Michael Mortensen is a Vancouver-based urban planner and development consultant. Today, he shares with us his work developing an urban big box space that incorporates residential use and melds appropriately with the city surrounding it.

"We're just following the firm's national design standards," explained the lead architect.

I had called the architect to discuss his plans which showed a 150 ft. long run of product shelving that would obscure an entire elevation of tall pedestrian level windows. As it turned out, those design standards were conceived for a generic 50,000 ft2 big box store set in a ubiquitous suburban surface parking lot that you would find off of any highway, anywhere on the North American continent: cheap to build; three blank elevations with a fourth of basic entrances and modest windows; maximum space for signage visible from the highway.  

“I’m sorry”, I replied, “your proposal is for an intensely developed urban site in the city center. Your standards are going to have to change”.  And so they did because great design can meet multiple interests - and that is the theme of this short article on accommodating large format retail in urban environments.

Working cooperatively, we managed to redesign the store layout, preserving the amount of retail shelving inside the store for his client while also maintaining the transparency of the windows in question. Impenetrable window coatings addressed security concerns. These changes preserved views into the store and maintained the light and passive surveillance that the inside offered to people on the sidewalk — important in Vancouver’s dark winter months. We know also that people linger and shop more in stores with more natural light, an added bonus. 

Window transparency generates pedestrian interest (Source: GoogleMap)

Window transparency generates pedestrian interest (Source: GoogleMap)

Large Format Retail that Works: The Rise, Vancouver BC

Grosvenor’s “The Rise” on the NE corner of Cambie Street and 8th Avenue in Vancouver’s City Hall precinct offers an even better case study on how large format retail can be designed to fit into – and enhance – an urban neighborhood. It also demonstrates that valuable, transit-rich. inner-city commercial sites can also accommodate much needed housing, making better use of land. 

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   The Rise (Source: GoogleMaps)

The Rise (Source: GoogleMaps)

Developed by Grosvenor Americas and designed by Nigel Baldwin, The Rise is a transit-oriented, inner-city development that successfully mixes large format retail uses with small shops and rooftop housing in a mid-rise form. The site is located within Vancouver’s secondary central business district, an area busy with pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars and is literally steps away from the Canada Line LRT (built just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics).  Completed in 2009, the project received a number of important awards including the Urban Land Institute’s Global Award of Development Excellence (2010).

Key Project info


  • 300,000 ft2 (3.0 FAR) infill development
  • 2.3 acre inner-city site (formerly a car dealership).


  • Walkscore: 97
  • Steps from a rapid transit train station linking the downtown to the airport
  • Frequent Rapid Bus service across the city


  • Retail: 212,000 ft2 large format & local serving retail including Home Depot,  Winners HomeSense, Save-On-Foods, and Small Retail Units. 
  • Residential: 92 live-work apartments on top of the retail podium
Rooftop residential apartments.

Rooftop residential apartments.

Another perspective of the residential rooftop garden and green space.

Another perspective of the residential rooftop garden and green space.


Building Section

  • Large format retail makes the best use of a deep full-block site.
  • 100% of vehicle parking is underground and the parking ratio was reduced to 2.5 stalls/1,000 ft2 for retail uses.
A cross-section of the building

A cross-section of the building

Ground Level Retail

  • Each block corner has a major commercial entrance.
  • Smaller local-serving shops and residential entries wrap the larger retail uses.
  • Pedestrian interest is created on all frontages with window transparency, design details, street furniture and public art.
  • All loading and waste management is internalized.
Ground level floor plan

Ground level floor plan

Rooftop Residential

  • The rooftop features a 20,000 ft2 Intensive Green Roof, which was made possible in part because Home Depot sought a “Post Disaster” seismic design for their store.
  • Residents enjoy indoor and outdoor amenity spaces on this level.
The author's children playing on the rooftop garden and green space.

The author's children playing on the rooftop garden and green space.


Lessons Learned from this project

  • Residential uses can work well above large format stores – separation of parking, “back of house” loading and waste management facilities was key.
  • Rooftop residential communities are extremely liveable and secure – the live/work zoning could be expanded to allow for more family-oriented housing
  • Reasonable land costs were also a factor in the mix; escalating costs would force a re-evaluation of the use mix and ultimate development plan for the site.
  • Based on actual take-up, commercial parking ratios could be even more reduced from 2.5 stalls/1,000 ft2 retail use.

(All photos courtesy of Michael Mortensen)

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About the Author

Michael Mortensen, MA, MCIP, RPP is a Vancouver based Urban Planner & Development Consultant with 20 years of experience planning and leading the development of mixed-useprojects at scale in North America and Europe. He worked on the Rise in 2008-2013 as a planner and as a developer. Learn more at www.plan-tlc.com.