The provincial authority that administers freedom of information (FOI) requests has ordered BC Housing to disclose the details of its sale of the Little Mountain social housing site to local developer Holborn Group more than a decade ago.
A September 23 ruling by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner rejected arguments by both BC Housing and the Holborn Group to withhold information on the financial arrangement in the 2008 sale — two years after the provincial government assumed ownership, when the federal government transferred 17,300 social housing units to BC.
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The 15-acre property is wedged between Queen Elizabeth Park and Main Street in Vancouver. The majority of the 224 units of social housing in 1950s-built structures were demolished in 2009 in preparation for redevelopment.
The municipal government had a lengthy years-long planning process for the redevelopment; after significant public consultation, city council approved the Little Mountain Policy Statement in 2012, and the site-wide rezoning application in 2016, which provides the framework for the development permit applications for each new building on the site.
Based on the approved master plan, Little Mountain will have over a dozen buildings up to 12 storeys in height, with 1.66 million sq. ft. of total floor area, including 1.32 million sq. ft. of condominiums, 332,000 sq. ft. of social housing, and 32,800 sq. ft. of commercial space.
There will be about 1,400 units of condominiums and 282 units of social housing, including the social housing already built. An extensive public realm is planned, including a new public park, community plaza, open and green spaces, a new city street, and an extension of 35th Avenue.
However, the site is currently vacant, apart from one new building with 53 units of social housing and a temporary modular housing building for the homeless.
Previous reports indicate the developer, as of 2018, only paid a small fraction of the $334-million sale price of the property. This reportedly follows the schedule of payments agreed between the provincial government and developer at the time of purchase. Since then, property values in the area have approximately doubled.
But the FOI seeks to unravel a more comprehensive picture of the deal that was made between the developer and the provincial government, with the developer arguing disclosure would result in competitive harm and financial loss.
“Holborn said that the real estate development market in the Lower Mainland is ‘robust’ and ‘highly competitive’. It said that the parties reached the purchase and sale agreement on Little Mountain in 2008, during a global recession. Holborn argued that other entities, with which it is negotiating or likely to negotiate, could use the information in dispute as ‘leverage’ or a ‘bargaining tool’ against Holborn, to try to get it to agree to terms similar to the ‘highly sensitive provisions’ in this ‘unique’ agreement,” reads the ruling.
“Holborn said it uses these ‘unique terms’ to ‘strategically structure new real estate deals going forward’. Thus, in Holborn’s view, disclosure of the information in dispute, which, it said, was meant to be confidential, would put it at a competitive disadvantage and interfere with its negotiating position.”
Furthermore, the ruling states the developer said the details — including timing of payment and adjustments and commercial details regarding rezoning — could cause harm “‘in that individuals without knowledge in real estate without the knowledge to understand the complexity of the deal could incorrectly interpret the information'” and that the public might be less willing to purchase properties developed by Holborn Group.
But the FOI adjudicator dismissed the concerns of Holborn Group and BC Housing, citing a lack of “objective evidence that is well beyond or considerably above a mere possibility of harm.”
Under the ruling, BC Housing has been provided with a November 5, 2020 deadline to disclose the requested information.
Although the redevelopment has moved at a sluggish pace, there have been signs of activity in recent years.
In early 2019, four development permit applications were submitted to the city, including:
- 150 East 36th Avenue: Six-storey, mixed-use building with 48 social housing units, daycare, and a 12,000-sq-ft mini-community centre.
- 155 East 37th Avenue: Eight-storey building with 63 social housing units and 4,200-sq-ft of ground-level restaurant space.
- 5299 Main Street: Eight-storey building with 126 condominiums and 15,200-sq-ft of ground-level commercial space for a grocery store and fitness gym.
A development application for a 10,000 sq. ft. presentation centre building at 8 East 3rd Avenue for the sale of the condominiums was also submitted in early 2019, but withdrawn shortly after.
In July 2020, a the developer submitted a development application for 5098 James Street, calling for a six-storey building with 87 condominiums.
Last month, a revised development application for the presentation centre, now with a downsized floor area of 5,620 sq. ft., was resubmitted for the same northwest corner parcel of Little Mountain.