Lack of confidence over City staff's willingness to revive Granville strip, says developer

Mar 29 2023, 4:19 am

While elected officials provide the public decision-making face of the City of Vancouver, the bureaucracy — also referred to as City staff — plays a pivotal role in implementing policies and delivering services, and it does so mainly behind the scenes.

The balance of power in the municipal government is held between politicians and City staff, with politicians generally delegating to City staff to push their mandates and policies forward. The outcomes and results depend on both politicians and City staff working together.

But in many instances, politicians have limited control over the bureaucracy, and do not have the direct ability to replace uncooperative bureaucrats. The public may not be fully cognizant of the limited authority held by politicians over the bureaucracy, even though voters hold politicians accountable for both the actions of elected officials and the unelected bureaucrats. These political machine concepts are of course not unique to the City of Vancouver, but can also be applied to just about any government.

During a panel discussion on Tuesday held by the Urban Land Institute of BC on the best path forward to revitalize the Granville Entertainment District in downtown Vancouver, some light was shed on the delays and obstacles imposed by City staff on providing the street with a much-needed lift to decelerate and reverse its major decay.

Kerry Bonnis, president of Bonnis Properties, one of the largest property owners on the Granville strip, and the proponent of the major 800 Granville Street redevelopment project, says he lacks confidence over the forthcoming Granville Entertainment District area planning process being led by City staff.

He says the 1.5-year-long planning process is too slow, when the entertainment district needs urgent and immediate action.

The entertainment district’s revitalization will largely come from the intensification and diversification of commercial uses through redevelopment, with the 800 Granville Street project expected to be a major anchor for new activity.

But he warns it could take nearly a decade to actually achieve the project in its physical form to provide its economic and material benefits. If the area plan is approved by City Council in two years, that will lead to the 2.5-year-long rezoning application process, then the 1.5-year-long development permit application process, and then the two-year construction process.

800 granville street vancouver redevelopment bonnis properties

Artistic rendering of the August 2021 revised design of the 800 Granville Street redevelopment proposal in downtown Vancouver. (Perkins&Will/Bonnis Properties)

Bonnis says Vancouver City Council needs to direct City staff to revisit the area planning process framework, reduce the timeline, and consult with stakeholders. He suggests City staff do not have to start from square one, as significant work has already been completed by stakeholders and Downtown Van (the local business improvement association), which released its detailed concept in 2021 for the revitalization of the entertainment district.

“As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, in the Middle East and Asia, there have been entire cities built from scratch in two decades,” said Bonnis, before making some highly pointed comments to vent his frustration in working with the municipal government.

“We are a leader in terms of British Columbia and Canada in terms of our ability to construct and design. We export all of our knowledge, yet here at home we’re allowing City planning to chase their own self-interests and ideologies rather than deal with what is necessary.”

He suggests City staff are adamant with strictly limiting potential new density and added height on the Granville strip, which aligns with the details of their policy reports and public comments made to City Council during various public meetings over the 800 Granville Street proposal and the area planning process.

Bonnis went further, sharing he is concerned that two senior City planners in charge of the area planning process “can’t be relied on to deliver what’s needed,” adding that “their focus and passion is simply not there.” He did not name these planners.

A significant increase in the commercial density of the Granville strip — enabling a diverse range of uses such as more retail, restaurants, bars, lounges, office space, hotels, and other entertainment and activities — would increase public transit ridership, and improve public safety by generating more foot traffic for enhanced eyes on the street.

“Limiting density is inconsistent with the City’s policies to be a green city. If we reduce supply, that demand is not going away. What happens is what we can fit in one building, we have to build two buildings, so we have twice the construction and land costs and twice the carbon footprint, and it is irresponsible. There are many policies that are incompatible with the City’s primary focus of being a green and sustainable city,” he said.

granville street revitalization

Concept for revitalizing the Granville Entertainment District; Future: Intersection of Granville Street and Davie Street in downtown Vancouver. (PWL Partnership/DVBIA/Resonance)

granville street revitalization

Concept for revitalizing the Granville Entertainment District; Future: Granville Street looking north from Nelson Street in downtown Vancouver. (PWL Partnership/DVBIA/Resonance)

But as noted before in City staff’s policy reports, including specific reports relating to the Granville strip, City staff have clearly shown they are prioritizing the shadowing impacts on the street if taller buildings were to be allowed — that just about all other considerations for revitalization and economic vitality, including the financial viability of redevelopments, should be subservient to considerations to limit the scenario of reducing the duration of natural light on the street. It should also be noted that shadowing consideration policies were enacted by City staff, and never formally approved as an official policy by previous makeups of City Council.

Bonnis went as far to accuse City staff of enforcing shadowing policies for their own personal and profession-building interests.

“They focus on policies for their own ideology and self-interest, like the protection of sunlight. We’re talking about the core of our downtown that drives this province economically and for tourism,” he said, before alleging and painting a picture of City staff making “self-interest decisions like protecting sunlight so one can go lecture in New York.”

Bonnis bluntly asserted City staff have been “tone deaf and have done nothing for years,” and not made an effort to catalyze employment space and process simple permits quickly, such as applications for business signs and the simple change of uses of a space.

“City of Vancouver staff are dictating what’s to be done, they can’t be relied on based on their past record, and furthermore they’re not being responsive to the current needs,” he charged.

