New tallest tower on Broadway approved by Vancouver City Council

Jul 21 2020, 6:36 pm

A heated proposal to construct a 283-ft-tall, 28-storey rental housing tower at the former West Broadway Denny’s restaurant site received its green light from Vancouver City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

After hearing from over 100 public speakers over the course of two days nearly two weeks ago, the rezoning application was narrowly approved with city council voting 6-5 in favour, with councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry, Jean Swanson, Colleen Hardwick, and Rebecca Bligh voting against. However, the votes were not cast along party lines.

City council was scheduled to make a decision on the project last week, but the deliberations were rescheduled to today to provide councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who was absent from the second public hearing day, with more time to review the public speaker recordings.

The development site at 2538 Birch Street — the southeast corner of the intersection of Birch Street and West Broadway — is just one block east from the future South Granville Station of SkyTrain’s Millennium Line Broadway Extension.

Jameson Development Group’s rezoning application, designed by IBI Group, calls for a new 283-ft-tall, 28-storey tower with 258 secured rental homes, including 200 market units and 58 below-market moderate-income units under the city’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP).

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

Moel for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

The unit mix is 30 studios, 121 one-bedroom units, 70 two-bedroom units, and 27 three-bedroom units, with nearly half of the MIRHPP units sized for families — defined as two or three bedrooms. Rents for the 58 moderate-income units will be between $950 per month for a studio and $2,000 for a three-bedroom unit — roughly half of the market rental rates. These will be pet-friendly units, which is rare for a new secured rental home complex.

Within the first two levels, there will also be about 30,000 sq. ft. of retail and office space.

This is effectively city council’s ninth MIRHPP application approval, the largest MIRHPP project to date, the tallest building fronting Broadway, and the second tallest building along the Central Broadway Corridor, after Vancouver General Hospital’s Jim Pattison Pavilion.

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering of 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver’s Central Broadway skyline. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

The new redevelopment is a revision of the rezoning approved in January 2018, which called for a 171-ft-tall, 17-storey tower with 153 secured market rental homes under the city’s Rental 100 policy, plus a similar amount of commercial space.

While there is currently a temporary moratorium on most types of rezonings along the Broadway Corridor, until the Broadway Plan is finalized, city staff determined the revised application is exempted as it falls under the MIRHPP stream.

The majority of public speakers were in favour of the project, commenting on the need for more supply to help address housing affordability issues, and that the site deserves greater density through added height given its location in the region’s second-largest employment centre and next to the subway. Those opposed to the project focused their concerns on the tower’s height, shadowing, and impact on neighbourhood character, with many local residents asserting they supported the previous design for a 17-storey tower.

“Local input is incredibly important, but it is also coming from the luxury of a lot of people that have the opportunity to be housed already in this neighbourhood, and there is a lot of people that can’t be and can’t afford it,” said Kirby-Yung.

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

Both Mayor Kennedy Stewart and councillor Lisa Dominato said the project aligns with the targets established by the 10-year Housing Vancouver strategy, and that a wide range of affordable housing for diverse incomes needs to be met.

“Young people are telling stories about how hard it is to find rental homes. They have to move away from the city and have long commutes to work. We’ve heard from employers in the exact neighbourhood that they can’t find secured rentals, and they are having a hard time with employees. We’ve heard students from UBC, for example, that it is difficult for them to find housing,” said Stewart, noting that the “status quo” is not working for many people.

He also called this project a “good model” for replication and a “very important watermark” for city council, which is now nearly halfway into its term.

“If we want people like grocery store workers, healthcare workers, tradespeople, and artists, these are the exact kinds of units that they are going to be able to afford in neighbourhoods all across the city,” continued Stewart.

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

Dominato added: “I want to be clear that this is not a panacea for all of our housing needs. I know there has been some public commentary on the level of affordability, but this is not shelter rates housing. That is not what we’re discussing today, we’re discussing market rental and moderate rental income rental. I think as councillors, we need to deliver a range of housing including shelter rate housing and market rental because we know we have a very low vacancy rate, and for 30 years there hasn’t been new purpose-built market rental built.”

When it comes to some of the concerns over the project’s smaller unit sizes, Dominato said “the estimation of livability will vary, depending on who you talk to” as “it’s all relative,” and that city council needs to allow the market to determine whether the units are appropriate for people.

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

Conversely, Hardwick commented on her issue with the rezoning’s public consultation process, and continued desire to put such applications on hold, until there is a review of how the health crisis may have impacted housing demand.

“Are we willing to sacrifice the neighbourhood for 58 affordable units? It doesn’t compute to me,” said Hardwick.

Carr, particularly, echoed the concerns of many public speakers with regards to the form of the building, and how it could potentially set some precedent for the allowable building heights and forms of the Broadway Plan, which will be finalized in late Spring 2021.

“It’s not the right height for the site or neighbourhood. It’s out of scale with the other buildings… There should be higher buildings at key transit stations, not a wall. I’m afraid this will lead to a wall,” said Carr.

“We heard clearly from many people that the Broadway Plan would be compromised in terms of having to accommodate buildings of this height, rather than planning without one and leading one kind of heights are appropriate for this area.”

2538 Birch Street Vancouver

May 2019 artistic rendering for 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway) in Vancouver. (IBI Group / Jameson Development Group)

The “wrong ratios of affordability” troubled Swanson, who wanted to see the private development include a far higher proportion of below-market rental homes.

“Half of renters have incomes under $50,000, so we should be building 50% of the rental housing for people with incomes under $50,000. Instead, with this building, we only have 20% for folks who earn the $30,000 to $80,000 range, but 80% for people who earn a lot more,” said Swanson.

“I’ve been in too many neighbourhoods where a tall building goes in, the rents in the new building are high with a few of maybe social housing that aren’t that high, but most aren’t high. And there is a huge pressure for the rents in the entire neighbourhood to go up.”

It is estimated this project will support about 900 detailed design and construction jobs during the forthcoming, years-long economic recovery.

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