Vancouver council voted 6-5 Tuesday to approve a controversial proposal for a 28-storey rental tower on West Broadway at Birch Street.
The following is a breakdown of the vote, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the 10 councillors explaining their positions on the project, which will be built by Jameson Development Corporation.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart (in favour)
Party affiliation: Independent
Stewart said he was elected in 2018 because the status quo wasn’t working when it came to building more affordable housing in Vancouver. That is the reason he got behind the city’s new Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program, commonly referred to as MIRP.
The program is designed to provide homes for households who are not eligible for or do not want to live in social housing, but cannot afford a market rental home. The 2538 Birch St. project falls under MIRP, with 58 of the homes geared to households that earn between $30,000 and $80,000 per year.
“I know I was elected because the status quo isn’t working, and what I have to do is try new things to get housing that’s affordable, that people can pay rents in that $30,000 to $80,000 income bracket because that’s what’s missing,” he said, describing the project as “an important watermark” in this council’s term in office.
Added Stewart: “This housing crisis isn’t going away. We are getting federal and provincial money in dribs and drabs, but that’s all for social housing —people making shelter rates, more or less. [The provincial government] purchasing hotels is great, but that’s for people moving out of Oppenheimer [homeless camp]. We really have nobody building housing for people making minimum wage. That’s why relying on the market is the only way we can do it. We can’t afford to fund this ourselves.”
Coun. Christine Boyle (in favour)
Party affiliation: OneCity
Boyle pointed out the vacancy rate in the neighbourhood that will be home to the new project is lower than the average rate across the city. The 258 rental homes will help decrease that rate and provide housing for people who couldn’t otherwise afford market rental rates in the neighbourhood, she said.
“It’s near transit, it’s near a huge employment hub — these would be homes for hospital workers and others, and there’s no displacement,” she said, noting the rental tower will be built on the site of a former Denny’s Restaurant.
Under Jameson Development Corporation’s initial proposal for the property, a 17-storey rental tower would have been built, with none at affordable rates, Boyle said. Council approved that project in January 2018 before the developer shifted his plans to make it a MIRP proposal.
“It’s clear to me that the choice is between this MIRP proposal and the 17-storey option with no non-market or below market units,” she said. “And in that choice, I clearly choose the option that gives us more homes for nurses and lab techs and teachers and students — the option that allows more people to stay in Vancouver, to live close to their work.”
Coun. Rebecca Bligh (opposed)
Party affiliation: Former NPA, now Independent
Bligh unsuccessfully attempted to refer the proposal back to city staff as part of the ongoing Broadway Plan and related planning work. She wanted the project re-evaluated in that context to understand the impacts of increases in density, height, floor space ratio and associated development cost levy waivers.
She also wanted a better understanding of what impact such a project would have on housing affordability in the neighbourhood, noting the Fairview area has 602 rental buildings with more than 11,000 units.
“Staff have admitted that this project puts a significant amount of pressure on surrounding rental stock,” Bligh said. “They are not, at this time, able to answer any questions regarding speculative land value.”
She pointed out that only seven of the 58 moderate income homes in the project will be built as three bedrooms, meaning only seven families could possibly live there.
“Our job is to weigh the evidence in a public hearing,” Bligh said. “And we’ve heard overwhelmingly from local residents across the city — including those in the neighbourhood — sharing well-researched independent viewpoints that challenge this application on a wide range of issues. We have not, in my opinion, heard enough evidence that supports voting in favour of this project as it’s proposed at this time.”
Coun. Jean Swanson (opposed)
Party affiliation: COPE
Swanson began her remarks noting the project would provide much-needed housing for people with moderate incomes, and keep rents at the same price when a person moves out. But she added that she was worried council would be giving the developer too much in return — $5 million in development cost levies, $9 million in community amenity contributions and 12 floors of extra density.
“I’m concerned about the city encouraging so much housing that has the wrong ratios of affordability,” Swanson said. “Fifty per cent of renters have incomes under 50K, so we should be building 50 per cent of rental housing for people with incomes under 50K. Instead, with this building, we have only 20 per cent for folks in the $30,000 to $80,000 [per year] range, but 80 per cent for people who make a lot more than that.”
