Tale of Two Cities: Why Vancouver and Seattle Downtowns Look So Different


When most people see downtown Vancouver, BC, they think it is a big city because of the number of high-rise buildings.  Actually, its metro population is less than Portland’s, and most of those buildings are condo towers.  In contrast, most of Seattle’ high-rises are offices.  

You could argue that Vancouver and Seattle have different approaches to planning, but what’s really at work is the different business interests in each city, and how those drive public investment.  Seattle could have beautiful walkable waterfront neighborhoods on the north and south doorsteps to downtown, but century-old industrial interests are keeping underused land from conversion to residential.  It will probably take job loss to the suburbs to open those possibilities.

Vancouver, Where Homebuilding is a Major Industry

Leave it to the Canadians, who rely on exports to Pacific Rim countries to drive much of their economy, to make homebuilding on their own shores a major industry with high-wage jobs in high-rise construction.  That began happening in the mid 1980s when Hong Kong residents fearful of the 1997 turnover began flocking here. That turnover is now 28 years behind us, but today the mainland Chinese come as well, drawn by the possibility of getting their kids into good schools.

Vancouver had high-rise development before the 1980s near Stanley Park, but it was the reuse of the Canadian Pacific rail yards as the Expo 86 site and then as a new waterfront neighborhood that took that high-rise residential development to scale.  And it was a Hong Kong developer, Li Kai-shing, one of the biggest businessmen in that city, who bought the Expo 86 site and brought master-planning and large-scale development to Vancouver.  Yes, some of the seawall walks were left over from Expo 86, but as part of the approvals process, Li Kai-Shing also added large waterfront parks, a marina, and a new community center in an old round house, all publicly accessible.  Those amenities made downtown a more interesting place to live, and they also sold condos.

With that template established, Marathon, the development subsidiary of the other railroad in town, Canadian National, began turning its railyards on the north waterfront at Coal Harbor into a second walkable waterfront community, also with a marina, seawall walks, parks, and a second community center.  In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the city acquired old warehouses and factories on the southeast shores of False Creek (about a mile east of Granville Island) and turned this into the Olympic Village, which was turned into permanent housing after the games were over.  Just south of downtown in the Kitsilano neighborhood, two First Nations groups have approval to build a total of 19,000 housing units on two sites each near the water.   

All in all, there are now about 80,000 housing units in and around downtown Vancouver, compared to about 45,000 units in areas of Seattle south of Mercer, west of I-5. and north of the football stadium. Seattle would have about three times as many units as it does now if it had the same ratio of downtown to metro housing as Vancouver.

Seattle, Where Commerce Speaks Loudest

While much of Vancouver’s investment in the public realm has gone into pedestrian and recreation improvements, most of Seattle’s has gone into moving workers and freight.  Homebuilding does not have a big voice here. The Port, Nordstrom, and Amazon do, and the public investment has ensured that  employees arrive on time and goods keep moving.

Think about the big projects in downtown the last 40 years:  the bus tunnel and light rail, the Route  99 replacement for the viaduct, fixing the Mercer Mess, a streetcar that got South Lake Union workers to Westlake Mall and back, and extra travel lanes for buses and ferry queues on the waterfront where more housing might have been built.  

In central Seattle, housing has mostly been an after-thought, and most of the new units built the last 30 years have been rental apartments, not owner-occupied.  There was never a master plan and financing scheme to build the network of parks and open spaces that would make more people want to live here long term, and to co-invest in the place.  It was first bio tech and then Amazon that sparked the redevelopment of South Lake Union, and until recently most of that redevelopment was office buildings.  

The number of highly-paid tech workers there eventually drew institutional investment in luxury rentals.  Lately that investment has taken the form of “Texas Donuts,” big, bulky apartments that wrap around a central courtyard and take up much or all of a city block.  The lavish rooftop gardens on these projects compensate for the fact that walking to a big park may take 20 minutes or more.  

Two Big Opportunities for Walkable Waterfront Neighborhoods

Still, Seattle has two big opportunities to walkable waterfront neighborhoods like those in Vancouver, but realizing this opportunity will require taking on the Port and the railroads. These sites have been subject to countless studies over the last four decades, but still sit underused.  

The first is Terminal 46 near the Coast Guard icebreakers, which at the north end is less than a quarter-mile from Pioneer Square.  If people lived and worked here, they’d be less than a 10-minute bike ride from the Pike Place Market.  The north half of that site is vacant, while the south half is used to load and unload containers.  Between the Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma, however, the Northwest Seaport has more than enough land to meet its needs, and it has told the federal government that its future lies in dredging a deeper channel west of Harbor Island to serve the next generation of ships.  This site could hold both large waterfront parks and about 5,000 housing units.  

