From the beginning, a deal between Kettle Friendship Society and Boffo Properties for a mixed-use condominium development including 30 units of social housing faced challenges.
First came the backlash from some Grandview-Woodlands residents, who plastered the neighbourhood with red “No Tower” signs to protest the scale of the proposed 15-storey development at Commercial Drive and Venables Street. The objections were centred on development size, not Kettle’s client base – people with mental illness. Still, the resistance didn’t speak well of a neighbourhood full of lefty, activist types fond of claiming they support worthy social causes.
However, Grandview-Woodlands was in the throes of negotiating a new community plan and many residents were adamant that Commercial Drive, a street lined primarily with independent green grocers, restaurants and shops, should be limited to buildings under five storeys. Despite the pressure, the city approved the project at 12 storeys because it included desperately needed social housing units and a drop-in centre for Kettle’s clients.
The fact that Vision Vancouver, the city’s ruling party, burned some political capital to approve the unwanted density in one of its key support areas spoke of its commitment to the project. So, when it crashed and burned last week over a fight between Boffo and the city about community amenity contributions (CACs), everyone was surprised.
Boffo claimed it had no idea that in addition to providing the housing and drop-in centre for Kettle, the city would demand an additional $16-million or so for other city amenities. The developer said it couldn’t pay the CACs and still turn a profit and tanked the project.
The city argues if it had waived the additional CACs, the deal would have been overly rich for Boffo and council would have been roasted for giving away the farm. “People would be calling for a corruption inquiry and heads would roll,” one city insider said.
Now, Boffo is a medium-sized developer that does most of its work outside the city limits. But it does have other Vancouver projects and is certainly not new to the game. And while it’s true precise numbers were not discussed until Boffo submitted a formal development application in 2017, the developer was told the housing and drop-in centre comprised only part of the CAC contributions.
Westbank, one of the city’s largest developers, recently agreed to build 40 units of social housing in partnership with the First Baptist Church. In addition to the social housing on site, an additional $65-million was paid for other amenities in Vancouver’s West End. That was a much larger project, but it illustrates that CACs are typically greater than what is built on site.
The city has offered to bring in a third-party evaluator to attempt to broker a deal, but so far has had no response from Boffo.
It is difficult to know whom to blame for the seven years of developer, city and social agency time wasted on the defunct deal. Residents hurt its chances by protesting the original 15-storey proposal, which would have been more lucrative for Boffo. And it’s possible the city, which is sometimes criticized for a lack of transparency when negotiating CACs, could have made its demands clearer to avoid a big-number surprise.
But it’s equally possible the reward demanded by Boffo is simply too rich for Vancouver, which expects a portion of the profit arising from its airspace generosity to benefit the entire community. There is no way to know since Boffo won’t share its financial information.
The biggest loss here is to the Kettle Society clients. Nancy Keough, Kettle’s executive director, had earmarked the housing for seniors with mental illness. It would have been nice for them to live close to friends and supports at a drop-in centre large enough to accommodate everyone, she says wistfully.
Now instead of new condominiums and social housing, all of which are in short supply, we are left with a crumbling drop-in centre, an empty parking lot and a dance hall whose glory days are long over. If the Boffo deal can’t be salvaged, the city should go it alone with help from the $1-billion the feds have assigned to B.C. social housing. The money is on the table. Time to put it to good use.