The demolition of a derelict single-room-occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside notorious for unsafe living conditions and crime for decades will take until late next year to complete, the City of Vancouver announced Tuesday.
The city-owned Balmoral Hotel at 159 East Hastings St. has been slated for demolition since February when the city’s chief building official issued an order for the 1912-era highrise to be knocked down.
In a news release Tuesday, the city said it will begin a phased demolition of the Balmoral this month and it is expected to take up to a year to complete, with a targeted date of late fall 2023.
“The city recognizes that the Balmoral was a site of harm and trauma to many and that the demolition of this building will have emotional impact for former residents and their families, friends and community,” the release said.
“The city is reaching out to community to seek guidance and involvement in providing respectful, healing and culturally appropriate support and ceremony for community through the building demolition and redevelopment process.”
'Street church' to be demolished this month
Meanwhile, the city also announced that two privately owned two-storey buildings adjacent to the Balmoral will be demolished as early as next week. Both properties at 163 and 169 East Hastings St. were damaged by fires this year, with one as recently as last Tuesday (Oct. 25).
The city said in an email via its communications department that the owners will be billed for the demolition. Property records indicate separate owners for each building. Vancouver Is Awesome wasn’t immediately able to reach the owners for comment.
All three properties are in the heart of the Downtown Eastside on a strip where sidewalks are lined with people living in tents and makeshift shelters. Fire Chief Karen Fry issued an order to remove the tents this summer, but occupants have said at news conferences and in interviews that they have no place to go.
Firefighters respond to 31 calls at vacant Balmoral hotel
Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said in an email that firefighters responded 31 times to the Balmoral since January 2020 and answered 23 calls at the Regent Hotel, which is across the street from the Balmoral.
Trudeau said the calls were for fires, flood problems and alarms and don’t include medical calls outside the buildings. A few years ago, the city deemed both hotels unsafe to occupy and forced their closure in 2017 and 2018.
At the time, the city cited engineering reports detailing fire hazards, rotting wood, sagging floors, water damage and mould inside the Balmoral. Similar problems were raised by the city in its decision to close the Regent.
Combined, the Balmoral and Regent offered approximately 300 rooms for tenants on low incomes. The city purchased the buildings in November 2020 from the Sahota family for an undisclosed sum with the intention to redevelop them for social housing.
“We have safety concerns with the Regent and Balmoral buildings, as well as many other vacant buildings throughout the city,” said Trudeau, noting firefighters learned people were living in the building adjacent to the Balmoral at the time of last week’s fire.
“Every alarm to those two buildings is an automatic first alarm upgrade with seven apparatus. These are very dangerous to our crews as unoccupied and vacant properties often are damaged structurally, lack fire alarm and water supplies, fire separations and other critical fire protection systems for our firefighters' safety.”
To date, firefighters have responded to 184 fires this year at single-room-occupancy hotels.
Estimate to repair both hotels $90 million
The Regent and Balmoral have made the city’s top-10 list of problem hotels for almost 20 years and have been cited by police in numerous reports for drug activity, violence and other crimes.
In November 2019, the city's estimate to repair both hotels was $90 million.
Though the city has yet to release how much it paid for the hotels, the Sahota family’s lawyer told city council in November 2019 that they had received multiple private offers ranging from $7 million to $12.5 million for each building.
The city said the Balmoral will be demolished in three phases, with general waste removal from the building beginning this month. The age, complexity and condition of the building are why the city said it will take until late next year to complete the job.
“Throughout the demolition process, the city will continuously assess the site and building conditions and will adjust the demolition process and timing to account for any unforeseen circumstances, changes or new developments,” the city said.
“As the demolition is underway, the city will consult with community on the activation of the vacant site until it is redeveloped to create new social housing in partnership with BC Housing.”
Land assembly on East Hastings
In an interview with Glacier Media in May 2021, then-CEO of BC Housing Shayne Ramsay said he expected the Balmoral property to be part of a land assembly purchase to develop a large housing and health centre along the strip.
Such a real estate move would mean buying at least two properties from Concord Pacific, another property belonging to the Sahota family, a building that houses the Insite injection site, a cannabis dispensary and the two properties slated for demolition this month.
Developer Peter Wall of Wall Financial has proposed the city and province work with him to build at least 168 units of housing, a medical centre, injection site and treatment rooms on the properties.
“We’re going to have discussions with Wall if the private sector is interested in looking at being part of an assembly and redevelopment,” Ramsay said at the time.
“It may not be something like [Wall’s proposal], but the assembly around the Balmoral with the redevelopment of that strip makes a lot of sense. But what you put there is still up for discussion.”
The Regent, meanwhile, will be leased by the city to BC Housing for redevelopment.
"Discussions with the city on future plans for both sites [Regent and Balmoral] are still in the early stages and project specifics will be made public once they have been confirmed," said BC Housing in an email Tuesday from its communications department.