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Vancouver’s West End residents fear building frenzy will displace affordable housing

David McIntyre stands in front of 1150 Barclay, a co-op that is now empty and will soon be replaced by an 11-storey luxury condo tower.

Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

A group of residents in Vancouver’s West End say that City Hall is back-pedalling on its promise to increase density while maintaining affordability within their community.

The already dense neighbourhood is filled with condos, rental buildings and co-op buildings, and is home to many singles and elderly people who have been long established in the walking-friendly community. Eighty per cent of West End residents are renters, according to the 2016 census. With the city’s highest concentration of rental stock, it is everything that Vancouver purports to want for its citizens. But some residents say that liveability is coming under threat because of redevelopment.

Residents say they thought their area was already protected when they participated in countless hours of community meetings held to establish the West End Community Plan. The 30-year plan calls for substantial new density and a wall of high-rises along the major corridors. But many residents understood that it was also supposed to protect the quiet inner streets and include a six-storey building limit.

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One of the principles for the overall direction of the plan was “to support a range of affordable housing options to meet the diverse needs of the community.”

Redevelopment of the corridors has rapidly progressed, but now there are signs that the quiet streets are under threat of redevelopment, too. Approval was given for an 11-storey luxury condo at 1150 Barclay, and it has sparked concerns that this is the start of a new building frenzy that will displace residents and transform the entire West End.

West End residents expected that change would occur, says Brad Anderson, a resident on Barclay Street and a lawyer. But he thought that agreed-upon policies had been established, and that the city would follow those policies.

“There’s recognition that some buildings needed to be replaced, but the agreement was they needed to be replaced with six-storey buildings – that was the plan. That’s the concern we have, that the way they are interpreting [the plan] means that the six-storey policy statement means nothing.

“Yes, you have a discretion, but it should be informed by the West End Community Plan, which says six storeys. This is a pure money-grab development. There is no reason to go above six.”

The co-op at 1150 Barclay is a three-storey, 19-unit building, built in 1948, properly maintained and in good condition. It now sits empty, to be replaced by an 11-storey, 21-unit luxury condo building with townhomes at ground level and two levels of underground parking with two car stalls per unit.

The owners sold for nearly $1-million each, and an elderly lady in her 90s, who didn’t want to move, had to relocate to a seniors’ care centre, according to a neighbour. Because it was not a rezoning, and it complied with zoning that existed prior to the West End Community Plan, the developer doesn’t have to pay a community amenity contribution.

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“There is a real feeling in the community that developers are just getting whatever they want,” Mr. Anderson says.

During the planning, residents saw colour-coded maps, with new laneway house infill density to be added to enrich the livability and character of their streets. The reality of what’s happening is different.

“The building right next to me is a little three-storey rental and now it’s sold,” Mr. Anderson says. “Developers who lost out on the feeding frenzy along the corridors are now moving into the neighbourhood.”

At the Development Permit Board and Advisory Panel meeting for 1150 Barclay, on April 30, Mr. Anderson pointed out that the plan has six policies, and the third is to maintain the six-storey height.

“This development only provides super high luxury condos and no social housing,” he told the meeting. “If this is allowed, it will set the precedent that future developments will only be high luxury buildings.”

Speaking at the meeting, Hernando Barlo, a resident at 1169 Nelson Street for 20 years, said he approved of the project because he understood the significant challenges that come with the site.

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Sean Smith, resident at the same building, said the proposal was too large for the neighbourhood and the resulting units would be too expensive. “Imagine the asking price is well over $1.2-million [per unit]. Therefore this building does absolutely nothing to serve the average income of families and is not intended to serve the families of the city, but only benefits the wealthy [and] investors.”

Two other West End residents, Chris Karu and Navi Guraya, supported the project because they said it would offer hard-to-find larger units, useful for families.

The board supported it because of the two- and three-bedroom units, and they said it fit the requirements of both the zoning and the plan. Other buildings in the area are 10- to 12 storeys, and city staff pointed out the quality of the architecture and landscaping proposed.

