Hornby building shows what the community gets when extra density is granted

Scrolling through the usual wad of city reports, I came across a rezoning proposal up for public hearing Tuesday night that provides an interesting contrast to towers currently proposed in the West End.

One of the main complaints of those objecting to various towers — several of them that have been granted extra density in order to get the developer to provide rental housing — is that the community doesn’t really get any benefits from that extra density. They get extra people but not extra services for the neighbourhood, especially community-centre space, library space, park space and so on.

Here’s a tower at Hornby and Helmcken, just blocks away from the official West End, where city planners are entertaining a proposal from Concert Properties that it go from a current allowed 5 FSR to 12.44 FSR. (FSR, for newbies, is floor-space ratio. If a building has 5 FSR, that means its number of square feet of building is equal to five times the total square footage of the lot size. That doesn’t mean five storeys. It could mean much more, as developers don’t build right to the lot line on all four sides. So 5 FSR could well be a 10-storey building. Single-family housing is usually .6 to .75 FSR.)

Planners have calculated that the value of the land will increase by $9.9 million if this rezoning goes through. They calculated that the developer’s offer of $7.6 million in various community benefits was insufficient, so planners said Concert should have to put in another $1.5 million in benefits. That way, the city gets almost 90 per cent of the land lift. Concert gets to keep the last $800,000 or so.

Aha, you’re thinking. That’s a lot of money put in for community benefits. That’s the way it should work if a developer is getting a a big increase in density. The 400-500 people living in that building will generate new services for the area, so all will be good.

That’s what I thought when I first saw the report. But when I looked closer, this is what the $9.9 million breaks down to in community benefits:

- public art: $270,000

- improvements to the daycare spaces at Dorothy Lam and Quayside: $235,000

- improvements to “public realm and greenway”: $1.265 million

- DCLs that will go to “parks, childcare facilities, social housing, and engineering”: $2.16 million

- and the remainder of the money, about $5 million by my calculation, goes to heritage preservation. That’s because Concert has bought the heritage density from the old YMCA building that it rebuilt on Burrard and transferred it to this building.

So more than half of the community benefits are used for heritage, not new or improved community services. There are many who would have no problem with this. It’s the main mechanism the city has been able to use to preserve most of Gastown, the Stanley Theatre, and other bits of our rare and disappearing heritage in the city.

But it does add a big block of people to this area of town — already very dense and urban — with less than half the money dedicated to improving services. (And, I note, some of that will go into the city’s housing fund.)

By the way, only 11 people sent letters to city hall about this project. The majority objected, saying it was too big, added too much density to the area. But not all.

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