The next Yaletown?

A dramatic redesign plan approved by city council and opposed by some neighbourhood residents will change Marpole, a working class community of 23,000, forever

If you walk, bike, bus or drive south down Granville Street and cross West 57th Avenue, you enter the neighbourhood of Marpole, an easygoing, unpretentious working class and immigrant community of 23,000 people.

The area is bounded by Angus Street to the west, Ontario Street to the east, and the Fraser River to the south. At 64th Avenue, Marpole's "downtown" begins, a strip of coffee shops, restaurants, banks, physiotherapists, and clothing stores. Then, as you reach 70th Avenue, you come to Marpole's "anchor tenant," a small, older Safeway grocery store and liquor store, sitting back from a mid-sized parking lot.

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It won't be small for long. Last May 3, after some political wrangling, city council approved the rezoning and redevelopment of the property. Safeway and its developer, Westbank Properties, can proceed with the building of the new 50,000-square-foot Safeway (up from 33,000 sq. ft.), a 6,000-sq.-ft. liquor store, some smaller commercial and office units, and the three proposed multi-family highrise and townhouse units on the site. The boldest feature will be a 16-storey residential (scaled back from 24 storeys in the original plan), a startling departure within an area of mainly three-storey apartment buildings.

In fact, most of Marpole is changing too. Riding a bicycle further down Granville as it becomes Southwest Marine Drive, you pass the former Fraser Arms pub site, soon to be a 5,695-sq.-ft. cold beer and wine store. Past the Metro Theatre, then the Motel Nightclub, you arrive at Marpole bus loop under the Arthur Laing Bridge, which connects Vancouver to Richmond's airport.

Across the road at Hudson Street is a plan for another big condo development, amongst other recent ones. Then, as the drive curves to the left, you see a rezoning application sign outside the Coast Hotel and White Spot: architect Robert Turecki is applying to add six storeys to the hotel with 76 dwelling units.

Riding down Marine past Oak Street, with low rent apartments on your left and Denny's and Canadian Tire on your right, you eventually arrive at Cambie Street and the grand finale of the Marpole redesign tour: The city-approved 825,000-sq.-ft. Marine Gateway Project at the Canada Line SkyTrain station-two residential towers (the tallest being 335 feet) with more than 450 units and an 11-screen cinema, food and drug stores, all within the fragrance of the nearby city transfer station.

Sleepy old Marpole is changing fast. Higher density boosters say that the 1979 Marpole community plan is woefully out-of-date, and with an average 7,000 people moving to Vancouver every year, new housing is urgently needed. The 1995 City Plan also urged higher densities.

Yet others like Marpole just the way it was, arguing it didn't really "lack" anything (besides a larger library), is not a "stagnant" region that needs to be "energized," and should stay as a 1950s-style oasis from the booming high-rise development and pricey condo gentrification in the rest of the city.

It's also not widely known that Marpole has much unseen poverty and a church foodbank that feeds 300 people a week. Some seniors who have lived for decades on a fixed income in apartments-with the lowest rents in Vancouver after the East Side-fear steep rent increases and have a heavy foreboding of Marpole being gradually transformed into a new Yaletown or West End.

The debates over exactly what the Safeway, Gateway and other approved Marpole highrise projects could or should have been are academic by now, for they have all been approved and construction is set to begin. The main questions now are the overall future of Marpole, of what these projects' influence (if any) may be upon the area, and whose voices will count the most.

Gudrun Langolf is fighting against any potential development boom. The president of the Marpole-Oakridge Area Council Society, which runs Marpole Place, has lived in the area since 1985, and now helps to rally residents who have generally been, until now, politically quiet.

The Safeway project was their main rallying point. "Safeway is such a drastic change," said Langolf. "The folks that have stopped to talk to me about it, my neighbours, are unanimous that it's far too high and too dense. I don't think developers are evil, necessarily, but they shouldn't run the show. Reasonable profits like seven per cent are alright, but not 20 per cent. And there is a responsibility of city hall to find the right balance."

When the city hosted the first public meeting at Marpole Place about the planned development in September 2010, it was reported that not one resident out of an estimated 200 attendees stood up to voice approval of the rezoning application during the question and answer period.

In December, Henriquez Partners Architects said it would reduce the tallest tower from 24 storeys down to 16, and 357 new dwelling units will be built amongst the three buildings, 31 of them rental units, down from a previously proposed 172. They expected a one-bedroom would rent for $1,075 a month, a two-bedroom for $1,677.

A keen supporter of the Safeway project is Claudia Laroye, executive director of the Marpole Business Association. "The BIA believes that the future viability of the Marpole commercial district (and its 200 members) is closely linked to the future success and viability of the Marpole Safeway," she told the Courier.

Yet the Safeway project's impact on local merchants remains to be seen. Langolf predicts that many small businesses near Safeway will see their rents increase. She also worries their property taxes will rise and that even with a larger customer base, they won't make up the difference and survive.