Mr. Anderson also says the owners in the co-op who agreed to sell their units may have overlooked the downside. He says it takes time to get their money when they collectively sell, and in that time the market can radically change, and their money might not go so far after all.

In addition, he says, the displacement of the co-op residents creates a ripple effect in surrounding buildings.

“All of the owners in that little co-op were all low-income people,” Mr. Anderson says, referring to 1150 Barclay. “When the majority agreed to sell the building, they tried to buy in my building, so they were creating bidding wars against each other, which put our prices up. They were all scrambling to find somewhere to go, because they all got a good pay out, but prices [for condos] went up in the [past year].”

The city did not respond to a request for an interview, but said in an email statement that, “The West End Plan did not change the zoning for this area,” and “The zoning has been in place since 1989 and allows for heights above six storeys under certain conditions.”

The six-storey height is “primarily maintained,” but “not exclusive to the neighbourhood,” the city says.

However, if mid-rise towers are allowed throughout the inner streets, then all the talk about protecting the affordability and character was a wasted effort, says architect David McIntyre, chair of the strata council at 1127 Barclay.

“There wasn’t anything in the proposal that met the overall objectives of the community plan. I think that’s what offended most of the people, is they talk about all these principles and the principle of affordability and trying to keep it a neighbourhood where average people can live, and the reality is they are allowing this type of development, which they could have done before [the plan].”

As well, the two stalls of parking per unit is unnecessary to the average income earner, which shows they are aimed at a high-end market, he says.

“They say these are family style units, which is true because they are two and three bedrooms,” he says. “The issue is they are $1-million, $2-million and $3-million, two- and three-bedroom units.

“They are definitely targeted toward a luxury market, and there are lots of options for people in that market already.”

John Weldon was on the Vancouver City Planning Commission from 2011 to 2014, and sat on a neighbourhood network that had been established by the city in order to facilitate engagement with the community while the West End Plan was under way. He’s also a long-time West End resident, who’s been openly critical of the plan’s failure to fairly represent residents in the process.

The former appraiser for Canada Revenue Agency obtained his masters degree in urban planning after he retired, and he wrote his thesis on public participation in Vancouver’s neighbourhood planning process.

Mr. Weldon says he’s grown tired of seeing elderly residents in the West End who are selling their household items on the sidewalk because they’ve been displaced. It’s not a weekly occurrence, he says, but it’s happening.

“The West End has been a haven for older people and retirees, and they will continue to be pushed out,” he says.

In his thesis paper, he cites 1401 Comox (now 1051 Broughton), approved in 2012, as an existing 22-storey tower that he says is far out of scale with the West End neighbourhood. For two and a half years, the proposal had generated significant controversy. The original zoning had only allowed a height of six to seven stories, with 19 to 21 storeys allowed if it didn’t harm the livability of the surrounding neighbourhood.

The developer received 4.8 times the density without having to pay the usual development cost levy, as part of a city initiative aimed at encouraging rental housing, under the city’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing Program (which ended in 2011). The city waived a fee of $1,408,569. Developers usually also pay a community amenity contribution, based on the increase in land value that is expected to result from a rezoning. However, the city’s real estate staff “concluded that after factoring in the costs associated with the provision of market rental housing units, there was no increase in the land value generated by the rezoning.”

There was a provision that the building had to include six units of seniors’ subsidized housing units for five years. The rents, however, were beyond the reach of most West End residents.

Despite overwhelming opposition according to city data, the project was approved. A city report justified the higher-than-average West End rents in the building by comparing it to the monthly cost of home ownership for a West End condo unit, at $2,200 for a one bedroom.

That experience, says Mr. Weldon, was the turning point when residents began to distrust the process.

“It is still a wonderful community and a wonderful residential neighbourhood, but that is what the West End plan was designed to preserve,” says Mr. Anderson. “Now if we see these moderately priced buildings coming down and luxury towers going in, it will change. It will become like Coal Harbour, which is failed neighbourhood – an empty and lifeless neighbourhood.”

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