Vision Vancouver campaigned on the laudable goal to create more affordable housing. An oddly positive outcome of the current economic downturn is that a window of opportunity exists to build housing more cheaply, with the costs of labour and materials at their lowest in years.
Yet in an ironic twist Vancouver City Council is facing the difficult decision to approve the demolition of a not insignificant number of "affordable" rental homes in East Vancouver. As much as some would like to try to point fingers at one culprit, there is not one stakeholder who can be blamed for the loss of 89 rental apartments. Not the developer, not the previous council, not City staff, not the landlord nor the surrounding community.
Ledingham-McCallister are a Vancouver-area development company with roots in the city going back a century. Senior partner Ward McCallister currently chairs Mayor Robertson's advisory board on the controversial Olympic Athlete's Village. Besides 4550 Fraser "LedMac" does most of its building outside Vancouver's boundaries in Richmond and Burnaby, which is not unusual for a developer of this size. Many companies consider the Vancouver's development process overly expensive and needlessly slow.
They have some evidence for this in the project on 4550 Fraser Street which was first proposed about 2 years ago, although not all the delays were caused by the City. Whatever happens with this project, it will be an important step in a long struggle to solve Vancouver's housing affordability crisis.
Developer and former city council candidate Michael Geller thinks it would be a setback to Council's goal of creating new affordable housing if they put the brakes on the Fraser Street project. (Full disclosure: I live in the adjacent neighbourhood)
"I visited this site during the election campaign, so I became familiar with this development at that time," says Geller. "On the surface it's a case where we're losing the rental units, but there are important benefits to consider as well. First, at four stories the building will remain wood frame, making it more affordable to build and get financing for this part of the city. Second, the project will have significant economic benefits during this period of recession, creating jobs, and business for trades and suppliers. It's not something that we always think about, that new housing whether it's rental, co-op or owned brings employment into the community."
"It's clear that other municipalities are trying to attract development and jobs, and they're working to get developers more involved in creating affordable housing solutions. And so should Vancouver." Geller adds, "I would hope that the Council will allow this development to proceed."
According to the staff report, the LedMac project plans to increase the number of housing units by 100 across the nearly one square block site, as well as providing a grocery store, bank and drug store as new retail on Fraser Street. New walkable shopping and services are listed as a neighbourhood priority in the Kensington Cedar-Cottage CityPlan, conducted nearly a decade ago, and I can vouch for the community's intense interest in their arrival.
Parents at local elementary schools have also been anxious for the project to get underway to battle declining enrollment. The best case scenario for occupancy is the Spring of 2011, putting pressure on school programs and resources in the area for at least 2 more years.
The development became a political football when community activist and former COPE City Councillor Anne Roberts took up the cause, and invited outgoing NDP MLA David Chudnovsky (Vancouver-Kensington) to also oppose the development. The problem with their well-meaning campaign is that it began almost a year and a half into the development cycle. The protest also didn't factor in that the building was mostly unoccupied, as stated in the City's report:
The situation regarding the existing rental units at the Fraser Street Site is somewhat complicated. The buildings were developed in the 1970s and it is evident that they are reaching the end of their economic life. In anticipation of the demolition and redevelopment of the property, the existing owner has not re-tenanted units as they have become vacant. Assistance has been provided to some tenants in the form of free last month of rent and moving costs. However, several tenants left without paying rent, and a few of the tenants remaining were refusing to pay rent, putting themselves in a position of being in arrears and subject to eviction. As of the writing of the report, 24 of the 82 units at 4550 Fraser Street were occupied. At 701 East 30th Avenue, all rental units are currently vacant.
The current landlord inherited the property from a deceased relative. While not obliged to by the City's rental rate of change rules, it is reported that the building owners have paid $2500 per household for moving expenses, along with a year's notice.
A significant delay in the project development occurred when the City scrapped plans to allow laneway entrances on the adjacent 4545 Prince Albert property. The refusal of Vancouver's Fire Department to allow home entrances on lanes caused LedMac to re-architect part of the project. The developer, who originally entered into the project on the chance it would be six to sixteen stories high, appears to be more than ready to complete it.
In their report to Council, staff express resignation at loss of the old building, saying "the loss of
the 89 rental units is regrettable." They admit that the City has few options that would not punish the developer, whom they point out has been extremely cooperative until now. LedMac have indicated to the City they are not interested in changing the scope of the project, or accepting a zoning change that would allow higher density.
More density would mean raising the building height to a minimum six to nine stories, which would mean concrete is necessary for the building, significantly reducing its affordability. The extra height would also probably result in a local backlash from neighbours, who have so far been agreeable to the plan, and even more delays.
4550 Fraser created the biggest challenge to the Rental Rate of Change bylaw brought in by the last council. It will also trigger more rules to prevent demolitions in C-zoned areas of the city, as the staff report recommends. As the "somewhat complicated" case of 4550 Fraser shows, saving (or demolishing) decrepit buildings and creating new affordable housing is often harder than it looks.