The other area is Interbay, about a 1.5 mile bike up the waterfront from the Olympic Sculpture Park.  There is about 225 acres of under-used land there, which is about three times the size of the Seattle Center.  That’s enough to build about 15,000 housing units, plus parks.  This total includes 100 acres on the waterfront and (immediately north of the Magnolia Bridge) 50 acres in the golf course, 50 acres in fields, storage buildings and the shopping center near Whole Foods; and 25 acres of sidings where the railroads currently store box cars.  

Challenging the Status Quo

In the last 100 years, Seattle has comprehensively redeveloped its central waterfront only once, when Paul Schell – former mayor, former planning director and former head of Weyerhaeuser’s inner city development company – became president of the Port commission and bent that agency to his will in creating the condos, offices, marina, hotel and conference center at Bell Harbor.  More redevelopment like that elsewhere will require that the Port and railroads let go of land no longer needed for industry. 

That will require a countervailing economic force, like the loss of jobs to the Eastside or the hollowing out of downtown office towers. On the Eastside, the schools are better and Amazon is adding 25,000 people.  It could be argued that great waterfront neighborhoods to both live and work are essential to the city’s competitiveness.  The real power and money at the Port, however, are in the airport division, and it will probably take holding up a project there to get the Port’s attention. 

Meanwhile, the city can do more studies while Bellevue and Redmond to the east and Vancouver to the north take its talent.  

Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens
Rod Stevens is a development consultant specializing in urban revitalization. 


  1. What’s the goal of a downtown? Beyond retail and restaurants, I can’t tell where the jobs in Vancouver are, and housing is prohibitively expensive. I’d be more inclined to hop on the bandwagon of “let’s be like Vancouver” if I understood why it is superior to Seattles distinct and many walkable neighborhoods. I’m more excited about filling in existing downtown – which is blighted in some areas – than upending working functions of Seattles industrial core. A city is more than housing!

    • Thanks for this. I have a relative who lives in an enclosed community in Los Angeles, close to the ocean and the airport, called Playa Vista. It sounds a bit like the Truman Show, or Barbie Land before Barbie’s revelation – two communities set up for corporate returns. Playa Vista is, admittedly, a great place for my son and his young family to visit, with multiple parks and playgrounds, shops and amenities all in a walkable, contained community. It’s like the ideal small town American, except that small towns tended to grow more organically (except perhaps company towns).

      So, although I was close to drinking the KoolAid of Rod Stevens’ imaginings of development in Seattle, I appreciated your reality check of what such developments mean in a world in which we need more integration and diversity around us, not less. Seattle’s always been a bit gritty, and, yes, I would miss that.

      However, I’m not in a position to have an opinion on this. Although I was raised in Seattle, I’ve lived my entire adult life on Bainbridge Island. Clearly I’ve chosen to remove myself from the Seattle’s urban complexities.

  2. rod,
    You wrote:
    “While much of Vancouver’s investment in the public realm has gone into pedestrian and recreation improvements, most of Seattle’s has gone into moving workers and freight.”

    What documentation, sources etc to prove your point about public investment?

    I have no opinion one way or another about the accuracy of your interesting assertion, but whenever I read a sentence in an article which uses the word “most”, I assume that the argument is based on numbers, from some source — or the author’s subjective opinion. So to be fair to the author, I ask.

    • While I did very detailed research on the amount of office space, dwelling units and population in each place, I didn’t do a detailed count of the public investment. Why? Because transportation projects are so fantastically expensive (usually measured in the hundreds of millions if not more), while pedestrian and other public amenities such as parks are much less expensive (usually measured in the single and double digits of millions). Other than the improvements around MOHAI and in a traffic calming/ pedestrianization of a street in Belltown, I can’t think of many improvements in Seattle the last ten, 20 or even 30 years. Freeway Park was probalby the last major park improvement of any scale or cost. It’s arguable that the waterfront improvement has much public investment, but the bulk of the cost there is for transportation and holding back the Sound. In Vancouver, by contrast, there are at least five new parks built around False Creek in the last 30 years, and, on Coal a major new seawall walk and set of parks between between the Westin Bayshore and the convention center.

    • Seattle’s transportation improvements total well over a billion. It’s hard to get close to that with amenities when the last major park was Freeway Park. True, MOHAI and the Cascade Playground had some expense, but nowhere near the cost of tunneling under the city or the travel lanes on Alaskan Way. In the last 30 years, Vancouver built four or five major parks on False Creek, as well as a large seawall walk between Stanley Park and the convention center.

