City Council approves redevelopment of Brickhouse site in Vancouver's Chinatown

Feb 14 2021, 12:41 pm

After making its way through various consultation and review processes over the past seven years, Vancouver City Council approved the rezoning for the mixed-use redevelopment of “The Brickhouse” site in the Chinatown district.

It came down to a 7-3 vote last week, with COPE councillor Jean Swanson, NPA councillor Hardwick, and OneCity councillor Christine Boyle in opposition, and Mayor Kennedy Stewart absent from the decision.

This is a redevelopment of 728-796 Main Street, which is the northeast corner of the intersection of Main Street and Union Street. Bonnis Properties will turn the site into a 114-ft-tall, 11-storey building with 94 homes, including 75 condominium homes on the upper eight levels, and 19 social housing units on the two levels above ground level.

The unit mix is 17 studios and two one-bedroom units for the social housing component, and 23 studios, 25 one-bedroom units, 19 two-bedroom units, and eight three-bedroom units for the strata residential component.

Existing condition:

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Site of 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Original proposal:

2017 artistic rendering of the proposed development at 728-796 Main Street in Chinatown. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Approved revised proposal:

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Social housing is provided to replace 24 of the 27 units that are designated as single-room occupancy (SROs) rooms in the existing three-storey building, currently used as the Creekside Students Residence, located at the intersection’s corner. It was built in 1899 as a boarding house for the railway and industrial workers in the area.

On the ground level of the redevelopment, there will be over 6,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space.

The development site also contains the 1910-built, two-storey building that contains the Brickhouse Late Night Bistro and Dive Bar, and a 1925-built, single-storey building that previously housed the Jimi Hendrix shrine. The bricks of both of these buildings will be salvaged and reused for the redevelopment’s ground level facades, with the Main Street facade commemorating the Brickhouse, and the Union Street facade acknowledging the historic site of Hogan’s Alley immediately to the south.

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

“The proposed design is contemporary in character and consists of individual facades that reflect the hierarchical composition of historic buildings with distinctive lower and upper street facades,” reads a city staff report summarizing Studio One Architecture’s design.

“The lower façade includes six small double-height commercial retail units with mezzanines, in keeping with the traditional Chinatown shopfront typology. The upper façades, at the residential levels, are primarily brick with punched windows and recessed balconies, and a proportion of solid and void elements comparable to historic buildings. Elements of the façades of the existing buildings on the site are intended to be retained from demolition and reused.”

However, this revised 2019 proposal is considerably downsized from the original application in 2017 that called for a 150-ft-tall, 15-storey building. The revision shaved off the top four floors, about 20,000 sq. ft. of floor area, eliminating 24 condominium homes from the project.

The increased height allowances permitting greater density were set by city council in 2011 in an effort to catalyze the revitalization of Chinatown. But in 2018, in response to activist opposition, city council rescinded the allowances for taller and wider buildings.

Existing condition:

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Site of 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Future condition:

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Under the policy changes, this property’s new maximum outright height is set at 70 ft (seven storeys) or a conditional height of 90 ft (nine storeys). However, as the rezoning application for the project was already mid-stream in the review process, city staff made an exemption and allowed the proposal to be grandfathered under the original 2011 policies.

Despite the exemption, the proponent still made height reduction changes to bring it closer to the amended policies.

City staff and two city advisory bodies — Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee and the Urban Design Panel — believe the reduced height still accomplishes the desire of providing the location with a “more prominent architectural corner with a height that marks the cultural and historic importance of this site,” as it “serves as a gateway to Chinatown.”

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

But for Swanson, the high proportion of condominiums in this building amounts to the continuation of the area’s gentrification.

“Gentrification is a huge issue in the Downtown Eastside because it pushes up rents in buildings that surround condo buildings. We lose cheap units and people become homeless,” said Swanson, who took issue with the loss of SROs from the redevelopment.

“Close to this building are the Cobalt and Ivanhoe which are two SRO buildings that aren’t gentrified yet, but they could be with this project’s impact… We just can’t afford to lose precious SROs until we end homelessness, and I’m not just talking about the 24 rooms that are in the building now, but about the rents that surround the condo building that will probably go up because of gentrification.”

Hardwick echoed these concerns: “I’d like to see more moderate income rental here, not more seemingly yuppie condos… the sheer size of the development takes little consideration of the neighbourhood in which we’re building here.” She also took issue with the approach of making the social housing units larger instead of an approach that at least replaces the SROs on a one-to-one basis.

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

Green Party councillor Pete Fry contended Swanson and Hardwick’s positions by noting that the SRO units at Creekside Students Residence have not been used as traditional SRO units.

“It was a backpacking hostel. It was SRO in housing form, but not in clientele. The folks who lived there were international students,” said Fy.

Swanson also commented that “the businesses in this building will be gentrifying too, like Virtuous Pie down on Main Street.”

Conversely, NPA councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung commended the redevelopment’s retail component for having some units that will offer a first right of refusal to Black businesses, as well as the “tangible representation” of Hogan’s Alley through the commemorative public art and signage.

“I think, on balance, this project has merit, and it will honestly bring some much-needed people to the area. Chinatown, like most commercial areas of the city, has been hard hit by COVID-19, and it is more acutely felt there due to the pandemic,” said Kirby-Yung.

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

The building’s total floor area is 85,673 sq. ft., creating a floor area ratio density that is 6.7 times the size of the 12,844 sq. ft. lot. In exchange for the market density, the developer is providing $9.5 million in public benefits, including $2 million from development cost levies to the city, and $7.5 million from the in-kind value of the on-site social housing.

Four underground levels will contain 64 vehicle parking stalls and 195 bike parking spaces.

Just to the south, the municipal government has plans to redevelop the historic Hogan’s Alley site — currently the southern end of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts — into a new mixed-use development that acknowledges the area’s past. As part of the Northeast False Creek Plan, the city-owned block will be developed into social housing, affordable rental homes, retail and restaurants, and a community and cultural centre for the Black community.

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street (left) and the form of the future Hogan’s Alley redevelopment (right). (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Location of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, in relation to the future developments on the city-owned blocks to the south, including Hogan’s Alley (right city block). (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

728-796 Main Street Vancouver Chinatown Brickhouse

Artistic rendering of the approved design for 728-796 Main Street, Vancouver. (Studio One Architecture/Bonnis Properties)

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