Why cities need to protect their warehouses
The conversion of industrial land to residential use has hidden problems, writes Uytae Lee
There's a neighbourhood in New Westminster, British Columbia that I think is a bit strange. It's called the Brewery District. You can't miss it. Its name is proudly printed on signs, flags, and spelled out in big block letters.
But there's a key thing missing in New Westminster's brewery district. The breweries! There's not a single one. There's an insurance broker, a Freshii, a poké bar. But the only thing brewing here is coffee.
I think that's a problem.
Whither the warehouse?
The Brewery District was once home to an actual brewery. The Labatt brewery, best known as the makers of Budweiser. But in 2004 the building was closed and then later redeveloped into this brewery-free brewery district.
For me, the problem isn't that this neighbourhood's name is essentially a lie, or that my Budweiser now comes from Creston, on the other end of the province. No, the problem is with what this neighbourhood replaced: Industrial land.
That is land reserved by local governments for large and loud businesses like factories, warehouses and breweries. These are businesses that people usually want far away from their homes, so it makes sense to have areas set aside for them.
But recently, more and more cities across North America have been redeveloping industrial lands.
For example, Safeway's warehouse in Burnaby is about to become 20 apartment buildings with shops and restaurants, while a former warehouse in Halifax is being bulldozed to make way for an apartment complex with shops and restaurants. Or there's Mr. Christie's Cookie Factory in Toronto: Once known for its Oreos and Chips Ahoy, it will soon be known for 15 apartment towers with a mix of condos, offices, a new park, and of course, shops and restaurants.
This is such a common occurrence that some have described it as a crisis.
Nowhere to build
Now, when I was first researching this piece, I admit that I was skeptical. There are many crises out there.The housing one, the climate one, and my existential one. But since when did people care so much about warehouses?
What's so bad about turning this into shops and housing?
We actually have a long history of building over industrial lands in North America. In fact, it often makes a lot of sense.
Case in point: False Creek in Vancouver. It was once an industrial district of sawmills, warehouses, and train tracks in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, False Creek began to transform into a residential neighbourhood. Today, those lands hold some of the hottest waterfront real estate in the city. Instead of sawmills and warehouses, there are glass condos with parks, shops, and the seawall. People love it!
But this isn't just about looks. It's also about money. Redeveloping industrial land is incredibly profitable for developers and generates tons of new taxes for local governments.
It's good old-fashioned capitalism combined with "new-urbanism." We get rid of smokestacks, build trendy new neighbourhoods and make way more money! It's a win-win-win.
But repeat that over and over again over several decades and you end up with a bit of a problem.
In many cities today, there is barely any industrial land left at all, with lots of new businesses looking for space: Food processing companies, cheese producers, biotech labs, artisan jewellery makers, just to name a few. Then there are established needs like shipping warehouses, recycling depots, dairy processing plants — all vying for very little land. We still need these industries, but where are they supposed to build?
Loss of middle-income jobs
It's also worth noting that industrial lands tend to offer opportunities for those outside of the service and knowledge economy. In fact, a study from UC Berkeley found that industrial lands hold a much higher concentration of middle income jobs (44 per cent) when compared to a city's average (27 per cent).
Redeveloping industrial lands into trendy neighbourhoods tends to replace those traditional blue collar jobs with either high-end white collar ones, like tech workers, or minimum-wage positions in the service industry, such as baristas.
The concern here is that this may be contributing toward the growing income inequality within our cities. In the last several decades, major cities across Canada have all reported more people living in poverty, more wealthy people, and a shrinking middle class.
I get it: It's hard to get excited about a warehouse. But we need to pay more attention to what this loss of industrial land means for our cities — and what we can do about it.
Learn more in Stories About Here: The Industrial Land Crisis.
About this series
Stories About Here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges that communities across Canada face today. In each episode we dig into the often overlooked issues in our own backyards — whether it's the shortage of public bathrooms, sewage leaking into the water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become better informed and engaged members of their communities.
You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.