A proposal to build refugee and timeshare tourist housing in English Bay?

Sep 14 2023, 3:36 am

Imagine a rezoning application submitted to the City of Vancouver that proposes the construction of a residential community perched over water in the middle of English Bay.

It layers on a multicoloured cartoonish aesthetic to Montreal’s iconic Habitat 67 residential complex, designed by Moshe Safdie.

This urban island development, shooting off Elsje Point at Kitsilano’s Vanier Park, would provide a total of 2,000 housing units, including 1,000 luxury timeshare condominium units and 1,000 refugee units.

There would be three levels of shared amenities with a 350-metre-long elevated outdoor park. The community can be accessed by land — where the southern end touches Vanier Park — or by water, with berths for pleasure boats and even a passenger ferry hub for Aquabus and False Creek Ferries.

In total, the vast array of interconnected boxes would have a total building floor area of over 1.5 million sq ft.

Before we get any further, this is not a real proposal, but a theoretical project now being showcased as the latest exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver.

The eye-catching depiction is meant to ignite some conversation on Vancouver’s shortage of accommodations for visitors, and the whole issue of short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, taking up potential rental homes for residents who live, work, and study in the city.

This is a slight variation of the exhibit that originally made its debut at the European Cultural Centre (ECC) in Venice, Italy, as part of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale. The same Venice exhibit then made its way to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2022.

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Artistic rendering of the “Ghetto” complex of timeshare condominiums and refugee housing in Vancouver’s English Bay. (Henriquez Partners Architects)

ghetto vancouver henriquez partners architects

Artistic rendering of the “Ghetto” complex of timeshare condominiums and refugee housing in Vancouver’s English Bay. (Henriquez Partners Architects)

In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized, local architect Gregory Henriquez says the exercise was originally an attempt to demonstrate what architects in his Vancouver-based namesake practice can do in terms of capturing the generated wealth from market developments for public good.

Within Vancouver’s municipal government, in exchange for market uses and extra density, this process during the rezoning application review is known as community amenity contribution (CACs), which can be fulfilled as a cash payment or as an in-kind value contribution, such as providing on-site community amenities. Some examples of CACs enjoyed by Vancouverites include affordable housing, libraries, community and recreational centres, public parks, childcare facilities, and transportation infrastructure.

Henriquez Partners Architects is known for their work on the Woodwards department store redevelopment, which was Vancouver’s first major project that provided significant CACs. That project nearly two decades ago propelled his family’s firm into becoming one of the most prominent architectural design companies in British Columbia.

They are also known for their work on the Vancouver projects of the Telus Garden office and residential towers, Main Alley tech hub, and the Oakridge Park (Oakridge Centre) mall redevelopment currently under construction. In Toronto, they are particularly known for the Mirvish Village mixed-use development on the former site of Honest Ed, which is expected to reach full completion this year.

“In Vancouver, what we do is a lot of complex mixed-use rezonings that captures some of the equity and wealth in the development process to do social good. That is sort of the reason for being. We believe that for something to be beautiful, it has to be ethical, and for it to be ethical it has to be beautiful. It comes together in some form of an expression of social justice,” he said.

The same principles were then applied to the different, but similar, context and challenges facing Venice. The overarching theme of that year’s biennale centred on identifying new ways to live together, and discussing Venice’s most pressing issues.

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The Venice exhibition project was carried out after Henriquez and his team were invited to participate by the ECC, and it builds on his role as a “premier advocate” for refugees in Canada, after being previously approached by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The name of the exhibit, “Ghetto,” is a nod to the location of Venice’s former Jewish ghetto, which was near the site of the exhibition. In the early 1500s, all Jews were forced to live in a segregated area of the city, with the name of the area, the “geti,” being the origin of the term “ghetto.” This was the world’s first ghetto.

In both the original Venice exhibit and the revised exhibit for Vancouver, the timeshare condominiums are used to cover the full cost of providing affordable refugee housing in the same complex.

The exhibit even has a board with a pro forma calculating the financial and business plan for such a mixed-use community. The estimated Venice project cost is €1.07 billion (CAD$1.56 billion).

A one-time investment of €12,500 to €25,000 (CAD$18,000 to CAD$36,000) would provide a family with a guaranteed luxury vacation accommodation in Venice of one week each year for 25 years. If the family does not use their annual week-long vacation slot, they can donate the week for use as a short-term accommodation for refugees.

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Pro forma of “Ghetto” in Venice. (Henriquez Partners Architects | Daily Hive photo)

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The Venice exhibit provided artistic rendering mockups for four locations — next to the former Jewish ghetto, the popular tourist site of Piazza San Marco, the Santa Lucia train station where refugees would come in, and at the biennale site.

