait to see it for myself.

Here are two really good videos about the project.  The first models the development’s progress from start to finish with very cool animation, and has an awesome soundtrack.  (Someone please tell me who that is; if you prefer Beethoven, by the way, go here.)  And the second provides a montage of the project’s construction with an excellent explanatory narrative and first-rate visual production.  Highly recommended:   

For a short commercial for Millennium Water, try this one.  Let the Games begin!

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Jeremy WelshFeb 12 2010 10:04 AM

It would be helpful to mention the architects/urban designers/landscape architects for the project, along with any Green consultants. I just re-read the article, thinking I must have missed it. But it doesn't look like anyone from the design team has been identified.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 12 2010 10:17 AM

I agree, Jeremy. There hasn't been much about that in the press, unfortunately. I'll keep looking and, in the meantime, would love it if any readers can help us give credit where it's due.

Laurence AurbachFeb 12 2010 11:21 AM

There's a good amount of background info, including the designer credits, in the "Challenge Series" web site, particularly Chapter Two: Planning.

There's some interesting subtext going on between the Official Plan and the "turning point" Architect's Letter. It's not entirely clear what the differences were or how they were resolved. Seems like a first-person report from the individuals involved would be the best way to get the full story.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 12 2010 02:19 PM

Thanks, LJ. There were several credits at the end of that linked page but, interestingly, none for master planning, which makes me wonder if this might be one of those few situations where the government did that in-house. It was interesting to scan down that page and see how things evolved over time. Fascinating project.

Eric BrittonFeb 16 2010 05:26 AM

Kaid. this issuch a fine piece and so nicely done that we would like to share it with the readers of World Streets exactly as you have laid out here. of course it would obtain all of the usual that knowledge was and direct URL links so that our international readers, not all of whom necessarily know NRDC, be able to gain direct access to your website and your work. if you think that might work for you, please get back to me so we can do this immediately. Kind regards, Eric Britton

JohnFeb 16 2010 02:25 PM

Looks nice. So nice that prices start at $450K and go up to $6 Million. Not so affordable, but I guess brownfield remediation and good urbanism isn't cheap.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 17 2010 11:04 AM

I am pleased to announce that, as of yesterday, Southeast False Creek and the Olympic Village have received a platinum certification from the LEED-ND pilot program. That's the highest level, and above their original aspiration. See this story by Jonathan Fowlie in the Vancouver Sun for more.

Sophie Lambert of the US Green Building Council adds:

"USGBC’s Chair, Tim Cole, joined Gregor Robertson, the Mayor of Vancouver, and Brent Toderian, the Planning Director of Vancouver, today to announce that the Vancouver Olympic Village has earned platinum certification for its plan under the LEED-ND pilot. This project has earned the most points of any project in the LEED-ND pilot for its location close to transit, jobs, and retail, its revitalization of a former brownfield into a compact community that connects with the surrounding neighborhoods, and finally as a leader in the use of renewable energy and high-performance green buildings. Please see the below press release for more information and this short video about the platinum certification and the project -"

Congratulations to everyone involved!

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 17 2010 11:07 AM

John, Millennium Water will have some subsidized affordable units set aside for working families. But, unfortunately, not as many in Phase One as originally planned, because of the financial difficulties I described. I hope they can make up for it in Phase Two; the original plan, I believe, was for 20% of the units to be affordable.

Graham McGarvaFeb 18 2010 07:25 PM


Thanks for your great post on SEFC and all of the different elements that came together to make the neighborhood what it is today. I read in the comments about listing teams that were involved in the project and wanted to add our firm's involvement.

VIA Architecture ( was the City's Prime Consultant and Master Planner for the SEFC Master Plan, the implementation of which has led to the LEED ND Platinum Certification. It is a credit to VIA's collaborative teamwork that the City of Vancouver could be perceived as the master planner for False Creek. Our approach is to reach excellence through enhancing collective achievement.

The success of this project results from our creation of a shared umbrella for SEFC that linked Policy, Politics, Urban Design, and Sustainability. This sheltered a diverse array of ideas and objectives through the storms of public process. VIA celebrates the joy of this success with all our City colleagues, our sub-consultants, and the Olympic Village implementation team.

Our philosophy is well captured in an interview given for SEFC’s book The Challenge Series “Sustainable design is not about getting to the top of the mountain, it’s about moving the mountain to where it should have been in the first place. When we started doing the main master planning for SEFC in 1997, we wanted to create the new normal – it was a very humble and absolutely global ambition that we had, a simple desire to completely change the way everything is done.”
SEFC The Challenge Series Volume 8 page 27

Graham McGarva, Principal + Co-founder
VIA Architecture

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