Skip to main content

The entrance to the 15-acre Little Mountain site in Vancouver is seen in this file photo from June 26, 2012. Housing Minister Rich Coleman formally opened a 53-unit social-housing project on the site on Thursday – the first phase in replacing Little Mountain’s 224 homes.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It has been eight years almost to the day since the news broke that the province was going to sell to a private developer the valuable site of Little Mountain, Vancouver's oldest social-housing project, a prime piece of land next to Queen Elizabeth Park.

So when Housing Minister Rich Coleman formally opened a 53-unit social-housing project on the site on Thursday – the first phase in replacing Little Mountain's 224 homes – he acknowledged he never thought it would take nearly a decade for the land to be redeveloped.

"I'm disappointed it took so long," he said, sitting on a patio outside the new building, which is surrounded by six hectares of vacant land next to Main Street. "I thought it would take three to four years."

The Little Mountain development stalled at various points for several reasons.

The recession put the brakes on a lot of development in the city. There were lengthy community meetings with residents who had a lot of expectations of the new projects.Behind the scenes, city planners and the developer were negotiating hard over density and amenities.

The new social-housing site was built earlier than the developer had planned to avoid having to evict the last four families who refused to leave the old housing units long after all the others were relocated by BC Housing in 2008 and 2009.

But nothing else on the site – neither the 1,400 condos nor the replacement for the original social-housing units that the developer, Holborn Group, promised to replace – is off the drawing board yet.

Mr. Coleman stayed away from blaming either the city's planning department or Holborn developer Joo Kim Tiah for the delays.

The province still holds the title to the land to make sure it gets the replacement social housing – plus an additional 10 units – from the developer.

The rezoning for the remainder of the site is expected to go to city council for approval later this year. Mr. Tiah acknowledged that his company, which he said has limited staff, has been preoccupied with building its $360-million Trump hotel on Georgia.

"I don't want to make any excuses, but there is only so much we can focus on," he said.

Mr. Coleman said it is unlikely anything could have been done to speed up the process.

He said the $300-million the province got for the land has helped build more than 2,000 units of social housing around B.C., most of them in Vancouver.

But critics have said Holborn has not been compelled to get the site developed because it only had to put a small down payment on the property to hold it. As a result, there was no pressure from big interest payments. Neither side has confirmed the size of that down payment, although Mr. Coleman said it is big enough to be an incentive to speed things along.

Mr. Coleman said the deal was structured the way a typical development deal is, where the buyer pays the full purchase price only after rezoning.

The province, the city and the developer have all come in for a share of criticism from local advocacy groups and Little Mountain residents, who have been appalled at the way the community was disbanded and the land allowed to sit empty.

"We have 75 people living here, but we had 600 displaced," said Barry Growe, a nearby resident who is part of the group Community Advocates for Little Mountain. "I can imagine how much money the developer has made with the way land values have gone up. The problem with the province's deal is that it didn't say anything about when Holborn had to do the work."

Ingrid Steenhuisen, one of the residents who refused to leave and is now living in the new building, said it's still hard to cope with what happened.

"I still question the process that was used to destroy a solidly functioning community."