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$30-million social housing site in doubt

Mayor Gregor Robertson says Yaletown property 'still not workable'
An 89-unit social housing site slated to be built in Yaletown has met with years of delays and may not go ahead. Concord Pacific owns the property, which is currently a parking lot adjacent to the Cambie Bridge. Photo Dan Toulgoet

In what would be a crushing blow to Mayor Gregor Robertson’s fight to get homeless people off the street, a $30-million deal to build an 89-unit social housing complex in Yaletown appears to be off the table.

The triangular-shaped property at 1050 Expo Boulevard, which is currently a parking lot adjacent to the Cambie Bridge, is the last of 14 properties slated to be developed under a partnership with the B.C. government, Concord Pacific and the Streetohome Foundation.

“There are complications with that site that have kept it from being doable,” Mayor Gregor Robertson told the Courier Tuesday. “I don’t know what the latest is and if it’s actually going to be coming on stream, but the last I heard is that it was still not workable as a social housing site.”

The mayor cited the site’s “odd shape,” which is wedged between Expo and Pacific boulevards, that have led to concerns with design. Contaminated soil left over from the area’s industrial past is also a factor, Robertson said. Asked whether there will ever be a so-called 14th site, the mayor replied: "There may not be."

Mukhtar Latif, the city’s chief housing officer, said B.C. Housing – the provincial government’s housing branch – continues to discuss the viability of the project with Concord, which owns the property and is the developer of the former Expo 86 lands. The city has an option to purchase the site. The project has been on the city’s books for development since the Development Permit Board approved the project in August 2008.

“It’s quite a complex site,” said Latif, echoing the mayor’s concerns about the shape of the property and soil remediation. He also cited potential redevelopment options to explore additional density on the property as another reason for delays.

The Courier contacted Concord but had not received a status update on the project prior to posting this story. B.C. Housing emailed a response to the Courier, saying: "At this stage in the process, the City of Vancouver is best able to answer questions regarding the rezoning, rescheduling and mixed nature of the housing site."

Streetohome Foundation was to contribute $1.78 million to construction. Rob Turnbull, CEO of Streetohome, said the last update he received from B.C. Housing was the project could go to rezoning by January 2016. Turnbull said the foundation, which has contributed $20 million to eight of the 14 properties under the agreement with B.C. Housing and the city, was anxious to get the project built.

“It would be nice to get that one up and running,” he said, noting 127 Society for Housing and Bloom Group (formerly St. James Community Services Society) are the non-profits chosen to manage and provide services to tenants.

The Expo Boulevard project and 13 others across the city have often been cited by the mayor and others in his Vision Vancouver party as solutions to finding homes for people living on the street and in shelters.

This year marked the completion of 13 of the projects, totalling more than 1,400 apartments in what the B.C. government has defined as “supportive housing,” where tenants have access to health and other services to treat addictions and mental health issues.

Though the Expo Boulevard site may not be built, Robertson said the city has identified an additional 12 properties that could be used for social housing, affordable housing or a mix. The mayor said the B.C. government is aware of the properties and waiting for a response from Victoria to determine if it would contribute funding to build the housing.

“We’re working on a whole new set of options for city sites going forward because we need to see another round of social housing built around the city for the coming years,” Robertson told the Courier after proclaiming “Homelessness Action Week” at a city hall news conference.

Vancouver’s homeless count in March showed there were 1,746 people without a home, with 488 on the street and 1,258 in shelters.