At the current Vancouver exhibit, the original Venice materials are supplemented by a physical scale architectural model of the same community in English Bay, which provides the exhibition with a new visual centrepiece. The model and accompanying renderings also depict the Squamish First Nation’s Senakw rental housing development.

There is even a Rezoning Application sign for Henriquez’s fake proposal — the exact same municipal sign format seen across Vancouver, prominently posted outdoors at properties seeking a rezoning for public notification purposes.

Henriquez says both Venice and Vancouver are facing the similar problem of visitors not staying long enough.

In both cities, Ghetto’s fictional concept would provide much-needed visitor accommodations.

Vancouver is facing a hotel room shortage, which has in turn created more demand for short-term rentals. Destination Vancouver, previously known as Tourism Vancouver, estimates 20,000 additional hotel rooms will be needed across Metro Vancouver between now and 2050, with the shortage particularly becoming acute starting in 2026. Without new hotel room supply, Vancouver’s tourism industry will lose its international competitiveness, with not only a shortage of accommodation options, but also skyrocketing overnight rates that deter visitors and weaken the ability to attract major concerts, conventions, and sports events.

On the other hand, Venice, given its size, historic, and unique physical condition, not only has limited visitor accommodations, but it also faces a problem of being inundated by too many tourists, with a very high proportion not making overnight stays. Earlier this month, Venice’s government announced they will implement a new fee for tourists accessing the city for only day-trip visits on a pilot project basis during the busy periods of the year.

The collection of islands that form Venice’s historic city centre — separated by a system of iconic canals and defined by structures on stilts — have a combined total area of just 1,800 acres, which is just under two times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Henriquez says the Venice exhibit was “very well received,” as it earned his team a special mention award from the ECC, and a handful of other international architectural awards. But due to the pandemic’s impacts, he says, very few people went to the Venice exhibit in 2021, so they partnered with artist Wai Li to create a graphic novel to share the exhibition in a wider, more accessible format.

In addition to the core messages carried over from the Venice exhibit, Henriquez hopes the Vancouver version can also dispel some of the concerns surrounding the current high volume of Canadian immigrants, especially refugees.

“After 10 years, refugees become very meaningful contributors to society. It is not something we have to look at as a hardship. There’s a lot of fear around refugees coming to Canada, and the fact that our country is welcoming so many,” he said, suggesting the need to perceive Canada as a nation of refugees and immigrants. He also shared that his family originally immigrated from Russia, Portugal, and Spain.

A wall at the current exhibit cites several statistics on how refugees have become productive members of Canadian society. This includes 65% of refugees becoming homeowners after 10 years, and 14.4% of refugees being self-employed or business owners, as of 2019.

In 2022, 17.2% of all new immigrants to Canada were refugees, including 8% of British Columbia’s share of immigrants. Between 2023 and 2025, the federal government has a target to accept about 225,000 new refugees into the country — about 75,000 annually over this three-year period. Refugees will account for 16% of the almost 1.5 million immigrants over these three years.

But against the global backdrop, it is a drop in the bucket in terms of meeting the real global need. In contrast, as of 2022, it is estimated there are 5.2 million refugees in need of international protection, and more than 108 million people are forcibly displaced, according to the UNHCR and United Nations Refugee Agency, which are partners for the Vancouver exhibition.

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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“Ghetto” exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

A representative from the UNHCR will be present at the open house event for “Ghetto” at the Museum of Vancouver on the evening of Thursday, September 14, 2023. Over 600 people have already signed up to attend, with the event’s food set to be catered by Tayybeh — a successful all-women business operated by refugees who fled Syria’s civil war. Earlier this year, Daily Hive Dished reported Tayybeh will open a physical cafe location, replacing the former Linh Cafe space on West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano.

“Ghetto” at the Museum of Vancouver first opened in late August, and it is scheduled to close on November 12, 2023.

There will be an overlap between “Ghetto” and the museum’s upcoming “Refuge” temporary exhibition, which will open in mid-October. “Refuge” will highlight Halifax’s historic Pier 21, Canada’s equivalent of New York City’s Ellis Island — where one million immigrants entered Canada by ship between the late 1920s and early 1970s.

Mauro Vescera, the CEO of the Museum of Vancouver, says there will be some programming synergies between both exhibitions.

“It was kind of serendipity when Gregory came with this idea, having shown this at the AGO, and we happen to have some space. It made sense to connect and do something between both exhibitions,” Vescera told Daily Hive Urbanized.

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