  3. Many of those condos in Vancouver are lightly occupied, purchased as secondary homes or as hedges against moving from other countries. Portland also has a residential-based downtown, thanks to developed lands in the Pearl District, streetcars, and the riverfront. Seattle, in chasing foreign investment, has created a virtual Office Park in its downtown, and that means too many eggs in the office basket, now that remote work has settled in, and an underinvestment in parks, schools, open space, daycares, dogruns, arts. The Waterfront Park will help, though the City Council discouraged residential development near it (out of fear of blocking views and helping rich residents). The other big opportunity for residential stimulation is Third Avenue, particularly if the busway were removed.

    • This may be true to some degree, but the BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax forced most people to rent these out. It doesn’t make sense to pay 2% of the value of a property each year just to leave it empty. The average investor doesn’t want to pay tens of thousands in taxes each year for no reason when they can easily rent the property.

  4. I am grateful for this rich and insightful analysis. I wonder if Rod has any idea why Seattle is going for apartments rather than condominiums. A city of renters scares me, as it is so easy for renters to pull up stakes and move out of town. For decades my chief fear about Seattle has been depopulation, and throughout most of that time, as if to prove my fears unfounded, the population has been growing. So now as we are booming, as population is swelling, as we find ourselves disparately short on housing, what is my fear? Depopulation.

      • Those are metro areas, not the city itself. But you’re right, if people are leaving the area, that should free up housing nearby, if not in Seattle.

      • Seattle population grew in 2022, and is expected to grow my as the up coming years. In fact, Seattle’s metro area has already surpassed 4 million just last year.

    • The Washington State Condominium Act virtually guarantees that no condominiums other than luxury high-rises by Canadian developers (good luck litigating in CA) and low-rise townhomes will be developed in Washington State. The risk/reward exposure to construction defect lawsuits is too high compared to rental properties. Washington followed California’s legal precedent in establishing the act, for not valid reasons but now has resulted in almost no condo production in either state. Not to mention that due to the litigation exposure it’s almost impossible for architects/engineers and contractors to obtain liability insurance for condo projects or desire to take on the projects.

      • I think the same fear of construction litigation is hampering the development of for-sale multi-family in the central Eastside cities of Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland. In 2022, the number of approved land use permits for apartment units appeared to be four to six times that of townhouses and condos . It’s an interesting and important question of where the renters will go when they want to buy and have a family.

    • Two quick thoughts: 1. developers are afraid of homeowner lawsuits. 2. A lack of place-making. If there were better places to live downtown (i.e. more parks and open space, quieter and greener streets, etc.) people would want to live there long-term and would pay higher values to buy into that location.

    • Might be the demographics. Vancouver has a lot of young people who have stretched to get into their condo. Ikea has a lot of furniture and furnishings for young households.

  5. The Vancouver photo looks like Hong Kong. Just look at all the sail boats.. 300 of them… all tied up going nowhere. Rich people toys, providing bilge cleaning job opportunities. Had the Author chosen street level view he would see street drug addiction, prostitution, crime, graffiti, and the highest price of residential property in North America according to Oxford Economics. Is this a goal for Seattle? Vancouver was blue collar until progress came to town. Welders owned homes in Vancouver. The Author evokes a Space Race portraying Seattle as backward, and under threat from Vancouver Redmond and Bellevue. His data set is questionable comparing all of Vancouver downtown vs a small part of Seattle north of stadiums west of I5 South of Mercer.. good heavens man every inch of it is developed. Seattle city wide is adding residential units all over the place… count the units at light rail stops in the U District and Roosevelt. In Seattle you can get a water view pretty much anywhere. You don’t have to live on the water to enjoy it. But if you have an extra $3M, a waterfront luxury condo as a business expense might pencil out. A place to stop over on the way to your condo in Whistler or Tofino. As for the greater good, such as commercial supply lines what is the Authors long term plan.. let’em move to Aberdeen or Hoquiam.. we don’t like hearing trains or semi tractors while doing our morning portfolio review? The article is after the fact NIMBYism suggesting the marine industry should just move along to make way for monied interests. Remember the line in HOFFA, “.. if you have it.. a truck brought it to you.” Before the Teamster put it on a truck, a Longshoreman moved it off a ship. Protected deep water port, by the railroad, near I5, near I90, near Sea-tac airport– ideal for commerce. A plan for growth that gives up marine cargo capacity is a self serving plan for future failure. You can build luxury condos some other place… if proximity to water is a must.. build a moat and a draw bridge.

  6. Thanks for the analysis and commentary, Rod. Your comparison of Seattle’s development policies with Vancouver’s was insightful (several commenters expanded on Vcr’s unique situation).

    If everyone living in Seattle were high-income earners, our housing situation would be less problematical. As it is, a key element making Seattle living so expensive is our limited supply of buildable land. Typically, in-city development involves tearing down existing structures (mostly low-rise) and replacing them with mid- or high-rises, either apartments or condos, either of which will carry a much higher price tag per square foot than what they replace.