Swanson wondered whether the city should allow such a tall building before the Broadway Plan is finalized, possibly before this council’s term ends in the fall of 2022. Gentrification of the neighbourhood is a big worry for Swanson.
“Will the tower create more expectations of more towers? What will be the impact of this and more towers be on existing rentals? Like councilor Bligh, I’m really concerned about that.”
Coun. Colleen Hardwick (opposed)
Party affiliation: NPA
Throughout the discussion and debate on the project, Hardwick questioned whether the city was compliant with current policy in allowing the tower to be considered and ultimately approved.
“The process has been a flawed one, the height and massing and shadow studies are of serious concern,” Hardwick said. “The public consultation process and public confidence in this application I think has been very low, as we heard abundantly from the people who spoke.”
Hardwick said she thought the project “was fine at 17 storeys” and agreed with Swanson that the 27-storey version would put considerable pressure on existing rents in the neighbourhood, leading to gentrification.
“We should be asking ourselves, ‘Is this the only approach that we could be having to creating affordable housing?’” she said. “I don’t think so. We talk about things like [the project] is great for pets, but we forget that urban alienation has been well proven out to be present in highrise development. So, trade-offs? Are we willing to sacrifice the neighbourhood for 58 affordable units? It doesn’t compute to me.”
Coun. Lisa Dominato (in favour)
Party affiliation: NPA
Despite concerns raised by Hardwick, Dominato said she believed the project was in compliance with the interim rezoning policy for the neighbourhood. As Boyle did, Dominato pointed out the 58 moderate income units wouldn’t have been part of the developer’s initial approved proposal for a 17-storey market rental building.
“That’s incredibly important, and it also has rent control,” she said, referring to rents not increasing when a person moves out one of the 58 homes. “We know this is an area we’re missing out on, and I think we need to consider that it also delivers workforce housing.”
Added Dominato: “I want to be clear that this is not a panacea for all our housing needs. I know there’s been public commentary about the level of affordability. This is not shelter rate housing. That is not what we’re discussing today. We’re discussing market rental and moderate income rental, and I think as councillors we need to deliver a range of housing.”
Some of the rental homes in the Jameson project will be quite small in size at less than 400 sq. feet for a studio and less than 800 sq. feet for a three-bedroom. Some of the three-bedroom homes will have “inboard bedrooms,” meaning there will be no windows.
“The market will determine whether those units are appropriate for people,” she said. “It’s all relative in terms of what people are comfortable with.”
Coun. Michael Wiebe (in favour)
Party affiliation: Green Party
Wiebe’s vote was the most surprising of the councillors, since his remarks leading up to the vote were focused on concerns he had with the project. In voting in favour, he broke with Green Party colleagues Pete Fry and Adriane Carr.
Wiebe said he was concerned about the planning process related to the project, the amount of “social capital” expended by people who spoke in favour and against the building and the size of the 58 homes.
He also mentioned concerns about lack of amenities in the neighbourhood and accessibility for people with disabilities to the small units.
“For me, the livability is a big component,” he said. “As a city, we need to make sure that when we build our complete communities, we have livable spaces that meet the well-being needs of our public.”
He pointed out that only nine of the 58 homes are for households earning between $38,000 and $48,000 per year, which is “a huge gap in our housing policy.”
Coun. Pete Fry (opposed)
Party affiliation: Green Party
Fry opened his remarks by saying “there’s certainly lots to like about this project,” including making all the homes pet-friendly, the allotted green space and public art detailing by Musqueam artist Debra Sparrow.
Fry said he supports the city’s moderate income building program, noting he supported previous projects to come before council under MIRP, adding that vacancy control and addition of affordable homes were important.
But, Fry added, he toured the West Broadway-Birch Street neighbourhood Monday.
“Everybody I spoke to is really anxious about what the future of the neighbourhood is going to look like, and what the future of their housing affordability is going to look like,” he said. “They look to neighbourhoods like Metrotown in Burnaby where we saw all these low-rise buildings gradually disappear. Burnaby has lost a lot of affordable housing as a result of that development that didn’t pay heed to the existing affordable housing that was there.”
