City Council approves next step for transformative 800 Granville proposal

Jul 23 2022, 1:59 am

In a move that overwhelmingly rejects City of Vancouver staff’s concerns, Vancouver City Council has allowed the 800 Granville Street proposal to proceed to the next step for consideration.

On Tuesday, City Council voted 9-1 in favour of ABC councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung’s amendment of ordering City staff to process the rezoning application that was first submitted in August 2021, and produce a referral report that makes the necessary changes to City bylaws and policies for this project to be considered. TEAM councillor Colleen Hardwick voted in opposition, while Forward Together mayor Kennedy Stewart was absent.

At this time, no decision has been made on whether this project should proceed, but the future referral report will lead to a public hearing presided by the next makeup of City Council, possibly next year.

This is a mixed-use office, retail, restaurant, and entertainment redevelopment of almost the entire block on the east side of Granville Street between Robson and Smithe streets in the Granville Entertainment District (GED).

“We are passionate about the city’s history and its future, and being involved in many heritage revitalization projects underscore this dedication,” Kerry Bonnis of Bonnis Properties told City Council during the meeting.

“We’re invested in the success of the street to the largest extent possible. We’re first-hand witnesses of the changing dynamics taking place on Granville everyday… Granville Street has been declining and badly needs an injection of energy. ”

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the revised design for 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, City staff outlined their reasons against the proposal, including building height and the shadowing of Granville Street’s sidewalks. They believe reducing the sunshine on the street will lead to fewer pedestrians and a detrimental impact on the street’s vibrancy. City staff also directly dismissed the notion that the new significant office space and large-scale retail uses will help revitalize the entertainment district.

Kent MacDougall, the City urban planner who oversaw this application, also addressed City Council. He suggested the proposal does not do enough heritage conservation.

In response, Bonnis said the proposal clearly provides major cultural and economic benefits — arguing that City staff’s views on the project are “disappointing,” and their “restrictive development policies have not done Granville Street any favours.”

“It makes me question whether or not City staff have visited Granville Street in the last decade because the realities that we see everyday cannot be ignored,” said Bonnis.

Nolan Marshall III, the president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), informed City Council that Granville Street’s storefront vacancy rate is double the rest of the city centre, and 25% of the storefronts are currently inactive. He says the GED is now “approaching a tipping point” if no meaningful action is quickly taken.

“If Granville Street is to continue to be an attraction, the street has to evolve during the daytime to be a sustainable destination for visitors and businesses alike,” said Marshall.

“For the past decade, a lack of new investment has resulted in stagnation, and as a result businesses are suffering, property crime and street disorder are unchecked, and the perceptions of the area are increasingly negative.”

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the revised design for 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

The project’s economic analysis shows $23 million in annual economic spinoffs for the immediate area’s retail and dining businesses just from the building’s 4,000 office workers, which will generate about 11,000 additional pedestrian movements daily. This is in addition to the thousands of daily visitors to the building’s major retail, restaurants, and entertainment venues. All of this added foot traffic will also serve to enhance street vibrancy and safety.

The proposal calls for a 260-ft-tall, 16-storey building with 420,000 sq ft of office space within the upper levels.

The first three levels will contain 103,000 sq ft of retail and restaurant space, including an impressive outdoor dining and lounging promenade overlooking Granville Street.

Another 90,000 sq ft will be new and retained cultural and entertainment space, including the full retention and preservation of the Commodore Ballroom and Commodore Lanes and billiards. This is accomplished by building a structural bridge over the entire mid-block Commodore building.

Ryan Bragg, an architect and principal of Perkins & Will, also countered City staff’s assertion of the proposal’s lack of heritage conservation.

While the Commodore building’s interior and exterior will be 100% retained, the project intends to preserve only the street facades of a handful of other heritage buildings on the development site. “Not all heritage value is equal,” said Bragg, asserting that the extensive heritage investment is being directed towards the Commodore building. Bonnis also added that the heritage Commodore building spans nearly half of the entire development site’s street front.

