BC Housing Minister David Eby says he’s looking forward to the ribbon cutting of the recently approved 39-story mixed-use tower at the corner of Granville and Broadway, the site of an upcoming rapid transit station.
Mr Eby, who is also the Attorney General, wrote a letter of support to the town on government letterhead, as did Environment Minister George Heyman, MLA for horse riding. His endorsement was part of the tower’s rezoning process at 1477 W. Broadway, which included three nights of public hearings before a decision on April 26.
PCI Developments had begun construction on an approved five-story commercial building under existing zoning, but then last fall, the developer applied to rezone the tallest tower in the corridor. The tower will include 223 rental units, 45 of them permanently below market rent for moderate-income households, as well as offices and retail, above the South Granville Subway Station which is part of the Broadway Subway Line, from Clark Drive to Vine Street in Kitsilano.
Nine councilors voted in favor, Jean Swanson and Colleen Hardwick voted against. The tower will set the tone for South Granville, a mid-rise residential neighborhood with a central business district that is close to downtown.
There is pressure to add significant density in response to much-needed rental housing as Vancouver grows, particularly along the future underground Broadway corridor. But how to achieve that density, and even the question of how much is needed, at what rate, is a polarizing ideological debate, and the tower as built form is the lightning rod.
An increase in land value is a key concern when towers are introduced in neighborhoods with older rental housing. As history has shown, without a policy to protect tenants, higher values bring transformation. Tenants’ rights advocates have raised concerns about renovations and gentrification.
Mr. Eby said he too is concerned about displaced tenants, but if land value is a concern, that horse is out of the barn.
“Land surveying around low-rise rental buildings is already taking place thanks to investment from SkyTrain,” Eby said in an interview. “So what will protect those renters is not refusing to build rental housing that we know is desperately needed.”
Without the tower, Eby said, tenants in the 233 units would have been competing for existing homes. Instead, they will live above a transit station.
“That said, I don’t think those concerns about tenants in more affordable rental housing are misplaced. We saw what happened in Burnaby, where there weren’t enough protections for tenants around redevelopment.”
Mr. Eby was referring to the mass demobilizations that occurred after the transit-oriented rezoning of Metrotown five years ago. Burnaby’s mayor at the time argued that the redevelopment of affordable rental housing from the 1960s and 1970s was necessary to maximize the potential for density around the transit station. Incumbent Mayor Mike Hurley and the council have pushed through major new rental projects while introducing aggressive tenant protections. Mr. Eby praised Burnaby approach, which gives displaced tenants the option of returning to their old apartment’s remodeled site at the same rent, with small annual increases allowed by the Residential Leasing Act. If they don’t return, their old unit is rented at 20 per cent below median market rents, as defined by the Housing and Mortgage Corporation of Canada.
Mr. Eby would like to standardize renter protections across boroughs so those who are displaced by redevelopment can return to affordable rent.
“My guess is that in the absence of aggressive tenant protection measures, very few people would come back. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that redevelopment does not worsen our housing situation, and many municipalities have taken steps to ensure that renters are protected. But there is a gap between cities and approaches; And when we look at rapid transit, it doesn’t matter if it’s Surrey/Langley or the Broadway corridor extension, or even a bus rapid transit system, we know that puts pressure on rental housing in those areas, around the risks of decreased affordability and temptations for landlords to evict people en masse.
“I think there is a provincial role to provide a standard response.”
Andy Yan, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, used census data and data from the City of Vancouver to analyze the Broadway Plan study area between 1st Avenue and West 16th Avenue, and Clark Drive and Vine Street. He found roughly 24,900 renter households in the area, or more than one in 10 renters in the city.
There are 1,291 purpose-built rental buildings in the area, the vast majority of which were built in 1970 or earlier.
“By the time market units percolate and become affordable, they are now earmarked for redevelopment. Therein lies a big problem,” says Mr. Yan.
A spokesperson for the City of Vancouver responded that the Broadway Plan area is not targeted at existing dense tenant communities.
“The Broadway Plan proposes the highest densities for new housing development and mixed-use development in areas with relatively fewer tenants, including station areas and [neighbourhood] centers rather than targeting existing apartment areas for significant short-term change,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Architect Brian Palmquist has spent considerable time studying the draft of the Broadway Plan, which will be presented to the council on May 18. A staff report will be posted online this week.
He said that the plan is unnecessarily complicated, so he has tried to figure it out. His plan modeling is built to the max, with dozens of towers potentially allowed in neighborhoods.
He says that an increase in the number of zones only increases the complexity.
He says that the towers are controversial, and not only because of the way they are built, but because of the way they are presented to the public.
“Skyscrapers are litmus paper, so to speak. They are so visible that they cause this distress,” Palmquist said. “It’s not just the number of towers, there’s a huge trust issue involved.”
He cites three recent examples of buildings that were made much taller when the rezoning process was complete, including the PCI tower at Granville and Broadway.
“So the rules change from below the community, and that’s probably the biggest problem with skyscrapers,” Palmquist said.
He says he has also counted a large backlog of rezonings that should keep the development community busy for some time.
Mr. Palmquist has designed several towers during his career, but prefers a softer density. He is a citizen researcher and writes about his views on the city’s future in his newsletter, City Conversations. His interpretation of the draft Broadway Plan has not been peer-reviewed.
“In Kitsilano, the plan also contemplates skyscrapers of up to 20 stories in the residential areas of avenues 1 to 16, Vine Street to Burrard; the plan makes possible more than 50 skyscrapers in that area.
“It exceeds the limits of my credulity to think that carpeting a high-rise in a 30+ block area, in Kitsilano alone, will not result in significant tenant displacement.”
City planning director Theresa O’Donnell spoke at the Grandview-Woodland Area Council meeting Monday night, her first meeting with a neighborhood association in the three years since she moved to Vancouver from Dallas.
The issue of towers in the Broadway Plan, and the upcoming Vancouver Plan, was one of the key concerns in a meeting that was, at times, a heated discussion.
Ms. O’Donnell said that there were exaggerations about the number of proposed towers and that they had policies in place that would serve to slow down the pace of development.
“We’ve put some pretty ambitious heights out there, but when you see the rental protections and the affordability and sustainability requirements, it’s going to be a little tough for these guys,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
Grandview Woodland Area Council President Craig Ollenberger asked Ms. O’Donnell about towers putting existing rental buildings at risk.
“There are a lot of buildings in the catchment area of that plan that appear to be under threat… It’s very difficult to manage that speculative growth when you look at the types of density proposed for some of those sites,” he said.
Ms O’Donnell said there were misunderstandings around the plan.
“I know those fears are out there… If you look at 20 or 40 stories, it seems like a windfall for the developer, but when you get there and realize what those requirements are, it’s not.
“If you look at what is proposed, I think you will see that it is a very good plan. You’ll have the strongest rental protections anywhere in the country, not just in the city or the Lower Mainland, but in the country… you’ll slow down the pace of development.
“This is not going to be rapid growth by any means.”
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