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After protests and planning, Little Mountain ready to rise

The entrance to the 15-acre Little Mountain site in Vancouver.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

After five years, dozens of protests, 22 community meetings and thousands of hours of planning work, Vancouver's oldest social-housing project – Little Mountain, near the heart of the city at Main and 37th – is moving ahead this week to Stage One.

It's the first of what's expected to be many more redevelopments of older provincial social-housing projects to maximize their value.

The site will now see between 1,400 and 1,600 households where there used to be 224, with a neighbourhood centre, a daycare, a canal running through the middle, replacements for the former social housing, and a cluster of small shops, according to a report going to council Wednesday. As well, the private developer will contribute up to $32-million to "community amenities."

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But the project also produced bitter feelings among some in the community. Even among those welcoming the redevelopment, there was a sense that the province's deal with the developer was pushing them to accept more density than they really wanted. The tortuous road has left many saying this was not the way to handle one of the province's key social-housing sites, and it provides a lesson for the future.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we've had a less than optimum outcome here," said Councillor Geoff Meggs. "The entire approach has been very problematic."

The chair of the community advisory group, Ron Myers, concurred, saying there were several flaws that made negotiations much more difficult.

"Removing the [original] residents from the site, it was a very terrible process. People talked about being bullied," said Mr. Myers, who lives in his own single-family house near the site.

As well, the community group "did feel pushed" to accept more and more density on the site, he said, because of constant reminders that the developer, the Malaysian-based Holborn Developments, had paid the province a high price.

The community group is saying it would like buildings no higher than 10 storeys on the site and would have liked to see density similar to the Arbutus Lands near Arbutus and 12th.

Instead, staff have recommended heights up to 12 storeys and a density that would be closer to the Olympic Village. And the developer, currently represented by one of the family sons, Joo Kim Tiah, would like to see buildings up to 14 storeys and even a little more density.

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However, after some tussling between Holborn and city manager Penny Ballem the past year over the density, Mr. Tiah said he is now supporting the mid-range staff recommendations.

The saga started in 2007, when the federal government handed over all of its social-housing sites to the provinces.

Almost immediately, Housing Minister Rich Coleman came up with a plan to sell the Little Mountain project, first built in 1954, to a developer with the promise that the social housing units be replaced in the new, much denser development.

Holborn was chosen as the successful bidder in 2008, before the worldwide recession exploded, for a price the province has never revealed.

However, there's a widely held belief that Holborn paid a premium in the expectation of getting permission from the city – then led by mayor Sam Sullivan – to build very high density.

BC Housing then insisted that all of the existing residents had to move out, offering them spots in other social housing.

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All but one of the buildings was torn down in 2009, after a protest group had mounted vigils on the sidewalks for months. The site has sat empty, except for four families in the remaining building, since then.

"We lost the housing there for a very long time," Mr. Meggs said. "I think in future projects like this, the province should hold on to the land [by leasing it out, instead of selling outright] and redevelop it on a phased basis so people aren't so dislocated."

Mr. Tiah said he is hoping that, once the policy overview is approved this week, his company can move on to rezoning and have the first phase started by late next year.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More


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