    One of the challenges of managing urban growth is figuring out how much and what kind of enterprises you want our city to have. Historically, Seattle’s existence was sustained by its role as a port city –shipping timber, fish, grain etc to distant markets — consequently, transport has always been a key factor in the economy.

    Favoring business needs over residential needs was not so much a choice made by City Fathers, imho, it was economics. First you must develop an industrial base, which creates a need for workers, which creates demand for housing. Done properly, the process then feeds on itself — as the city grows more populous, it needs more industry & commerce, which attracts more workers, etc. etc..

    It seems to me that allocating acreage to the port and its rail & road links would be a higher priority than it would for an inland city with room to grow in several directions. If industrial land were to be redeveloped for other purposes (residences, retail commerce, parks, etc.) it is inconceivable that it would ever revert to its original use, regardless of any economic incentives to do so. And, as long as you have decent roads or high-capacity transit, it is usually far easier (and cheaper) for workers to locate outside the city and commute than it is to uproot port facilities and move them to outlying locations.

    That said, I also believe that while a portion of the monies spent in rail and road infrastructure is due the the needs of moving freight to & from the port, I suspect that transporting people has been the key factor in Seattle’s transportation spending, for political if not always economic reasons. Though the work from home trend has reduced the number of commutes by a noticeable degree, traffic going through Seattle on I-5 is still a bottleneck during most hours of the work week. Expediting freight movement helps keep both sorts of traffic moving.

    It is not clear from your article whether the residential development you envision for the Interbay area would displace the BN rail yard. My assumption is that the yard and its repair facilities are an absolute necessity for railroad operations: how easily could they relocate? And where?

    Every place needs a raison d’être. If in the future Seattle hosts less industry and thus fewer jobs, why would Seattle need more (expensive) housing? There are undoubtedly more congenial places for the moneyed classes to live.

    Thanks again for discussing so many interesting aspects of the challenges we face in our city.

  7. Some of the “industrial” questions that I was thinking about while writing this:
    1) Did the Port of Tacoma effectively take over the Port of Seattle? If so, what are the combined land needs of the Northwest Seaport Alliance? Is there, in fact, enough land on the Tacoma waterfront to meet the growth of both ports?
    2) What are the alternatives for siting and storing box cars? Could the Interbay operations be combined with those on the south waterfront or elsewhere, as they have in so many other cities? What did Vancouver do when it moved the yards for the Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific?
    3) What is the “wage density” of the Port of Seattle’s waterfront operations? Other than some highly paid crane workers and the truckers waiting to load, how many local residents work in those port areas and what is their collective pay?
    4) What would our industrial requirements be if we planned for modern industrial operations, including design, fabrication, and production for modern B2B products such as drones, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and other high value products like those made in Singapore in vertical factories?
    5) What would Georgetown, Pier 91, Terminal 46, South First and other quasi industrial areas look like if we had a true mixture of live/ work in those places, with that work focused on design and production?
    6) How many more people might live and work in these areas if they were more like the design and fabrication going on at Equinox Studios, near 4th and Marginal?

  8. Rod – Thanks for your followup comments regarding industrial activity and possible alternative uses of in-city space. As I understand it, one problem with managing rail rolling stock (boxcars and chassis for transporting containers or TOFC’s) is that, unlike containers, they do not stack vertically and of course take up trackage in rail yards.

    As we found during the pandemic, supply chain interruptions can occur when there is not adequate storage for the empties; they can clog railyards, impeding the vessel unloading and moving out the incoming freight. Empty shipping containers and the railcars that move them have to get parked somewhere ; it seems reasonable to assume that rail and truck freight yards need overflow space for those times. This can make it appear at times that the unused trackage or storage areas are just wasted space.

    Anyway thanks for sharing your insights.

    • You’re right, my statement is inaccurate. I should have said they are about the same size. Depending on whose stats you use, Vancouver’s metro population is now about 2.6 million, whereas Portland’s is about 2.5 million, so Vancouver appears to be about 1 percent larger. Portland’s economy may be larger because it has more tech and that produces more GDP/person than shipping or tourism.

  9. Well, that’s a great idea. Let’s shut down the Port, build bike lanes where container trucks go, wipe out the light and heavy industry in the Duwamish—it’s all a liquefaction zone anyway for the next earthquake—tear up the train tracks—we can recycle the steel and be environmentally friendly, or better yet, donate them to the missing downtown streetcar link—replace everything with apartments and AirBnB’s, and we’ll solve all the housing issues we face.

    Of course, the only people left in the city will be tourists and young, rich tech workers holding Zoom meetings from their now-affordable penthouses.

  10. The City of Seattle seeks the taxes the conventioneers and tourists provide. Residents by comparison provide little in the way of tax money


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