Vancouver’s great faulty tower debate

Developer Daniel Boffo and activist Jak King (opposite) have competing visions for Grandview-Woodlands

As Vancouver pushes density, developers like Daniel Boffo hope to transform low-slung neighbourhoods. Not everybody thinks that’s a good idea

Developer Daniel Boffo knew what he was getting into when his company, Boffo Properties, proposed a midrise tower at the northern end of Commercial Drive’s retail strip. Of all Vancouver’s neighbourhoods, Grandview-Woodlands is the most likely to mobilize against the mere glimmer of gentrification. As well, for a lot of people in Vancouver and beyond, a residential tower represents the greatest threat to their neighbourhood—an invitation for property values to rise and for other towers to follow. 
Sure enough, a No Tower Coalition has formed in opposition to Boffo’s 12-storey project; its signs are staked in front yards throughout the area, a protest has been staged at Grandview Park and a petition circulated asking council to vote against the proposal on the grounds that it’s out of scale. Even coalition spokesperson Jak King was surprised at the level of support his group has received. “I’ve done a few campaigns in Grandview, and I’ve never seen 3,350 signatures,” says King, a community activist, author and historian who’s lived in the area for almost 40 years. 
Boffo’s mixed-use development would include 18,000 square feet of retail space, 200 market condos and 30 separate social housing units to be owned and operated by the nonprofit Kettle Friendship Society. The society—which has operated out of an aging space at 1725 Venables for almost 40 years—helps people with mental illness find housing and employment, and has a drop-in centre that serves around 150 people a day. It’s stretched to capacity. Boffo purchased property on either side of the building and is proposing redevelopment as a way for Kettle to nearly double in size. (Part of the plan includes the purchase of a city-owned parking lot to the north.) 
Both Kettle and Boffo see the project as a win-win solution in an era of evaporating government support for social housing—but for now, the application to rezone (current zoning only allows for four storeys) has been put on hold as the city works on a community plan for Grandview-Woodlands. A staff report on recommendations coming out of a citizens’ assembly review of the plan is expected to be presented to council in April.

Boffo—who has several small-to-mid-size housing projects under his belt throughout the Lower Mainland—has been through this before. Three years ago, he developed a 29-unit social housing project near gritty Oppenheimer Park, at 555 Cordova. The project initially received backlash from area activists opposed to market development, but so far it hasn’t gentrified that section of Cordova, which includes a soup kitchen and daycare. He sees the Kettle project as an opportunity to expand upon that model. “We as developers are looking to improve our game and get more involved with the community.”

Still, he admits that this may be his most challenging, and controversial, project to date. “This isn’t a project for everybody—it’s a passionate community,” says the 36-year-old son of Italian immigrants (his father, Tarcisio, started a Burnaby-based landscape and construction business in 1963 that would become Boffo Properties). Beyond personal financial considerations, he worries that community opposition could scupper the opportunity for Kettle to find a much-needed new home. “The last thing we want is a situation where our partnership is affected and the Kettle is back at square one.” 

As Vancouver’s planning department pushes to densify outside of downtown, fights between developers and community groups are only going to increase. In the past five years, there’s been a prolonged battle over the new Norquay Village—a 1.35-kilometre stretch of commercial and single-family houses around Kingsway that underwent rezoning to allow for six-to-16-storey towers. The 15-acre Little Mountain social housing project, near Queen Elizabeth Park, has seen its residents cleared out to make way for 1,400 units of market housing. And the last embers of a battle are burning out at Marine Gardens—a 1970s ode to affordable public housing at Marine Drive and Cambie—where a pair of condo towers is replacing 70 townhome units. The impetus for it all: what Metro Vancouver estimates to be a one-million-person influx into the region by 2041.

