A developer has negotiated an unusual partnership with the city to swap lots in return for building social housing downtown.
In a pitch that neither side has rushed out to advertise widely, Brenhill Development proposed trading its $2-million lot on one side of Helmcken Street in Vancouver's Downtown South for a larger city lot across the road for $9.5-million.
In return for that, as well as a big increase in density on the city lot, Brenhill has said it will build a 13-storey social-housing complex on its original small lot to replace the aging three-storey Jubilee House that now sits on the city land.
With the density increase, Brenhill plans to build a 320-foot tower on the site of Jubilee House. That tower will include 100 market rental units, as well as space for a private preschool and kindergarten, along with the usual for-sale condominiums that are the lifeblood of development in Vancouver.
But all of that depends on the city approving a rezoning on its own land, where the aging three-storey Jubilee House now sits, to a density far higher than anything around it.
The city's general manager of planning, and councillor Raymond Louie, say this could be a win for the city in its goal of creating affordable housing.
"We would get new and updated social housing that would not disrupt any existing residents," said Brian Jackson. "This is one of the creative mechanisms we're trying to use to respond to the affordability issues in the city."
Both he and Mr. Louie said the developer understands that city council, as the regulator for land use, might decide the project cannot be approved.
"It doesn't fetter our ability to make a decision at public hearing time," Mr. Louie said. He added that it's not unusual for the city to rezone land that it then sells to another developer. That's exactly what happened at the Olympic Village.
The move was initiated by Brenhill, said the company's development consultant, Gary Pooni.
In a news release that hasn't been sent out yet, he said that "as a neighbour, [company owner Brent] Kerr has witnessed how Jubilee House across the street was deteriorating, and Brenhill came up with the idea of a land exchange that would provide them with more social housing in a brand-new building."
Vancouver has done several creative deals to try to get social housing built over the past decade. That goal has been increasingly difficult since the federal government stopped committing money for social housing in 1994, and the province, under the Liberals, has focused on building it only for the neediest.
The city, under Vision Vancouver, has offered developers incentives to create long-term rental housing at regular market rates.
While Vision politicians – backed up by analysis from the city's real-estate division – say the incentives and swaps help produce benefits for the community, it's often hard for the average resident to figure out exactly what the deal is.
Exact numbers are never provided to show the total of the developer's additional profit with extra density compared with the cost of the community benefits being provided.
This deal will be especially hard to figure out, as the developer is getting both $7.5-million in land value with the swap, plus more benefit from the rezoning, but providing an entire building of social housing, along with 110 rental units in the tower.
Green Party councillor Adriane Carr said she'll be closely examining the deal, which she hadn't heard about until contacted by The Globe and Mail.
She observed that the building is three times the density that is allowed under the guidelines in the area and 20 feet over the height limit.
On the other hand, there are significant benefits. "This could be a real win for the city. But that's what I'll be looking it. Does this project serve the public interest?"