In the process, the Commodore Ballroom’s back-of-house access will be greatly improved with new elevators, more loading zones and exits, and improved fire safety. Adjacent properties, including the Slate Hotel (wedged between the Commodore and Orpheum entrance building), will be tapped into to fully preserve the Commodore building. The City-owned Orpheum Theatre could also benefit from these shared back-of-house improvements.

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 sketch of changes to the Orpheum Theatre’s Granville Street entrance for new vertical circulation access to the Commodore Ballroom and the new city-owned theatre, as part of 800 Granville Street. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

Model of the revised design of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Bonnis Properties)

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the revised design for 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

The Slate Hotel is technically a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel, even though its 73 low-income residential units have not been occupied for about half a century. The SRO was damaged by a severe fire in the 1970s, and the units are now in extremely poor condition.

But despite being completely vacant for decades, the SRO technicality remains. As a condition of City Council’s approval of advancing the project for consideration, Bonnis has tentatively agreed to abide to the City’s policy of funding off-site, one-for-one replacement social housing units at another location. This is a rate of $230,000 per SRO unit or almost $17 million to replace all of the Slate Hotel’s units.

When Bonnis acquired the property over two decades ago, they proposed reactivating the SRO uses of the Slate Hotel, but City staff rejected any residential uses on this particular block given its complete incompatibility with the loud noise and excess light of the entertainment district’s businesses, especially the Commodore Ballroom next door.

“Our request at the time was outright rejected. The City planner said residential is not allowed under any circumstances on this block,” recollected Bonnis.

However, Bonnis added that his company’s provision of about $17 million to fund the construction of off-site social housing depends on maintaining the floor area density and massing as proposed, given the pro forma needed to pay for such an expense. The total floor area is an important factor, but so is the unique massing, with most of the office floor plates reaching the length of the block — highly-coveted large office plates suitable for tech firms and other big companies.

“It’s all numbers in the end. Provided that we have the density that we request in our proposal, the numbers work for SRO. If there is any reduction in density, it just won’t work and there’s no way to finance it,” he said.

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the revised design for 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

This density is also needed to fund the project’s proposed benefit of a 15,000 sq ft, 320 seat black box theatre space built directly above the Commodore building. Upon completion, the theatre will be gifted to the municipal government as an expansion of the Orpheum Theatre complex.

Kirby-Yung’s approved amendment also directs City staff to consider the inclusion of this theatre as a CAC contribution.

Prior to the meeting, City staff indicated that they did not want the project to use the air space above the Orpheum Theatre’s Granville Street entrance building. Such a scenario of a reduced footprint would mean there would be no improvements to the Orpheum, and no additional theatre. The resulting reduced office floor area would also make it more difficult to cover the cost of these public benefits.

Although City staff were clearly unmoved by the project, that certainly was not the case for City Council.

Green Party councillor Pete Fry: “Well it’s a nice job, it’s an exciting space for an exciting block. I think that you’re achieving something that does respect that history that a lot of us value, so kudos on a very creative approach to an obviously complex challenge to retain that.”

ABC councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung: “I believe personally this application really speaks to the entertainment legacy of Granville.”

OneCity councillor Christine Boyle: “I’m very excited about this proposal, and appreciate the input we’ve heard from the DVBIA. There are many benefits that this project brings to the Granville Strip. Personally, I’m not concerned about the proposal not complying with the Downtown Official Development Plan or heritage bylaws, and there’s an important conversation to be had about living in cultural heritage and the culture of Granville Street, relative to just heritage to the concept of built form. I’m comfortable with this proposal going ahead without alignment with those policies.”

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 sketch of the new mid-building modern facade and preserved Commodore Building facade at 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

800 granville street vancouver bonnis properties

August 2021 artistic rendering of the office space interior of 800 Granville Street, Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

 

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