A large part of the city’s justification for density rests with the belief that more supply will translate into greater affordability. Yet despite a frenzied few years of construction in Vancouver, condo prices in the region increased 14 per cent more in 2015 than in the previous year, bringing the average condo price to $521,666. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation expects 20,000 new housing starts each year for the next two years but little in the way of market cooling for Vancouver. Even if one only looks at the people moving here, Vancouver’s share of that one-million figure is a far humbler 150,000—putting into question the need for large-scale densification. 
Indeed, a few weeks before he left his post last November, former Vancouver city planning director Brian Jackson conceded growth is really not that big a deal. “The growth rate is far less now than it was in the 1990s,” he said in an interview with BCBusiness. “We’re growing at about four per cent a year, but back in the ’90s, it was nine per cent. When you look at the population increase between 1981 and 2011, it’s far higher in terms of pure numbers.” In Jackson’s view, about a third of the 150,000 will be living in infill housing (laneway houses, basement suites), a third will be living in midrises (such as those being built along Cambie Street), and the remainder will live in high-rises (such as those that will spring up in the Concord Pacific lands of Northeast False Creek). Tens of thousands more people can be accommodated in other large projects, such as the master planned River District and the former RCMP headquarters between 33rd and 37th. While he stopped short of suggesting that we don’t need further rezoning, he made it clear that there’s no reason to panic. 
Those still inside the city apparatus are more circumspect when discussing plans for densification, however. In a December email exchange, Randy Pecarski, acting assistant director of city-wide and regional planning for the City of Vancouver, explained that growth projections are a combination of existing zoning capacity blended with various policy plans. Plans that have allowed for density in the Cambie Corridor or the Olympic Village area, for example, are already figured into the growth equation. “In the case of Cambie Corridor, much of it is currently zoned single-family, but the capacity is mid-rise, multi-family development as approved by Council,” wrote Pecarski. Ditto with Olympic Village’s Southeast False Creek neighbourhood, which is industrial but open to rezoning because of a council policy plan. 
Elizabeth Murphy, a former development officer with the city’s real estate and housing department, who worked on large-scale projects such as Coal Harbour, Arbutus Lands and Northeast False Creek, believes we’ve already got all the zoning capacity we need. She’s been chasing city staff for a firm answer on zoning capacity for years and even tried filing a freedom of information request that didn’t turn up any numbers. “I have been after them forever,” says Murphy, now a private project manager for multi-family housing projects. “The thing is, we are absolutely awash in existing zoning capacity. But every time a project comes forward, the justification is, ‘Where are we going to put all these people?’ The city is representing it as a crisis when it’s anything but a crisis. They are trying to justify development.” 
Compared to the rest of the region, Vancouver will have a relatively easy time accommodating newcomers: it grew only 4.4 per cent between census years 2006 and 2011, while Port Moody grew by almost 19.9 per cent and Surrey by 18.6 per cent over the same timeframe. Even so, in 2014 Vancouver had 45 per cent more housing starts than Surrey. “The growth in absolute numbers of dwelling units is highest in Vancouver, but the population is growing faster in the city of Surrey,” notes Patrick Condon, UBC’s chair of urban design. “That speaks to the point that some of these new housing units aren’t occupied at all, or are occupied by one person or temporarily occupied. That’s not the case in Surrey, where if a housing unit is built, you can be sure there will be at least three people in it.”

In Vancouver, talk of growth intersects with the investment of outside money—and although there’s no firm data, it’s clear that developers are courting foreign money, especially when marketing luxury condos. Holborn Group, for example, is developing the high-priced Trump International Hotel & Tower where the majority of units will be priced around $1 million and top out around $20 million for the penthouse. Bosa is proposing a 50-storey luxury tower at 1500 West Georgia, designed by world-renowned architect Ole Scheeren, while a luxury 58-unit Intracorp project will go up at 1177 Jervis Street in the West End, with presale prices starting at $1 million. With a median household income of around $70,000, Vancouverites—it’s fair to surmise—often aren’t the buyers.
“This is the first time in the North American experience where the simple laws of supply and demand can be called into question,” says UBC’s Condon. “There is ample evidence that the more luxury commodity you supply—which seems to be what we’re doing in Vancouver—the more people from outside the community you will attract to invest. So the creation of more luxury condos doesn’t positively affect the local market by increasing supply and lowering price. It could make it worse. Most of the product being sold is $800 a square foot or higher.” 
In a May 2015 letter to Premier Christy Clark, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called for a luxury housing tax, a levy on property flipping and amendments to the Vancouver Charter to track property ownership and reduce unoccupied homes in the city. He wrote: “The escalation in housing prices coincides with increasing reports of Vancouver’s housing market being treated as a commodity for the world’s wealthiest citizens, with people parking their money in Vancouver real estate simply for profit. I firmly believe that housing should not be treated solely as an investment commodity.” 
Clark responded by saying there was no foreign investment problem to speak of, citing information supplied by the B.C. Real Estate Association, and saying “any method of new taxation” could hurt those homeowners with equity. She also accused the city of driving up housing costs with inflated development levies and recommended that the city increase supply of housing “through better land-use planning.” After that fleeting game of pass-the-buck, however, the issue appears to have been dropped. 

In February, Boffo released renderings of its proposed Kettle project. (Boffo)
None of this is to say the Boffo tower in east Vancouver is as problematic as the sea of luxury towers dotting Coal Harbour and Yaletown. The Kettle project is a modest one in the grand scheme of things, although its ratio of building size to land area is high for the neighbourhood (more than twice the current allowable floor space ratio). And at least 25 per cent of the condos, all mid-market pricing, would be two- or three-bedroom units—good for young families who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy in the area. Indeed, not all the neighbours are opposed to the project: a minority report that came out of the Grandview-Woodlands citizens assembly found one-third in support of its building form. 
Jak King, speaking for the majority, sums up the reasons for opposition in three key points: his group doesn’t like the tower form itself; they are opposed to a private developer providing social housing; and they feel they are having density foisted upon them. They would like the Kettle Society to expand its services in a way that doesn’t involve the development of a tower, such as borrowing money from the bank. There is also a fear of displacement: King lives a block and a half away from the Boffo site, on Adanac Street where a large old Victorian rental house was torn down two years ago and replaced with a condo project; before that, just next door, an old two-storey walkup was redeveloped into condos. The area, he says, “has gone from 20 low-income rental units to 20 expensive market homes—and it’s a complete change of culture.” 
While there’s widespread agreement that density needs to come to Canada’s most expensive real estate market, the need for smart, measured development is critical, says Elizabeth Murphy. “The last thing we should be doing is rushing into commitments that are going to permanently change the nature of the city without thinking it through.”