“You never get a definitive answer from City staff. The whole world does not operate that way. We allow City staff to do whatever they want and not be accountable, and not work on the same timeframe as the rest of the world and all of us are obligated to work under. We should put pressure on Council, we want policies definitively made.”

cineplex the rec room granville vancouver construction march 10 2023

Construction progress on Cineplex’s The Rec Room Granville at 855 Granville Street in downtown Vancouver’s Granville Entertainment District, as of March 10, 2023. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

He asserts City staff have become too used to directing previous City Councils, instead suggesting a proper relationship and accountable governance should come from City Council directing City staff.

“When one opens a restaurant, they don’t tell the chef you decide the menu, you decide when the food gets delivered, and you decide everything. City staff is there to serve management, management answers to City Council, and City Council answers to the Vancouver citizens. Citizens of Vancouver are not happy with the status quo,” said Bonnis.

Extraordinary delays with reviewing and approving simple applications like business sign permits and the change of use for a space that does not need any physical modifications are a message to businesses that “Vancouver is a tough place to work in.”

He points to the current struggles an unnamed multinational chain is experiencing with opening within the former Steve Nash Fitness World space at The Hudson building at 610 Granville Street, where Fitness World vacated its longtime 40,000 sq ft space in 2022. The new business coming in is concerned they will not be able to receive a permit to install an exterior sign.

On the 500 block of Granville Street, another multinational business — an unnamed stationary retailer — was looking to lease retail space from Bonnis. They applied to the City to divide the space into two, but after a year and a half of permitting delays, the business eventually gave up and decided not to establish a location in downtown Vancouver.

1025 granville street hostelling international vancouver central hostel

The former HI Vancouver Central Hostel at 1025 Granville Street in downtown Vancouver’s Granville Entertainment District. (Google Maps)

Bonnis also lamented the previous decision by the municipal government to allow some of Vancouver’s most affordable hotel options, located on the Granville strip, to be permanently converted into supportive housing — a move made from BC Housing’s acquisition of the properties. He argues such accommodations in these properties should have been only temporary, which was initially the case, when the provincial government leased the properties at the peak of the pandemic’s impacts.

This even includes the acquisition and conversion of Hostelling International’s (HI) Vancouver Central Hostel, which was popular amongst students and other young adults as a highly affordable visitor accommodations option.

“It’s a travesty that the City allowed change of use to the budget hotels on Granville Street to be converted into residential use. It’s absolutely crazy that we’re doing quick fix knee jerk solutions that aren’t even solutions because people need to be housed with dignity in residential areas,” he said.

He suggests City Council should pass a member motion requesting the provincial government to dispose of its recently acquired hotel properties on the Granville strip for their reconversion into tourist hotels. So far, City Council has directed City staff to make new hotel developments one of the priorities in the area planning process.

Additionally, Bonnis said City Council should consider allowing more floors within existing building heights as an interim policy, before eventually allowing more overall height.

Currently, on the Granville strip, according to Bonnis, buildings up to 90 ft tall are permitted, but the allowable density within the height is relatively low. The total building interior floor space can only reach a floor area ratio (FAR) density of a floor area that is 3.5 times larger than the size of the land.

He asserts more floors can be added to the same building height and volume, creating more density — up to 7.0 FAR. Instead of a building 3.5 storeys within a 90-ft-tall structure, six or seven storeys can be accommodated, while still providing generous commercial-appropriate ceiling heights. This provides more opportunities for retail, restaurants, bars, pubs, offices, and hotels, and in turn the generated activity from such businesses will drive foot traffic for the entertainment district’s revitalization.

“If we have more density, we can have more 24/7 activities and animation. Having bars on the street is bad for the street, so we need to get the bars to be in the upper levels with open balconies or below ground. We need to have more density and height, we can have multiple uses and have an active street from 6 am to 4 am,” he added.

granville entertainment district alternative density

Granville Entertainment District: Existing density and floor level configuration option (red) and possible theoretical increased density option with more floors within the same building height and volume (green). (Bonnis Properties)

Another panelist, Royce Chwin, the president and CEO of local tourism bureau Destination Vancouver, says Vancouver is in competition with destinations around the world for investment, talent, thought leadership, and visitors. In order to be competitive, it needs to be willing to adapt and transform.

He says “there’s tourism policy, and then there’s policy that impacts tourism.”

“Vancouver must be open for business, not only for investors but open for business in terms of the citizens here — in terms of the community members who want to invest in the city, transform it, and evolve it and make it better,” said Chwin.

“You can’t be one of the best cities in the world if policy decisions are in a place that inhibit transformation and evolution — that inhibit an investment in the downtown core, for which Vancouver is noted for globally… We need to think about the right kinds of decisions that will enable development to happen, enable an evolution of the downtown core.”

Karm Sumal, the president of Daily Hive, also shared his thoughts as a panelist, suggesting the Granville Entertainment District is an opportunity where culture and commerce collide.

“It’s a street that can have it all. Many cities would like to have a street like this, and we have a skeleton already in place to make it happen,” said Sumal.

“We just need the policies and individuals to drive it forward. We’ve got to think about it as a destination that isn’t just to serve Metro Vancouver or BC, but when people come all over the world, Granville is a spot they want to go. It’s something we should look at in a way to attract more tourism from the 20 to 30 year olds who aren’t just looking to go on a hike, go kayaking… how do we attract different types of tourism? Granville has the ability to do that.”

But without a real attitude and cultural shift amongst City staff, City Council’s priority of making meaningful, effective, and timely moves to revitalize the Granville strip could be thwarted by other bodies of City Hall.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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