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Mike Howell: How demolishing vacant SRO could create $16.5M for affordable housing and expand the Commodore Ballroom

Bonnis Properties wants to redevelop almost entire block of Granville Street that includes the State Hotel
The 1910-built State Hotel is a vacant single-room-occupancy building that is a key piece of the puzzle for Bonnis Properties to redevelop Granville Street and expand the Commodore Ballroom.

Interesting council session Tuesday night regarding Bonnis Properties’ plan to redevelop almost an entire block of Granville Street, between Smithe and Robson streets.

You may have already read some of the news coverage about the proposal to build a massive 16-storey commercial building along the same block that includes the iconic Commodore Ballroom and four other historic buildings.

The renderings show a glass-heavy terraced design, which gives off a cruise ship-like vibe.

While the building itself is getting all the attention, it’s the single-room-occupancy State Hotel adjacent to the Commodore that several councillors were intrigued about and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the redevelopment.

I’ll elaborate further down the page.

Bonnis Properties has moved a step closer to redeveloping almost an entire block of Granville Street after council instructed staff to work with the company on advancing the project. Rendering courtesy Perkins&Will

First, some background about what the city’s director of planning, Theresa O’Donnell, described Tuesday as a “complicated” proposal.

Yes, it is complicated, but it is also controversial for several reasons, not the least of which is the scale and mass of the building, which would reach a height of 260 feet and hover over the strip of predominantly low and mid-rise buildings.

City staff aren’t crazy about the project, saying as much in a report to council.

“Should a development of this magnitude be allowed, the historic character of a fine-grained urban streetscape as well as its pedestrian-friendly sense of place found on Granville Street may permanently be lost,” the report said.

Staff pointed out the proposal “significantly deviates” from the city’s heritage policies, the single-room-accommodation bylaw and the height and form provisions of the downtown official development plan.

Cameron Block

Also, the 1910-built State Hotel and three other historic buildings — the Service Building, Cameron Block and Clancy Building — would be demolished except for their principal facades, which staff say is not a supportable conservation practice and is not consistent with applicable heritage policies.

All that said, an enthusiastic council decided Tuesday that it wants staff to see what it can do about sorting out the issues with the proposal, and then bring back a referral report. It would then be up to council to decide whether the rezoning application should go to a public hearing.

“Following council's decision, staff will now conduct a full rezoning review,” the city’s communications department said in an email. “This will include consultation with both the public and the Urban Design Panel, as well as assessing the aspects of development that council included in an amendment to the staff recommendation from the report.”

Now to the State Hotel…

It’s an SRO with 73 rooms and has been vacant for at least 50 years, according to Kerry Bonnis, who operates Bonnis Properties with his brother Dino, and spoke to council Tuesday.

Bonnis said the hotel was damaged in a fire in the 1970s and when the brothers took it over about 22 years ago, it was in rough shape and unlivable.

“There were about a thousand-plus carcasses of pigeons, it was rat infested and, in fact, we had to do hazmat work to remove everything,” he said. “There were no kitchens, no washrooms, no nothing.”

'Outright rejected'

The brothers approached the city shortly after the purchase about renovating the hotel for affordable housing. But Bonnis said “our request was outright rejected,” with the planner at the time saying new residential couldn’t be built in the entertainment district.

Now Bonnis wants to keep the façade but knock down the rest of the building to help expand the Commodore, which the brothers own. The idea is to add freight and regular-sized elevators and a loading area on the hotel site and connect it to the Commodore.

The same would be done to the building on the north side of the Commodore, but include space large enough for transport trucks containing music gear to park. Parking for the public and bikes would also be added.

The development would allow the lobby of the Commodore to increase in size.

“This would give the infrastructure for the Commodore to work for years, and then also provide for increased wheelchair access down to the Commodore bowling alley,” he said. “There are a lot of seniors bowling, and we need to have those lifts.”

$16.5 million for affordable housing

Bonnis said in an interview Friday that adding such infrastructure would reduce the set-up-take-down time for bands and attract more musical acts, noting the Commodore only has a small lift and gear also has to be taken up stairs.

But if Bonnis wants to take down the hotel, the city’s single-room-accommodation bylaw comes into play. Whether it should apply is an open question because the rooms have been vacant for 50 years and, as mentioned a few sentences ago, the city wouldn’t allow a renovation for affordable housing.

Regardless, Bonnis said he would pay at least $230,000 for each room lost, as spelled out in the bylaw. Bonnis said that promise, however, will only be kept if there is no change to the density requested to build the new development, which includes 400,000 sq. feet of office space.

The quick math on that is about $16.5 million for city coffers, which Coun. Jean Swanson said could be used to support the city’s SRO acquisition and renovation strategy.

Bonnis also told Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung that he was open to considering adding a new music space to the development — again, he emphasized, as long as there is no change to the density of the project, which would include restaurants, retail and an outdoor promenade that overlooks Granville Street.

'That would just be tragic'

Live Nation currently operates the Commodore and Bonnis said the company told him the ballroom is expensive to operate and “labour intensive,” with gear having to be loaded up stairs.

“They've approached us over the last two-plus decades to go, ‘Hey, can we do something on the sides of the building to make it economical,’” he said.

“They've always told me that there are risks and that it may not continue to be viable to operate. We are not the operators. I can't speak specifically, but I'm just relaying what our tenant has told us. And, I mean, that would just be tragic.”

The design of the new building requires what architect Ryan Bragg described as a bridge to be built over the Commodore to protect it. Retaining and protecting the Commodore was the impetus behind the redevelopment proposal.

“We recognize the Commodore has a greater value than anything else on the block, and there are lots of reasons for that — it has architectural merit, but it also has a huge cultural legacy,” Bragg said.

“That cultural legacy is both within the entertainment community, but it's also within the LGBTQ community, and it is part of what we are as Vancouverites.”

'Tip the street in a different direction'

Bonnis also spoke to the deteriorating Granville strip, saying it “badly needs an injection of energy;” council heard from Nolan Marshall of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association that Granville Street’s vacancy rate is double the rest of downtown, with one in four storefronts currently inactive.

“Sadly, a declining downtown theatre and entertainment district is not unique, but what is unique and rare is private developers eager to initiate the revitalization process without any public subsidy,” Marshall said.

“Leaders in other downtowns would fall over themselves for a project like this. Trust me, it gets harder, not easier if we don't act now to tip the street in a different direction.”

Will the development ever get the green light?

“Unfortunately, it doesn't rest in our hands,” Bonnis said Friday. “It's in the hands of city management, the planning department and council. Hopefully those three groups can see how important this is to really give the impetus for change and transformation and revitalization of Granville.”