He agreed with Bligh’s move to refer the project back to staff, saying he thought it was “putting the cart before the horse,” noting the Broadway Plan hasn’t been finalized.
“Why pay lip service to a plan if we’re going to go ahead and do big moves like this without allowing the process that we’ve initiated, and that we have obviously said we want to see go through,” he said. “For us not to wait on some more work to be done on that plan would be a mistake.”
Coun. Melissa De Genova (in favour)
Party affiliation: NPA
De Genova cited the controversy related to the project, with people lining up on both sides in their views, but said she and her colleagues were elected to make tough decisions.
The fact the project would create more homes for families, set rent controls and allow pets were key components for her in supporting the rental tower, she said, noting how MIRP is a program aimed at making Vancouver more affordable.
De Genova emphasized the program is a pilot, or trial, and that council will learn from it as it proceeds with the Broadway Plan.
So far, council has approved eight projects under the program, totalling 859 rental units, 174 of which are geared to moderate incomes. Two rezoning applications are in process, with nine more in the pre-application stage.
“Maybe this isn’t the perfect way forward, but right now I’ve heard my fellow council members and heard from others in the public who are concerned about the Rental 100 program,” she said, referring to the program that doesn’t create units for people with moderate incomes. “I think it’s important that we try things. We need to move forward, we need to do something to make housing more affordable.”
To people’s concerns about the “inboard bedrooms,” De Genova said they will have “flexible rooms that will be moved around” that will accommodate families.
Coun. Adriane Carr (opposed)
Party affiliation: Green Party
Carr’s math on the correspondence received by the public regarding the project showed 541 people in support versus 1,138 opposed. She pointed to the “attractive features” of the entire building being rental and 58 of the homes being geared to people with moderate incomes.
Rent controls, allowing pets, the public plaza and art were other features, she said.
“But there are major concerns that were raised, and I happen to agree with in terms of adding 11 more storeys [than first considered],” she said. “It is not the right height for this site or the neighbourhood. It’s out of scale with the other buildings.”
Carr said she was concerned approving the project would set off a tall-building boom in the area and create “a wall” of tall buildings along the West Broadway corridor. She didn’t want the project to set a precedent, noting it could be used to drive future plans for tall buildings.
“I do think it gets the ball rolling on that,” she said, noting the ongoing Broadway Plan could be compromised.
She noted this would be the tallest building under the MIRP program, with eight others to date ranging from five storeys to 14 storeys — and all, she added, have managed to achieve “the deeper affordability that goes along with the MIRP projects and that I very much agree with.”
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung (in favour)
Party affiliation: NPA
Kirby-Yung’s vote ended up being crucial to council supporting the project. She originally wasn’t going to vote on the project, having missed a day of public hearings. At a meeting last week, the mayor urged Kirby-Yung to review the audio recording of the hearing so she could vote. For the mayor, deferring last week’s vote on the project to Tuesday obviously paid off.
“This is a tough one,” she said in her opening remarks. “I remain conflicted on this one, in listening to all of the input and all of the comments in an effort to try to make a balanced decision around planning for people who can’t afford to live there, and respecting the people that already do.”
Kirby-Yung said she was disappointed the city doesn’t have a completed city-wide plan, Broadway Plan or interim rezoning plan for Broadway. The size of the units in the Birch Street project was also another concern for Kirby-Yung.
However, she noted they are comparable to sizes proposed in the council-approved Rental 100 program version of the project.
“They’re almost identical for the studios — within eight feet,” she said. “For the two bedrooms within three feet and for the three-bedrooms, it was a difference of about 80 feet. The one-bedrooms are actually larger in the MIRP project.”
Added Kirby-Yung: “So, as I look between the previous approval [for the 17-storeys under Rental 100] and this one, and I don’t see that turning down this application is going to improve unit size relative to the other option.”
She said local input to the project was “incredibly important, but it’s also coming from the luxury of a lot of people that have the opportunity to be housed already, and in this neighbourhood.”
“There’s a lot of people that can’t be, and can’t afford it,” she said. “And it’s really difficult to live in the city now with moderate incomes — really challenging.”