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Architect Brian Palmquist is seen in front of the site of the proposed 39-storey tower at Granville and Broadway in Vancouver on May 1.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Housing Minister David Eby says he can’t wait for the ribbon cutting of the recently approved 39-storey mixed-use tower at the corner of Granville and Broadway, the site of an upcoming rapid transit station.

Mr. Eby, who is also the Attorney-General, wrote a letter of support to the city on government letterhead, and so did Environment Minister George Heyman, MLA for the riding. Their backing was part of the rezoning process for the tower at 1477 W. Broadway, which included three nights of public hearings before a decision on April 26.

PCI Developments had started construction on a five-storey commercial building approved under existing zoning, but then last fall the developer submitted an application to rezone for the corridor’s tallest tower. The tower will include 223 rental homes with 45 of them permanently below market rent for moderate-income households, as well as office and retail, above the South Granville subway station that is part of the Broadway subway line, from Clark Drive to Vine Street in Kitsilano.

Nine councillors voted in favour, with Jean Swanson and Colleen Hardwick voting against it. The tower will set the tone for South Granville, a mid-rise residential neighbourhood with a central shopping district that is close to downtown.

The push is on to add significant density in response to much-needed rental housing as Vancouver grows, particularly along the future Broadway subway corridor. But how to go about achieving that density and even the question of how much is necessary, at what pace, is a polarizing ideological debate – and the tower as built form is the lightning rod.

A rise in land values is a key concern when introducing towers into neighbourhoods with older rental stock. As history has shown, without policy to protect tenants, higher values bring transformation. Tenants’ rights advocates have expressed concern about renovictions and gentrification.

Mr. Eby said that he, too, has concerns about displaced tenants – but if land values are a concern, that horse has left the barn.

“The land lift around the older low-rise rental buildings is already taking place, because of the SkyTrain investment,” Mr. Eby said in an interview. “So what is going to protect those tenants is not refusing to build rental housing that we know is desperately needed.”

Without the tower, Mr. Eby said, those renters in the 233 units would have been competing for that existing housing stock. Instead, they will be living above a transit station.

“With that said, I don’t think those concerns about those tenants in more affordable rental housing stock are misplaced. We saw what happened in Burnaby where there was insufficient protection in place for tenants around redevelopment.”

Mr. Eby was referring to the mass demovictions that occurred after the rezoning of transit-oriented Metrotown five years ago. The Burnaby mayor at the time argued that redevelopment of affordable 1960s and 1970s rental housing was necessary in order to maximize the density potential around the transit station. Current Mayor Mike Hurley and council have pushed for major new rental projects while simultaneously introducing aggressive tenant protections. Mr. Eby lauded Burnaby’s approach, which gives displaced renters the option to return to the redeveloped site of their former apartment at the same rent, with small annual increases allowed by the Residential Tenancy Act. If they don’t return, their former unit is rented at 20-per-cent below market median rents as defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Mr. Eby would like to standardize renter protections across municipalities so that those who are displaced by redevelopment can return to an affordable rent.

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Mr. Palmquist favours gentler density.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

“My guess would be in the absence of aggressive tenant protection measures, that very few people would return. So there is a need to ensure that redevelopment doesn’t make our housing situation worse, and many municipalities have taken steps to ensure that tenants are protected. But there is a gap between cities and approaches; and when we look at rapid transit, it doesn’t matter if it’s Surrey/Langley or the Broadway Corridor extension, or a rapid bus system even, we know that that puts pressure on rental housing in those areas, around risks of decreased affordability and temptations by landlords to mass evict people.

“I think there is a provincial role to provide a standard response.”

Andy Yan, director of the Simon Fraser University City Program, used census data and City of Vancouver data to analyze the Broadway Plan study area between 1st Avenue and West 16th Avenue, and Clark Drive and Vine Street. He found approximately 24,900 renter households in the area – or more than one in 10 of the city’s renters.

There are 1,291 purpose-built rental buildings in that area, and the vast majority of them were built in 1970 or earlier.

“By the time market units filter down to becoming affordable, they are now targeted for redevelopment. Therein lies a huge problem,” Mr. Yan says.

A City of Vancouver spokesperson countered that the Broadway Plan area does not target existing dense renter communities.

“The Broadway Plan proposes the highest densities for development of new housing and mixed-use development in areas with relatively fewer renters, including station areas and [neighbourhood] centres rather than targeting existing apartment areas for significant, near-term change,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Architect Brian Palmquist has spent considerable time studying the draft Broadway Plan, which goes to council May 18. A staff report will be posted online this week.

He said the plan is unnecessarily complicated, so he’s made a point of trying to decipher it. His modelling of the plan is at maximum build out, with dozens of towers potentially allowed throughout neighbourhoods.

He says an increase to the number of zones only adds to the complexity.

He says that towers are controversial, and not just because of the built form, but the way they are introduced to the public.

“High-rises are the litmus paper if you will. They are so visible that they cause this angst,” Mr. Palmquist said. “It’s not just the quantity of towers, there is a huge trust issue involved.”

He cites three recent examples of buildings that became much taller by the time the rezoning process was complete, including the PCI tower at Granville and Broadway.

“So the rules change out from underneath the community, and that’s probably the biggest issue with high-rises,” Mr. Palmquist said.

He says he’s also counted a hefty backlog of rezonings that should keep the development community busy for some time.

Mr. Palmquist has designed a number of towers during his career, but favours gentler density. He is a citizen researcher and writes about his views on the city’s future in his newsletter, City Conversations. His interpretation of the draft Broadway Plan has not been peer-reviewed.

“In Kitsilano, the plan also contemplates high-rises to 20 storeys in the residential areas from 1st to 16th avenues, Vine Street to Burrard – more than 50 high-rises are made possible by the plan in that area.

“It stretches the limits of my credulity to think that high-rise carpeting an area of more than 30 blocks, just in Kitsilano, will not result in significant tenant displacement.”

City planning director Theresa O’Donnell spoke at the Grandview-Woodland Area Council meeting Monday night, her first meeting with a neighbourhood association in the three years since she moved to Vancouver from Dallas.

The issue of towers in the Broadway Plan, and the upcoming Vancouver Plan, was one of the key concerns in a meeting that was, at times, a heated discussion.

Ms. O’Donnell said that there had been exaggerations about the number of towers proposed, and they had policies in place that would serve to slow the pace of development.

“We have put some pretty ambitious heights out there, but by the time you look at rental protections and affordability and sustainability requirements, it will be a bit of a slog for these guys,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

Grandview Woodland Area Council president Craig Ollenberger asked Ms. O’Donnell about towers putting existing rental buildings at risk.

“There are a lot of buildings in the catchment for that plan that look to be under threat … It’s a very difficult thing to manage that speculative growth when you are looking at the kinds of density proposed for some of those sites,” he said.

Ms. O’Donnell said that there was misunderstanding around the plan.

“I know those fears are out there … If you look at 20 or 40 storeys, it looks like a developer windfall, but when you get in there and realize what those requirements are, it’s not.

“If you look at what’s proposed, I think you will see it’s a really good plan. It will have the strongest rental protections anywhere in the country, not just the city or the Lower Mainland, but the country … it will slow the pace of development down.

“This won’t be rapid growth by any means.”

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