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Rendering of Concord Pacific's plans for the old Expo lands.Supplied

The city of Vancouver and developer Concord Pacific have finally formalized a deal to transfer three Concord-owned sites to the city for nonmarket housing. While the deal on affordable housing is welcome, whether it’s a step closer to the long-anticipated development of a new waterfront neighbourhood on the north side of False Creek is a question that lingers.

“We’re raring to go and get to Northeast False Creek, and our final piece of the Expo lands is to get it rezoned and get it under construction,” said Matt Meehan, senior vice-president planning for Concord Pacific Development Corp.

There is one major sticking point, which is the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Street viaducts. The city approved the Northeast False Creek plan in 2018, estimating the cost of the viaduct removal and construction of a new road system at $438-million. That cost is expected to have increased over the last six years.

To fund the project, the city had been counting on significant community amenity contributions from developers who own land in the area. Developers pay CACs when they apply for rezonings, and they are typically used for parks, daycares and other public facilities.

The Northeast False Creek plan includes a sea of highrises, mostly condos, as well as some market rental and nonmarket housing. Construction delays amid a housing crisis, in addition to the failure to deliver promised park land, have raised the ire of local residents.

It’s still unclear when construction of the new neighbourhood and road network will begin. The city’s plan depends on sales or leases of city lands no longer needed for the viaducts, and developer contributions in the form of cash and land. But in 2018, the market was hot compared to today’s market and condos aren’t selling like they used to.

Concord said its development plans now hinge on the removal of the viaducts. The NEFC plan can’t go ahead without them coming down. Meanwhile, the city is waiting for more funding.

“We’re kind of in a predicament where we can’t really go ahead with our plans until the viaducts are actually in the process of coming down,” said Mr. Meehan. He points out that the city has already received an infusion of funding, including $110-million from his company and a substantial amount from the rezoning of Plaza of Nations in 2018, which resulted in a major boost in density for that developer, Canadian Metropolitan Properties.

“Between the $110-million from Concord’s rezoning and the $100-million from the Plaza of Nations rezoning, the city has made a giant step toward the cost of the removal of the viaducts,” said Mr. Meehan. “With the [Lions Gate and Granville] bridges having been recently seismically upgraded, we understand there is urgency in the demolition of the viaducts, as well as in planning for the area. “The timeline for development depends not only on viaduct removal, but also on planning co-operation, financing, and market conditions. We can’t speak for all the other NEFC landowners, but we are ready to move ahead.”

Concord Pacific and Canadian Metropolitan Properties are landowners of the key waterfront sites. Aquilini Development, crown corporation PavCo (BC Place) and the city of Vancouver are also landowners in the area.

Canadian Metropolitan’s Plaza of Nations site, valued a couple of years ago at $800-million, doesn’t need the viaduct removal to begin construction of its 10-acre master-planned community, says James Cheng, architect for the rezoning application.

“However, as a Vancouverite, I think the removal of the viaducts is a good thing for the city as the viaducts cut the city into east and west,” said Mr. Cheng. “With their removal, it will be more of a seamless transition uniting two neighbourhoods.

“The other important aspect of removing the viaducts is to provide a proper termination to Georgia Street, which is one of the two ceremonial streets of Vancouver – the other is Burrard. Currently, there is no end to Georgia as it just turned into a freeway. With the viaducts gone, it will dip down and connect to Pacific Boulevard, providing a much-needed pedestrian and vehicular connection.”

The city could not give a timeline for the viaducts project, which staff have said would take a couple of years once finally under way. The city said that it still needs funding from surrounding development sites to complete the two-phase work. Once funding is secured, the city will finalize the design and prepare an updated cost estimate for the project.

“Funding from the redevelopment of sites within the Plan area, secured through rezoning, is needed to contribute to the cost of removing the viaducts and implementing the new street network,” the city responded in an e-mail. “In addition, the city requires some privately-owned land to deliver the replacement street network. This land is intended to be secured through the rezoning processes for the development sites in the area.

“Once sufficient funding is secured through the rezoning processes (and other sources as necessary), the viaducts can be removed, and Concord can proceed with redevelopment of their site in tandem with the implementation of the new street network.”

The city spokesperson conceded that “these projects have not progressed as quickly as envisaged when the [Northeast False Creek] plan was adopted in 2018.”

However, the city and park board “remain committed to realizing the plan,” said the statement.

The city’s announcement about nonmarket housing last week was a small sign of progress. They had officially given up the option to purchase three of the six Concord sites originally designated for nonmarket housing, in exchange for $121-million from the developer and other benefits. Of that amount, the city said $110-million is earmarked to go toward the street network and viaduct removal. The remaining $11-million represents what the city would have had to pay the developer if it had optioned its right to purchase the three sites for nonmarket housing. Concord waived the amount.

Instead of developing all six sites, as planned, the city will increase the density and deliver 670 units at 990 Beatty St., 1050 Expo Blvd. and 450 Pacific Blvd. The biggest projects are the 28 and 29 storey towers on Beatty Street and Expo Boulevard, respectively. And Concord will be allowed to develop condominiums on the other three sites, at 1502 Granville St., 431 Beach Cres. and 900 Pacific Blvd.

The deal goes back to the late eighties, shortly after Concord Pacific purchased the Expo Lands and the city came up with a goal for 20 per cent of the site for affordable housing. Several of the sites have since been converted to market condo development.

The lack of senior government funding has made the city’s delivery of nonmarket housing a challenge.

Former city of Burnaby senior planner Robert Renger said he believed Concord got the better deal in this recent land transfer. If the city had exercised its options for all six sites, they could have delivered even more nonmarket housing, said Mr. Renger. He also notes that the money Concord paid to the city that will go toward the viaduct removal benefits the developer as much as the city.

“The city and province could have – and should have – gone ahead with the acquisition and development of these three sites just as they are doing, without giving up the other three nonmarket sites to Concord for market development.

“Shortage of affordable housing is at crisis levels,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to give up nonmarket housing sites at this time, just to raise money for viaduct removal.”

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