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Opinions mixed at open house for proposed 28-storey tower

Jameson Development wants to build the highrise at Broadway and Birch under Vancouver's moderate income rental program

"Yes 16 floors. No 28 floors." That message on signs carried by a lone protestor outside a June 27 open house for a rezoning application, which could result in a 28-storey tower at Broadway and Birch, reflected the sentiments of many opponents of the project who attended the crowded event.

Jameson Development Corp. earned council approval for a 16-storey market rental building on the old Denny's site at 2538 Birch St. (formerly 1296 Broadway) in early 2018 but later decided to submit a new rezoning application for the much higher building under the City of Vancouver’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP). The program requires 20 per cent of the residential floor space be reserved for households earning between $30,000 and $80,000 a year.

Of the 248 secured rental apartments proposed for the building, 53 would be designated as MIRHPP units.

But 28 storeys is too high for some residents who insist it would be out of context for the neighbourhood.

Janis Hamilton is among them. A renter by choice, she's resided in the area for most of the periods she's lived in Vancouver, most recently for the past 20 years. 

"To me, it's a business proposition that's gone wrong. They're requesting to put in an out-of-scale building for the size of the site [that's] out of character for the neighbourhood, before the Broadway corridor process has a chance to manifest," she said. "That's what's offending people most, I think."

Launched in March, the Broadway corridor plan will take two years to complete and cover Clark Drive to Vine Street between West First and 16th avenues. It will deal with subjects such as housing and job space, as well as social and cultural amenities, around the future subway route, an extension of the millennium line from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street.

An interim rezoning policy is in place for the duration of the process. The city will only proceed with applications that were already in the pipeline for consideration, including the Broadway and Birch one. Any projects that could be considered beyond those proposals would be ones involving 100 per cent social or supportive housing.

But Hamilton, and others like her, including Ian Crook, argue the development shouldn't be considered before the Broadway Plan is finished.

"Once you approve a project like this, it really does have the potential to colour the outcome of the Broadway corridor plan," said Crook who owns a condo nearby.

He said he's not opposed to rental housing, but thinks a 28-storey highrise will "overwhelm" everything else in the area.

Penny Cochrane agrees with those concerns. She doesn't understand why the city wouldn't want to get a major project along the corridor "right" by establishing the plan beforehand.

"Where's the process?" she said.

Hamilton also raised concerns about a lack of community infrastructure, such as schools and parks, and said not enough parking is proposed.

She maintains the moderate income units could be accommodated in the smaller 16-storey building and she's hopeful the project won't proceed as proposed.

"I think we have a shot at holding it in abeyance, or at least sending it back for a redesign," she said.

Others at the open house want the opposite to happen.

Jennifer Ling, a medical student who rents in the neighbourhood, said Fairview is an expensive community to find housing in and many of the buildings are small and older. She wants to see more up-to-date buildings developed such as the one Jameson Development is pitching. 

"Vancouver definitely needs to increase its density in order to serve people better," she added.

Luke Cockerhal, her partner, agreed.

"If you ride your bike down 10th, buildings look like they're stuck in the 1970s. The city has not kept up while Surrey is racing to the future," he said, adding, "I'm concerned how difficult it is to get a project like this approved."

Chris Raftis rents in Kitsilano. He stopped by the open house after reading about it in a newspaper.

"I think they should build it. Vancouver is in a housing crisis now. There's not enough homes being built," he said, while noting the location makes sense because of its proximity to transit.

Raftis said he's also in favour of the development because it's targeting particular income thresholds.

"I worry that the city only hears from the people who live in this neighbourhood and not necessarily the 400 or 500 people who might live in this building," he added.

"If Vancouver is going to continue to grow as it has, people are going to need homes and this is the best way to get them homes. I'm concerned it will get blocked at council."

Dan Garrison, the City of Vancouver's assistant director of housing policy, said the developer's initial plan for a 16-storey building was approved under the city's Rental 100 program, which requires projects to be 100 per cent secured rental.

"The challenge of that was there's no controls on rents in that program so that's a market rental building. At a 16-storey building, we had market rents," he said.

"The opportunity that's here, and why we're really interested in this project, and reviewing it in this way, is by going up the additional storeys, you create the value in the project that allows us to secure over 50 units in this building at the moderate income rental rates. [They are] much more affordable than the market rates that would have been secured at the 100 per cent of the 16-storey rental building, That's the driving factor here and that's what the moderate income policy allows us to consider."

Garrison maintains, if approved, the development proposal for 2538 Birch St. won't set a precedent for the neighbourhood. He said the Broadway plan, not this project, will determine the future of the corridor.

"Through the Broadway Plan, there's going to be, and there actually has already been, an enormous number of opportunities for people to engage with city staff, with a broad number of stakeholders, to try and figure out what the future of this place should be. The outcome is really what's going to drive what future heights and densities are allowed," Garrison said.

Next steps for the rezoning application, meanwhile, include staff and technical reviews where issues such as transportation and parking are assessed, and the building will also go through an urban design review. Ultimately, a public hearing will take place where council will decide whether to approve or reject the project.

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