Council approves East Van rental building seen as 'litmus test'

Council approves East Van rental building seen as 'litmus test'

Dan Fumano: Council approves East Van rental building seen as 'litmus test'

For one side, the proposal wasn't nearly enough. For the other, the same building represented a catastrophe.

From left, Grandview-Woodland residents John Richards, Anne Worrall, Danielle Pepin, Ella Worrall, Bruce Worrall, Witmar Abelle holding Cooper, Rob Fisher, Doug Remington and Matt Crane of Hayden Crane have concerns regarding a proposed six-storey rental building in the 1500-block of Grant, in Vancouver on Sept. 15. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG


When Vancouver city council approved a five-storey rental building late Tuesday, it marked the culmination of a years-long process that helped illustrate the wide chasm between different sides of the housing question.

Before council could vote on the proposed building on Grant Street in East Van, they heard from dozens of speakers over almost seven hours spread over two nights.

Among those supporting the proposal, a segment that skewed younger and included many renters, the project represented only an incremental step toward addressing the city’s rental-housing shortage. The Grant Street project took three years and a series of design revisions to get to a contentious public hearing, for approval of what supporters called an innocuous five-storey apartment building in an area with an acute rental-housing shortage and well-served by transit.

Meanwhile, those in opposition tended to be longtime homeowners in the area, decrying the idea of their neighbourhood being “overwhelmed” by such a building or even “destroyed.”

For one side, the proposal wasn’t nearly enough. For the other, the same building represented a catastrophe.

Over the last decade Vancouver has tried to encourage the production of rental housing, which had ground to a halt under previous civic administrations while construction of condos and houses flourished. In 2008 and 2009, the city approved a total of zero units of secure, market rental housing.

The city has more recently made strides in this area, and last year approved 1,031 purpose-built rental units — but that represents barely half of the city’s own target of 2,000 units per year.

Tuesday, as council approved the project by a vote of 6-3, the landowner and the architect handling the Grant Street project sat poker-faced in the council chambers. But in recent months, members of the public, certain members of council and some city staffers have expressed frustration at how long and difficult it is to get construction of needed apartments approved — in this case, an arduous years-long effort to get 35 rental apartments approved when the city was 969 units short of its own target last year.

This week’s rezoning proposal was for a mid-block site on Grant Street, just west of Commercial Drive, where four small detached houses currently sit. The property’s current zoning would allow a developer to build a four-storey condo project, as long as the existing seven rental units were replaced, without requiring approval from council.

Indeed, the Grant project’s developer initially approached the city more than three years ago inquiring about a four-storey condo building on the site, said W. Neil Robertson with Stuart Howard Architects who has been working on the Grant Street project since early 2016.

But later that year, Vancouver’s previous council approved the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan after four years of community engagement. That plan, intended to guide change in the community over the next 30 years, sought to encourage production of rental housing in the neighbourhood, and allowed consideration of purpose-built rental buildings up to six storeys within the sub-area where the Grant Street property sits.

After the adoption of the 2016 plan, Robertson’s team conferred with the property owners, he said, who “did some soul-searching and decided … this seemed like something they thought would be a good fit for the community.”

“This was when people started really acknowledging the rental crisis,” Robertson said. “So this seemed like what everybody was saying we need in this city.”

The proponent came back to the city with a rental proposal, which eventually came before council this month with a staff recommendation.

The project faced significant opposition from neighbours, including the Grandview-Woodland Area Council who raised concerns for years. Council board member Dorothy Barkley said allowing a five-storey apartment building on a side street like Grant, a block away from the arterial road, would set a bad precedent that means “neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.”

Barkley, the retired former executive director of the Architectural Institute of B.C., also criticized the market rental homes in the proposed Grant Street building as not being affordable. She also said she’d opposed previous social-housing buildings in the neighbourhood, including one recently approved social-housing project on Clark Drive, and a proposed 12-storey tower on Venables Street that a developer and non-profit partner abandoned last year.

The Grant building proposed to offer studio apartments affordable for a household income of $60,000, and two-bedroom homes that would be affordable to households with incomes in the range of $90,000-$99,000, which could include two income earners.

The 2016 Grandview Woodland plan paints a demographic picture of a neighbourhood that was once a hub for working-class and immigrant families, but faced challenges including stagnating population growth and diminishing numbers of families, young people, immigrants and lower-income people. The plan notes that between 1996 and 2011, while Vancouver’s population increased by about 17 per cent, Grandview-Woodland’s population actually decreased by 6.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, the rental vacancy rate in Grandview-Woodland is now 0.4 per cent, half the city-wide rate.

And while Grandview-Woodland has historically had a higher share of renters than the rest of the city, the proportion of renting households in the neighbourhood has been decreasing over the years, while home-ownership rates have risen.

Housing advocate Adrian Crook is disappointed that the process for the Grant Street project included scaling the proposed development down, further below what was allowed by zoning, in an apparent attempt to appease the neighbours, before the project even went to a public hearing.

During the rezoning process with city staff, the project went from an initial 45 units in six storeys down to 35 units in five storeys, reducing the number of homes by 20 per cent.

“I wish I knew how many units of housing we’re losing prior to any public hearing, because I hear about this a lot,” Crook said. “It’s ridiculous. These are purpose-built rentals, this is what we need.”

The Grant Street proposal passed with Green Couns. Adriane Carr and Pete Fry and COPE Coun. Jean Swanson in opposition. NPA Couns. Rebecca Bligh and Colleen Hardwick weren’t in attendance.

David Hutniak, CEO of Landlord B.C., an organization representing the rental housing industry, identified the Grant project and another recent rental townhouse proposed for Shaughnessy as “two great examples of litmus tests” for the new council.

The 21-unit Shaughnessy rental project Hutniak mentioned, which faced fierce opposition from neighbours and a hospice next-door, was rejected by council in June. Those property owners subsequently indicated their plans to build a 12,000-square-foot mansion on the site instead — the very result rental-housing advocates had dreaded.

On Tuesday night, shortly before the vote, Hutniak told council: “What comes out of your decision tonight is really going to be very telling, in terms of how we go forward with building new rental housing.”

Hutniak will be pleased with this week’s outcome, but going forward, this council faces some larger rental-housing decisions. It’s expected the first round of projects under the city’s moderate-income rental housing pilot project could come before council this fall. That new program, which considers allowing larger rental buildings in exchange for deeper levels of permanent affordability, are already being welcomed by one side of this debate, and denounced by the other.

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