A would-be construction site on West Broadway at Birch is becoming the latest flashpoint in the polarizing debate surrounding development in Vancouver. Controversy about its future touches on the usual suspects — height, density, scale, consultation, planning processes, affordability, the housing crisis, the dismal vacancy rate and the push for the construction of more rental apartments.
The property at 2538 Birch St. (formerly 1296 West Broadway) is currently vacant. It was home to an old Denny’s until it was knocked down to make way for redevelopment.
Early last year, city council approved Jameson Development Corp’s rezoning application for a 16-storey building with 153 secured market rental units for the site, but Jameson has since submitted an expression of interest for a new rezoning application for a much higher tower — a 28-storey building with additional rental units and commercial space under the city’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP).
The pilot program aims to deliver new rental units across Vancouver geared toward households earning between $30,000 and $80,000 a year.
It’s limited to 20 rezoning applications for new buildings that provide 100 per cent of the residential floor area as secured market rental housing with a minimum of 20 per cent secured for households in that earning bracket.
Jameson held a pre-application open house for its proposal for a taller building with 262 residential rental units that would meet the requirements of the MIPHPP on Nov. 29 of last year. The city has not yet received a rezoning application for the new proposal but, if one is submitted, the details will be posted on the city’s website, and the project would need to be approved by council.
Doug Purdy, a president of LPA Development, a consultant firm working on the project, described the November open house as “the beginning of a good conversation with the city and the community at large,” in a recent email to the Courier.
“We are still in the midst of those conversations, particularly with city staff and are collecting as much feedback as possible. As such, we don't have any updated information at this time until we receive more feedback from city staff that will inform refinements to the proposal,” he wrote.
But critics of the higher tower proposal, including Ann Coombs, haven’t waited for an official application to be submitted to raise concerns.
They’ve already launched a petition and a website at 28floors.com opposing the proposal.
Coombs, who rented for 30 years in South Granville but now owns, said those against the tower include renters, owners, students, seniors and young families.
She told the Courier more than 500 have voiced concerns on the website. For her part, she maintains a 28-storey building is inappropriate and it would set a precedent in South Granville where a community plan isn’t in place.
Last summer, meanwhile, the city approved the Broadway planning process, which covers the area along Broadway between Clark Drive and Vine Street, centring on “opportunities to integrate new housing, jobs and amenities with future transit and around the Broadway subway.” It’s expected to take two years. Staff anticipate presenting the plan for council to consider in late 2020.
The 28floors group argues a higher building shouldn’t be considered before that process is completed.
One of their main objections to the tower is it would be twice the height of the tallest neighbouring building and, from the group’s understanding, it would be the tallest building with the greatest density of any on Broadway.
They argue it’s incongruent with the character of the surrounding neighbourhood, which is largely low and mid-rise buildings, rentals and heritage buildings, and that existing senior renters fear if the project is approved, other older low-rise rental buildings will be at risk of redevelopment and they’ll end up being evicted and won’t be able to age in place.
Other opponents worry about the “downtownification” of the neighbourhood, that shadows from the tower will extend as far as Molson Brewery, and that excessive density won’t create liveability over the long-term.
They also maintain infrastructure such as parks, schools, utilities, emergency services and transportation need to be addressed before the city approves such a project.
Coombs, meanwhile, isn’t convinced there’s a supply problem in the neighbourhood, pointing out she spotted more than 15 rental opportunities during a recent walk through South Granville.
She also insists residents support affordable housing being built and that they aren’t opposed to rental buildings.
“South Granville is predominantly a rental area, but it’s lowrise. There is nobody in this community that is against rental housing for obvious reasons… so the concern comes from the scale and the height and the fact it has not been included in the citywide plan,” she said, while echoing concerns that it would be precedent setting.
“The fact that now that the Broadway line has been confirmed — I was at that public hearing — from Arbutus through to UBC, [there is a concern] that it’s precedent setting not only for here but right along the corridor based on density.”
Coombs further questions how affordable units would be.
“Addressing the affordable housing crisis does not mean that bigger means affordable based on market rates. The community most certainly supports affordable housing and continue to emphasize the concerns for liveability given this monumental structure.”
Reilly Wood, a member of the pro-housing group Abundant Housing Vancouver, considers the revised proposal for 28 storeys a “win-win” because it would produce more homes for renters who can’t afford market rent and more homes for renters in the private market.
Wood isn’t convinced 16 storeys is much different than 28 storeys from street level. He also suspects most renters would support the revised proposal.
“In this housing crisis, I don’t know many renters who would choose a shorter building over 12 extra floors of purpose-built rental,” he told the Courier in an email.
When asked if there’s a height or density that AHV would ever consider too excessive, Wood responded: “I think it’s important to look at neighbourhoods like the West End and Yaletown, where there are plenty of towers and the neighbourhoods are still liveable and desirable. If 28 storeys is fine in the West End, it’s hard to see why it would be inappropriate just steps from a future subway station at Granville and Broadway.”
While some critics complain that rents for new apartments are often far too high for typical households, even when they’re 20 per cent below market, Wood said: “I think it's important to look at buildings over their entire lifespan, instead of the first few years when they are newer than average and therefore more expensive than average. It would be great if we'd allowed apartments like this 20 years ago so we could have more cheap older apartments today, but better late than never. It's like that saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now.”
Coombs, however, is not prepared to accept the proposal without a battle.
“We’re going to be fighting very hard. We’ve got a community that has united and we’ve got a strong committee. This is the beginning because it does set a precedent. Everybody in all the communities along the Broadway corridor are very, very concerned, so it isn’t just us, it’s West Kits. The list is long and we’ve now all joined forces.”