The City of Vancouver has begun rolling out a new incentive program to encourage the development of rental housing projects, but there is one looming tower that will get more push back than any of the others.
That is the 28-storey rental tower proposed at 2538 Birch St., at the corner of W. Broadway, which is an old Denny’s restaurant site. It’s by far the biggest rezoning proposal under the new pilot program and it’s also “higher than anything on the entire Broadway Corridor to date,” says observer Frank Ducote, an urban design consultant and former senior urban designer for the City of Vancouver.
The Vancouver General Hospital Jim Pattison Pavilion tower is taller, but it’s several blocks further east and a couple of blocks off Broadway. At Kingsway and Broadway, further east still, there is the shorter 21-storey Independent, which caused huge controversy and community pushback because it looms over the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. Mr. Ducote and others believe that while rental housing is crucial, that need doesn’t rule out other urban concerns. Mr. Ducote says it’s not only the height that’s raising eyebrows, but the usable floor space that is being considered – which is more then three times the zoned maximum for the site. That’s more density than the average building on downtown Georgia Street, according to one developer.
“There are those who ask, ‘But what about the need for rental housing, which this application proposes?'” Mr. Ducote wrote in an email he sent while travelling. “Oddly enough, I think the kinds of speculative demands for greater densities and resulting increases in land value that this project would engender could make rental housing for the local workforce even more difficult to deliver.
“Further, I truly hope that this very valid need doesn’t lead to a willingness to introduce such scale breaking developments, without the certainty that comes with a valid planning process.”
Rezoning for the project falls under the city’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP), which waives development levies in exchange for construction of buildings whose residential floor space are devoted entirely to rental units, with 20 per cent of that floor space reserved for households earning between $30,000 and $80,000. The new city council inherited the program, which is encouraging spot rezonings in the name of much-needed rental housing in a city with a vacancy rate of less than 1 per cent.
In December, council approved the first two projects that are part of the pilot program, on the city’s east side on Renfrew Street. Council also approved a five-storey rental building at Larch and West 2nd Avenue on the city’s west side, which was controversial with some city councillors because of concerns that the developer was getting a better deal than the city, with the majority of units rented at market rate and only 13 suites tagged for lower incomes. Jameson Development Corp. is the developer of both this site and the site at 2538 Birch St. For the Larch project, the developer got triple the density normally allowed, and because fees were waived, the project was subsidized. COPE Councillor Jean Swanson, one of three councillors who voted against the project, (along with NPA Councillor Colleen Hardwick and Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr), said there were concerns that the city was giving away far more than it was getting out of the deal.
Council will approve 20 projects for the first round of MIRHPP and public hearings get underway Jan. 21 for the next three rezoning applications in the program. Those projects include two 14-storey rental buildings by PCI Developments on East Hastings, which have also been the subject of community push back, and a site near Trout Lake on Stainsbury Ave., for a five-storey building with 80 rental units, with about 13 of them for moderate incomes.
The proposal for the 28-storey rental tower at Broadway and Birch will dwarf all existing mid-rises in the area, and residents from the neighbourhood are gearing up for a fight. A date has not yet been confirmed, but it’s expected that it will also go to public hearing in the early part of the year. The developer, Jameson, had already been approved to build a 16-storey rental tower, which didn’t cause any apparent concerns with residents. But when the new rental incentives program came along the company applied to build to 28 storeys instead. Out of 248 rental suites, 53 will be for MIRHPP. Residents are worried that it will be “the thin edge of the wedge” for more high-rises that will transform the fabric of the neighbourhood and drive up prices. The area is currently a blend of mid-rise and old three-storey walk-ups, with a paucity of parks and no elementary schools within walking distance.
In response to the 28-storey development, the grassroots Fairview/South Granville Action Committee formed in November, 2018. The committee has more than 600 supporters who are all residents of the area. It started the 28 Floors Campaign to advocate on behalf of the group regarding the project slated for 2538 Birch St., as well as the ongoing Broadway Plan, and other development issues.
“With respect to the redevelopment of the Denny’s site, we support the approved 16-storey building and oppose the proposed 28-storey building,” member Sean Nardi says.
In an interview, Mr. Nardi said the proposal is “jumping the queue” on the City’s two-year plan for the area in preparation for the new subway line that will run along the Broadway corridor. The plan looks at housing, jobs and amenities along the major transit route, and will determine building heights and density. Mr. Nardi, a technology consultant in financial services, says a major proposal such as the one at 2538 Birch St. should be part of those discussions, particularly when it could set a precedent for similarly dense high-rises in the area.
“I did a walk up and down Broadway and when you start to look at the buildings in the neighbourhood and several blocks away you are talking about something dramatically different from everything else,” Mr. Nardi says. “[The plan] is completely changing the landscape.”
The group says they have faced the wrath of people who have called them NIMBYs, which they say is used to unfairly label residents with concerns about issues such as density, added congestion or height. They say it’s a tactic to shut down the conversation instead of listening to potentially valid concerns.
“The word has been weaponized,” says Ian Crook, a retired bank executive who lives in a mid-rise in the area, but not adjacent to the site. He doesn’t stand to lose his view and neither does Mr. Nardi. They are more concerned with a lack of infrastructure, building height and scale that will overwhelm the area, and the potential to set a precedent and raise land values.
“Anybody who speaks in opposition is called a NIMBY. So if you raise a question, you’re a NIMBY and by definition, you are a terrible person,” Mr. Crook says.
“It’s become about the same grade level as saying someone is a racist,” Mr. Nardi says. “After you say that, it’s like there is no battle. It’s an atomic bomb … and it’s cheap. So much for having a healthy dialogue about something and figuring out things collectively.”
Mr. Crook and Mr. Nardi are also critics of the MIRRHP program – although they stress these are their personal views and not those of the Fairview/South Granville Action Committee. Mr. Crook, who spent 34 years in banking and continues to work as a consultant, acknowledges the city needs to offer inducements to build affordable units. But he says the argument for doubling the height of a building in order to build those units, especially given financial incentives from the city, doesn’t make sense to him.
Developer Michael Geller has successfully applied for many spot rezonings over the years in Vancouver, but he too has an issue with this one. It’s just too big, he says.
“They are calling me a NIMBY now,” he says with a laugh. “People don’t normally expect me to be on the side of a neighbourhood group opposing a taller building, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve publicly added my voice. They are not being NIMBYs, they are actually right in questioning this particular development at this particular time, with this particular history. In other words, it had already been rezoned.
“I’ve done a lot of spot rezonings, and I continue to advocate for rezonings where I think the zoning isn’t right. But the issue to my mind here is that the zoning that was already put in place – even though it more than doubled the zoning – was fine and the height going to 16 storeys was fine, because it’s a rental housing project, and you needed additional density to make the economics work.
“But now, as someone who’s looking at it from a planning point of view, in terms of what the building will look like for the next 50 or 100 years, I think this building is too big and I do not accept the fact that a percentage of the units will be affordable to those earning 30 per cent of the median income. That to my mind does not justify the additional height, with one exception. And that is if the city and Vancouver residents think that that level of density is acceptable along the Broadway corridor. And then I think you could at least look at the application within the context of a Broadway corridor plan, given the SkyTrain is coming and so forth.
“But my personal view is that there are limits to density.”
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