An iconic set of adjoining buildings on the East Hastings strip most recently home to a pawn shop is expected to undergo a major renovation that will include adding 19 rental apartments and a retail business.
The addition of housing is significant since nobody has lived in the upper floors of the former B.C. Collateral and Loans buildings at 71-77 East Hastings St. for more than 40 years.
The pawn shop on the main floor has been closed for several years and the large neon loans sign once mounted on the west buildings faÃ§ade is gone.
Located near Columbia Street, the C-listed heritage buildings are smack dab in the middle of a neighbourhood desperate for low-income housing and engaged in a mounting debate over gentrification.
But property owner Steven Lippman of No. 380 Cathedral Ventures Ltd., which owns the York Rooms and other single-room-occupancy hotels in the neighbourhood, said his project couldnt be considered gentrification. We rehabilitate, we re-energize, we reinvigorate, we re-use, we recycle, Lippman told the Courier. Its an old junky building and we want to fix it up and put people who are low-income back in there. Thats what we do.
Lippman and his partners want to build 17 apartments ranging from 224 to 301 sq. feet and two others at 357 and 365 sq. feet. Five of the units will be subsidized for seniors while the 14 other apartments are expected to rent from $650 to $750 a month.
The proposal will go before city council Wednesday and city staff recommend the project be given the go-ahead because its consistent with council policy that calls for maintaining and upgrading housing in the Downtown Eastside.
In February 2008, the proposal was approved under a previous owner, who never went ahead with the project. Lippman is requesting council simply approve the same project, which called for a one-storey addition over the east side of the building.
The staff report makes it clear that any future application to change the use or stratify the buildings will be subject to all necessary city approvals and the council of the day will maintain unfettered right to refuse such an application.
The report also noted some members of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Committee were opposed to giving Lippman the go-ahead for the project because they think the $650 to $700 rent is too high.
You cant please everybody, Lippman said.
Wes Regan, executive director of the Hastings Crossing Business Improvement Association and a member of the committee, isnt one of those opposed to the project.
Its going to be an improvement from its current use, said Regan, referring to the 40-year vacancy of the dilapidated units on the upper floors of the buildings.
Regan, however, is opposed to the city allowing more new market housing to be built in the Downtown Eastside, leaving low-income people seeking the welfare rental rate of $375 per month without affordable housing. In 2011, city statistics show only 24 per cent of single-room-occupancy hotels were renting at or below the $375 rate.
We shouldnt belittle developers who are trying to find ways of providing affordable housing or social housing or whatever it is but we should also be constantly on our senior levels of government to come to the table with more, he said.
Council will meet at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to discuss Lippmans proposal.