Inside Vancouver Community College’s plan to develop much-needed housing

President and CEO Ajay Patel shares his vision for VCC's Broadway campus

A few months ago, on a bright afternoon in early June, I met Vancouver Community College president and CEO Ajay Patel at the BCBusiness Top 100 event in Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. He informed me that the VCC had started a major campus redevelopment project that could tackle one of the biggest issues in the province: housing.

The largest and oldest community college in B.C., VCC has three campuses (Downtown Vancouver, East Broadway and Annacis Island) and roots dating back to 1965. Like those roots, its facilities are old, so, in 2018, the college started talking seriously about campus renovations.

Its redevelopment of the Broadway campus includes educational spaces and a $291-million cleantech centre. (The provincial government committed $270 million of that funding to the project in July.)

“We break ground next year,” Patel says on a follow-up Zoom call. “We basically discovered that we have around 2 million square feet of real estate that we could build that will allow us not only to redo our facilities, but also to respond to community needs.”

Hence VCC’s idea to sprout an additional 3,300 residential units on its Broadway campus and make at least 20 percent of them below-market housing rentals. “It can be paid for by the housing that we want to do on it,” says Patel. “I want to prioritize the rental to students, First Nations, first responders under that affordability piece.” The college is also considering daycare spaces and other important amenities to create a hub around its Broadway site, given all the development going on along neighbouring Great Northern Way.

“We know the SkyTrain is going to get extended to Emily Carr,” says Patel. “EA Sports is across the street from us, Lululemon is in the middle of a development permit application… [Low Tide Properties] intends to build a destination plaza.”

On top of that, Patel hopes to see thermal energy generated from waste powering VCC’s Broadway renovation—specifically, waste from a massive sewer pipe under the campus. “This could potentially heat the entire redevelopment of VCC, housing and all,” he says, “and potentially leave some extra to go across the street to help some of the Great Northern Way neighbours.”

He adds that the City of Vancouver, through the Neighbourhood Energy Utility (the BC Hydro of sewage heat recovery), involved third-party consultants to assess if flow rates, volumes and temperatures support the plan for a sewage heat recovery centre to be placed on the Broadway campus site. That way, the sewer under the campus could be used to heat buildings in the area. As of press time, the report is yet to be released, and while Patel admits that there are some logistical challenges (like in the case of flooding, when heat can’t be extracted), he believes they can be overcome. “We’re talking about 2.6 million square feet of space, 500,000 square feet of new modernized educational facilities, at least 3,300 housing units—of which at least 20 percent could be affordable based on today’s dollars—and we’re going to try to do it with almost net-zero emissions,” he says.