The somewhat complicated case of 4550 Fraser

Post by Mike Klassen in

4 comments

4550 Fraser Street

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.

4 Comments

This is an interesting and useful article. What's missing from it though is any comment from or understanding of the position of the current tenants.

They are faced with eviction from their affordable rental units. They pay between $550 and $800 a month. Some of them have been living there for 30 years. Where, exactly are they supposed to go? The developer, city officials and everyone else familiar with the proposed project admits nothing in the new development will be affordable for these tenants.

The problem of affordable housing in the city isn't an abstraction. It's about real people like those who live at Fraser St. If we as a community can't come up with solutions for their housing needs, then we should expect controversy and protest.

If your readers are interested in actually hearing from the tenants themselves they can attend the hearing at City Hall tomorrow night (Tuesday February 24) at 7 PM.

By the way, Anne Roberts didn't ask me to get involved in this issue. The tenants did. They are my constituents and my neighbours.

David Chudnovsky

It is extremely irresponsible journalism not to check your facts. Not a single tenant has received $2500 and in fact, as the offer stands, no single tenant will ever receive $2500. The tenants were offered $2500 if they all agreed to move by March 31 2009, which is earlier than when they are required by law. If one tenant does not agree, the deal is off. This offer was not made out of generosity, but because it cost less to do this than wait for the tenants to legally vacate. Otherwise, why make it contingent on everyone accepting and accepting by Feb 23?

Culpability does exist. If the previous council had not exempted commercial zones such as the Fraser Villa site from the Rate-of-Change By-law, Vancouver would not now be losing 89 rental housing units. Similarly, if the current council had re-considered the inadequacies of the City’s Rental Housing Official Development Plan before January 16 2009, there would be more time to weigh the public benefits and consequences of demolishing 89 affordable rental homes in the middle of a rental housing and homelessness crisis.

Developers make their money from the land-use decisions made by council. Council must balance private interest with public need. Of course redevelopment creates jobs. Does that mean council should scrap their stated housing priority, to “maintain & expand housing opportunities in Vancouver for low-and-modest income households,” in the interest of creating jobs? Which do we need more: affordable rental housing or condominiums that produce temporary jobs?

We are in an unprecedented rental housing crisis. When the City and the provincial government are spending millions and millions of tax dollars on temporary, albeit necessary solutions like establishing shelters and buying run-down SROs (at grossly inflated prices), it is not the time to sit idly by and watch 89 more affordable rental homes disappear. The fallout of this action will be more homelessness or more public money spent replacing 89 homes.

Finally, Ledingham MacAllister knew they would have a long and expensive battle over the loss of affordable housing when they chose to undertake this project. Feel sorry for them? I feel sorry for another low-income community destroyed. I feel sorry for the residents of Fraser Street who have no place to go. I feel sorry we don’t have the courage to call a halt to this insane loss of more rental housing.

Thank you David and Laura for your comments. There is an urgent problem with a lack of purpose built rental housing in Vancouver. Affordable housing continues to be elusive in our city because of the low supply and high demand. Keeping a poorly maintained low density development, with moribund commercial properties is certainly one option for dealing with the lack of affordable housing. But it is only a short term solution.

The surrounding community has wished for improvements on this very large property for many years. The modest increase in density, as well as the improved local shopping are benefits that the community have hoped for, and ones that the development will deliver.

The fact is 4550 Fraser can be developed at a lower cost today than it could over the past 2 years due to reduced materials and labour costs. While the jobs are indeed short term, the new housing should last a generation at least. Local schools have been struggling to address enrollment challenges, with programs and staffing directly affected by the lack of housing options in the community. Does the rental housing crisis supersede the needs of families who want a good education for their kids?

How about the improved shopping amenities being provided by 4550 Fraser? Should the community resign itself to "going the distance," usually by car, to get household staples?

If the building were to be kept open in its present state, who should carry the cost? The owner? He appears to be selling. The developer will walk away with no incentive to build or make a profit.

As for LedMac expecting a "long and expensive battle," no company who wants to survive would enter into such a complicated and controversial development willingly. When LedMac first arrived in the neighbourhood in early 2007, the rate of change by-law didn't even exist. It's a credit to them that they haven't walked away from the project - yet.

The solution to creating more affordable housing is to find ways to make it modestly profitable for those who will build it, and build enough supply so prices can level off.

Having recently returned from the February 24th council meeting where I spent my birthday, there are both good things and bad things about this article.

One, it is inaccurate to report that anyone has received compensation at this point, as Laura pointed out.

Secondly, I am appalled that there is no legal basis for the city to delay a demolition permit while an ongoing investigation remains in process regarding pre-demolition testing for hazardous materials in occupied suites.

Apparently, if you cooperate with city staff, sacrificing the health of the marginalized citizens is completely acceptable.

Led-Mac may not be fully to blame, and I recognize that the development may have positive benefits. A lot of the complaints heard result from the current owner, an owner who allowed disgraceful, unhealthy conditions to persist without maintenance to advance the case that the suites were uninhabitable.

Led-Mac has an option to buy based on vacancy possession. Once we're all out, the deal goes through and we've rewarded what less gracious folks than I would deem uncategorically as a "slum lord."

I won't cast aspersion on our current council. They are bound by bylaws written by former slates betrothed to the manna of development. If, however, the lesson of the meetings goes unheeded and building continue to be built upon the backs of the most vulnerable... well, if you squint enough, your Vision looks just like the NPA.

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