Laroye isn't concerned about such potentialities. "In relation to rents and property values, the Marpole BIA cannot say what the impacts will actually be. We can estimate that positive commercial redevelopments bring pressures for other property owners to spruce up properties, and potentially raise rents. However, they can only raise rents in so far as the market will bear it, and if they can find good-quality tenants with solid business plans."

She also "cannot speculate at this time" on what percentage of new customers the Marpole merchants may gain after the new Safeway opens.

Opponents have complained the Safeway project will bring too few amenities, and that Marpole also needs a new community centre. There is also discussion on what to do with the tiny, overcrowded 1974 Richard Marpole library, across from Safeway. Laroye urges that, although enlarged, it should remain near its current place, and while it unfortunately could not fit in the Safeway project, "we believe that a new location, potentially even more suitable, will be found in the very near future."

Critics also note that the corner of Granville and 70th Avenue is already a traffic bottleneck that will only get worse with the Safeway project, especially after Translink cancelled the 98 B-Line bus.

The question of where the elderly will buy food and medication when the Safeway is closed for three years of construction was also raised. Langolf said the Safeway pharmacy will temporarily relocate to 68th Avenue and Granville. The BIA says Safeway is considering a shuttle service for Marpole customers several times a day to its Oakridge Safeway store. (Safeway officials did not reply to interview requests.)

Opinions differ on whether the Safeway project will set the development benchmark for the rest of Marpole. Brent Toderian, the city's director of planning, asserted that the 16-storey tower wouldn't be "precedent setting."

Asked if the same level of Safeway and Gateway density could spread over Marpole, Matt Shillito, the city's assistant director of planning, replied, "That's not a remotely likely outcome. I don't see any planning logic to that. And Gateway was done in the context of the Cambie corridor community plan."

The key question remaining is the impact on housing. What happens to low-rent apartments in South Vancouver sandwiched between Cambie and Granville streets? As land values rise, will this result in rent hikes, or even renovations and evictions?

Langolf believes rents will surely rise. "Pressures will be huge," said Langolf. "We hear that these apartments are 'old stock' and should be torn down-that's wrong."

"These are well built walkups, for families," adds Langolf. "But there's a new brisk trade in what I call 'renovictions' by holding companies."

Shillito offers reassurances: "Retaining the stock of affordable rental housing and expanding it is one of council's highest priorities, and we have policies in place for that." Moreover, he adds, in the law of supply and demand, low vacancies usually lead to higher rents, and visa versa, and therefore, "increasing the types and amounts of housing that are now in short supply does help to moderate prices, even if they are market development."

Laroye agrees. "The Marpole BIA would not support the loss of our existing rental housing stock, as it offers an important housing option for families, students and seniors," she said, adding that the existing rental stock of these four-storey walk-ups south of 70th Avenue is protected by a 'rate of change' bylaw passed by the city. These apartments may not be converted into condos, nor redeveloped in a way that may displace existing tenants. Owners may renovate apartments as they become vacated, and rent them out to new tenants, but they may not evict existing tenants and do a wholesale building changeover.

Langolf countered that may be true, but some building owners, without breaking any laws, are finding ways to force tenants out by simply making it too unpleasant for them to stay.

The very complex and contentious process of urban planning is itself under scrutiny. Some complained that renters were not fully notified of meetings, and that city planners are generally too sympathetic to developers. Furthermore, Vancouver's former assistant director of planning, Trish French, called on the city to develop a comprehensive area plan with the community before any significant redevelopment such as Safeway was approved. COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth, who will no longer be on council as of Dec. 5 when a new council is sworn in, concurs: "I was very concerned we would proceed, when there was no area plan in place. We were supposed to have one in place last fall." The resulting problem is a kind of ad hoc "spot rezoning."

Laroye was content with the process: "We believe that the developer and the architect worked hard to inform stakeholder groups and individuals."

Shillito, Woodsworth and Laroye all say the 1979 Marpole plan is outdated and needs revision. But Langolf disagrees. "There's nothing wrong with that plan, and I'm worried that good parts of it might disappear. It's served us well until now. We had the same growth as the West End, and we absorbed it without serious problems."

The city process of creating new community plans for Grandview-Woodland, the West End/downtown and Marpole began Oct. 15 with a private, invitation-only workshop of local "stakeholders" to set the terms of reference. After council approves the terms, there will be public meetings in the new year.

Only COPE councillors David Cadman and Woodsworth voted against the Safeway Marpole project, as they echoed residents' concerns about heights, a lack of adequate community amenities and traffic congestion. Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs said the Safeway project is good on balance (but he still wishes it had more rental housing), and he doesn't expect it to cause any increase in local rental rates. Vision Coun. Heather Deal said she voted for the Safeway development because "it's a reasonable project, but we should have consulted earlier and more fully on it." She added there may soon be funding for a new community centre.

Woodsworth concluded: "The developers are laughing all the way to the bank. They don't even give enough amenities for existing needs."

The election is over, and planning consultation will soon begin. But regardless of its outcome, Marpole will never be the same again.

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