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Urban commercial-scale food production.

Owners of parkades and urban industrial properties may not have been the happiest bunch lately – particularly in progressive cities with effective traffic management planning and lackluster industrial land values. In Vancouver, there are about 7,000 empty and under-utilized parking spaces across downtown. The cumulative area of these parking stalls adds up to 10.5 hectares, equivalent to nearly 3% of the land in the downtown area. Between 2005 and 2010, industrial land values in Vancouver increased by a feeble 1%.

So the big idea is to not only re-purpose these underperforming spaces but to reclassify urban commercial agriculture as a designated building use.

In Chicago, a dilapidated former 93,500sf meat-packing factory has been revitalized into The Plant: a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. A complex and highly interrelated system, one-third of The Plant holds aquaponic growing systems and the other two-thirds incubates sustainable food businesses (including an artisanal brewery, mushroom farm, bakery, etc) by offering low rent, low energy costs, and a licensed shared kitchen. The Plant is aiming to create 125 jobs in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighbourhood. A renewable energy system diverts over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.

In Kyoto, Japan’s Nuvege is growing a variety of lettuces in a 30,000-square-foot hydroponic facility with 57,000 square feet of vertical growing space. Amidst fears of radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant, Nuvege can tout the safety and cleanliness of its crop. Over 70 percent of its produce is already being sold to supermarkets, with 30 percent going to food service clients such as Subway and Disney.

PlantLab in Den Bosch, Holland, is constructing a three-story underground vertical farm that completely eliminates the wave lengths of sunlight that inhibit plant growth. With the latest LED technology, PlantLab can adjust the light composition and intensity to the exact needs of the specific crop. The room temperature, root temperature, humidity, CO2, light intensity, light color, air velocity, irrigation, and nutritional value all can be regulated. PlantLab claims it can achieve a yield three times the amount of an average greenhouse’s while using almost 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture.

And finally, Vancouver is also working on its own vertical farm. Alterrus is a new venture headed up by hothouse agriculture entrepreneur Stephen Fane. Alterrus is leasing the 6,000sf rooftop of an EasyPark-owned parkade located at 535 Richards Street. Part of the deal is that Alterrus provides partial lease payments in terms of produce which will be provided to local chefs as well as City Of Vancouver homeless shelters, etc. Also, if this works out, the second level may also be converted over for more production. Preliminary annual income estimates are at about $250,000 a year. Alterrus’ VertiCrop system can be used to grow at least 20 varieties of lettuces, herbs and greens, provided they are less than 30cm (12”) tall.

The vertical production system comprises four-metre-high stacks of growing trays on motorized conveyors which ferry plants up, down, and around for watering, to capture the sun’s rays, and then move them into position for an easy harvest.It is easy to set up, easily scalable, and production is more reliable than conventional “outdoor” agriculture. According to Alterrus, Verticrop yields are approximately 20 times higher than the normal production volume of field crops but it requires only 8% of the normal water consumption used to irrigate field crops. It also does not require the use of harmful herbicides or pesticides. The Richards Street array will produce about the same amount of produce as 6.4 hectares (16 acres) of California fields.

Recognizing the economic potential not to mention the social advantage of improving the resiliency of local food systems, the City of Vancouver is pursuing changes to bylaws and regulations that will rescue commercial urban agriculture from its legal limbo. Equally compelling is the involvement of those Skool scallywags at InsitituteB who are supporting Verticrop with sales and marketing infrastructure leading to a private placement investment round.

We suggest investors take a closer look at the food production system of the future and building owners keep a close eye on regulatory changes coming out of the City of Vancouver. This is a promising idea not just as a short-term income solution for vacant real estate, but also as a profitable long-term opportunity.


Helen Goodland's picture


“Strata apartments across the region are consistently ‘over-parked’ in the range of 18-35 per cent,” says a report by Metro Vancouver (and reported in Globe and Mail), which is aimed at encouraging municipalities and builders to make changes like reducing minimum parking requirements for builders near transit or selling parking stalls as a separate add-on to condos. The report also encourages planners and developers to factor in the street parking that’s already available, to set lower numbers for the maximum amount of parking that can be included in a building, and to build more rental apartments near transit. The over-parking is not just a waste of space and an expensive add-on for developers, who have to build the stalls at a cost of $20,000-$45,000 each. 

So perhaps underground commercial crop production is an answer.