Olympic Village, False Creek North and the DTES: How best to achieve socially diverse communities?

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The north shore of False Creek will have less social mix thanks to Vision Vancouver

This week, Vancouver City Council will consider another major proposal for the North Shore of False Creek. Concord Pacific is proposing to build four new high-rise towers at the north end of the Cambie Bridge that will comprise approximately 900 condominium units. Under the city’s long-standing policy, 20% of these units are required to be some form of ‘social housing’. However, in this case, the developer is proposing to donate two properties along Hastings Street in lieu of providing sites for 180 social housing units within the development.

I do not fault Concord Pacific, who has created a very impressive community along the North Shore of False Creek, for making this proposal. It is both fair and reasonable from its point of view. Furthermore, some Downtown Eastside activists are encouraging Council to acquire these properties to prevent the development of more condominiums.

However, I do question City staff, who based on Jeff Lee’s story in Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, are recommending approval of this proposal; and I am surprised by the response by Councillor Geoff Meggs who, according to comments made in the same story, appears to reluctantly support the proposal as well.

I have a number of concerns if the City approves this proposal. The main one is that it will reduce social housing in an area where it is required in accordance with the City’s longstanding policy; and add social housing where it is not needed, namely on a site in the Downtown Eastside right next to another large social housing project.

I am also concerned since last year the city refused to sell the social housing at the Olympic Village because of the importance of maintaining the City’s policy requiring socially diverse communities. This despite the fact that a sale would have allowed the City to recover $110 million spent on these units, and saved $65 million in ongoing subsidies.

Finally, I do not want the city to approve this proposal since there is a much better solution.

In order to explain this, let me give you a bit of background. The Council’s 20% policy, put in place during the regime of Gordon Campbell, does not required the developer to build the social housing, nor is he required to donate the land. Rather, he is required to set aside social housing sites to be purchased by the city at a reduced cost. The purchase price is set out in a somewhat complicated formula; but it is generally one third to half of what the land would be worth as a condominium site.

In some limited instances, the City has accepted a ‘payment-in-lieu’ of providing a social housing site. This happened at the Bayshore project when I was the Development Manager.

The amount of the payment was determined to be the difference between the site’s value for market housing, and its value for social housing.

In the case of the North Shore of False Creek, according to Jeff Lee’s story, Concord has set aside 15 social housing sites. However, the city has only developed 6 of them. The city has not acquired the other properties since it does not have the necessary funds to even purchase them, let alone develop them.

When I proposed that the city sell the social housing at the Olympic Village, I also suggested that some of the proceeds be used to acquire some of these vacant social housing sites from Concord. Unfortunately, this idea was rejected.

However, I now have another suggestion.

Rather than accept Concord’s two properties along Hastings Street valued at $13 million , why not ask Concord to donate social housing sites along the North Shore of False Creek with an equal value? These sites can then be developed with funding from senior levels of government. Alternatively, if as I suspect, such funding is not likely to be forthcoming, the City could issue Proposal Calls for a reduced number of social housing units combined with other types of affordable housing. I am confident that many non-profits and private developers would be keen to respond, at no cost to the city.

This approach will accomplish two important things. It will help the city meet its goal of a more socially diverse community at False Creek North, and avoid a further concentration of social housing in the DTES. One only has to look at the recent creative proposal by Westbank and Vancity at 60 West Cordova to imagine what might be possible on Concord’s larger Hastings Street property. Another option could include condominiums combined with affordable housing for local and international artists, something explored by SFU and the City last year.

The result will be two more socially balanced communities; one along the North Shore of False Creek, and another in the DTES. Now, what’s wrong with that?

- post by Michael Geller. Michael is an architect, planner and property developer. Three decades ago, he was CMHC’s Program Manager-Social Housing and Special Coordinator for Phase One development along the South Shore False Creek.

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