Yet another area of city building could get kicked down to the municipal government’s Vancouver Plan, threatening to slow down much-needed interventions on the Granville Entertainment District (GED).
In a report to city council that will be deliberated on Tuesday, city staff have requested permission to draft a plan and budget for a future planning process targeting Granville Street in downtown, as part of efforts to advance and implement the Vancouver Plan.
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The proposed planning process would not be reviewed by city council for consideration until the end of 2021, and the work itself for a new vision for the area would only begin in 2022. All the while, conditions on the GED would continue to deteriorate.
This planning process would mainly focus on Granville Street between Drake and Robson streets, with considerations on culture, heritage character, public realm, and its function as a pedestrian-priority commercial high street and transit hub.
However, this years-long timeline could put more development projects on hold, if not cancelled, and discourage private investment as a means for not only reviving the GED but also for COVID-19 recovery.
“In recent years, Granville Street has been challenged by a lack of daytime activity, vacant storefronts and health and safety concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of these issues, creating a significant strain on local businesses,” reads the report.
“These changes have contributed to a growing interest from businesses, cultural organizations, and the community to re-envision the future of Granville Street, as highlighted in the feedback brought forward in public engagement for this proposed amendment and other recent initiatives. There is also strong interest from landowners on other blocks of Granville for redevelopment and reinvestment in the area.”
Additionally, city staff are proposing to introduce more residential density — with a focus on social housing and rental housing — along a two city block stretch of Granville Street between Drake Street and Helmcken Street, deemed as Area K3.
Currently, commercial and residential uses are permitted in Area K3, up to a maximum floor space ratio (FSR) density of a floor area 3.5 times the size of the lot. The changes would allow for increased density of up to 5.0 FSR, as long as 100% of the residential floor space is for either social housing or rental housing, with the stipulation that retail and restaurant uses will still be required for at least the ground level. As well, the density can only be applied to a site with a building constructed since 1930, and a maximum street frontage of 23 metres (75 ft).
Any changes to Area K3 would be subject to the public hearing process.
City staff note that several vacant or under-utilized sites in this area could be a redevelopment option for property owners and that the proposed amendments are “modest.”
But Charles Gauthier, the president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, says he would like to see more flexibility and an expedited timeline that reflects the challenging and urgent realities of the GED.
He is also concerned about mixing more residential space into Granville Street, and the resulting potential loss of the potential for a stronger commercial presence on the strip.
There is a history in downtown Vancouver of residents in newer buildings complaining about excess noise and light from pre-existing businesses in the entertainment district and other commercial areas.
Gauthier wants to see any existing floor area of commercial space on development sites replaced as a requirement of the redevelopment, such as mixed-use buildings with street-level retail and restaurants, and several floors of office or hotel. This combination has seen some success in Yaletown and Gastown.
Hotels within the upper floors of these redevelopments should be encouraged, given that there is a shortage of affordable accommodation options in downtown to support the eventual rebound of Vancouver’s significant tourism industry.
Kerry Bonnis, whose namesake company Bonnis Properties, is behind the major 800 Granville Street commercial-only proposal at the northern end of city staff’s proposed planning area, says it is ill-advised to replace and displace existing and potential commercial space.
“It’s an entertainment district, and it’s where we celebrate, as we saw with the 2010 Olympics. It has bright signs and relaxed sign bylaws, it’s supposed to be a place of vitality and vibrancy. It’s wrong to subject residents to the noise and festivities of the commercial street,” said Bonnis in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized.
“Vancouver is 115 sq km, we do not understand the logic of trying to put residential on what is historically and currently a commercial street when you could put residential anywhere else. We’re concerned that people who have tough times and need the help of our city and our fellow citizens, including the mentally ill, are being housed on a commercial street.”
He says social housing and supportive housing should be located in residential-primary areas, allowing residents to be integrated with the fabric of a normal residential neighbourhood.
“We don’t understand why they should be isolated on commercial streets, it’s not good for them and it’s not good for the city’s commerce,” he added.
Currently, there are four existing buildings in Area K3 containing a total of 21 rental units, with all four buildings constructed before 1930, which means they would not be eligible for additional social housing and rental housing density under the proposed changes.
Additionally, there are three single-room occupancy buildings with a combined total of 239 rooms in K3, but these buildings are ineligible for reasons of their pre-1930 construction and city policies preventing loss of low-income housing. Two buildings are occupied and one building is vacant.
The newest supportive housing addition to Area K3 is the former Howard Johnson Hotel at 1176 Granville Street, acquired by the provincial government last year and now known as the “Lugaat.”
There is also a rental building at 1138 Granville Street with 106 rental homes, completed in 2012, but it is outside Area K3.
Near the southern end of K3, close to the north end of the Granville Street Bridge, there are two strata-owned residential buildings.