Transformative redevelopment envisioned for Vancouver's Army & Navy building

Jul 23 2021, 10:14 pm

The historic Army & Navy store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside permanently shuttered in Spring 2020 during the height of the pandemic’s economic toll, but the family that owned and operated the department store has no plans to walk away from the location after their continuous presence that now exceeds a century.

They are looking to redevelop the property to bring back the site’s longtime function as a community hub, and in the process provide the area with a much-needed major catalyst for revitalization.

It would be the single largest redevelopment in the area since the 2009 completion of the Woodwards redevelopment, located just a block to the west.

The Army & Navy’s former complex uniquely punctures through the city block, fronting both West Cordova Street and West Hastings Street.

The larger north parcel at 36 West Cordova Street, with a four-storey building, containing over 100,000 sq ft of total floor area, was first built in 1893. It still boasts a heritage brick frontage, spanning a considerable street frontage length of 245 ft (75 metres).

However, the south parcel, a 1913-built, five-storey building at 15 West Hastings Street with about 35,000 sq ft of total floor area, has lost all of its heritage value over the years due to decades-old retrofits that removed the original facades. Currently, this smaller building is leased to the municipal government and BC Housing for use as a temporary homeless shelter with a capacity for up to 60 people. The shelter opened this past spring as part of a broader strategy to end homeless encampments.

the cohen block army and navy

Site of The Cohen Block, comprised of both the north and south parcels of the former Army & Navy at 36 West Cordova Street (top) and 15 West Hastings Street (bottom).(Bosa Properties)

army and navy 15 west hastings street vancouver

South parcel of the former Army & Navy building at 15 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. (Google Maps)

Both the north and south buildings — on a combined lot size of 1.2 acres — are directly connected by both an underground tunnel and a multi-level elevated bridge over the laneway.

During an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized on Tuesday, both Jacqui Cohen and Colin Bosa shared some of their early ideas and directions for their partnership on the proposed redevelopment. Cohen’s grandfather, Sam, opened the department store in 1919, and she is the president and CEO of Army & Navy Properties. Bosa is the CEO of the namesake major real estate development firm, Bosa Properties.

Their partnership began last year after Cohen began inquiring about developers shortly after the closure of the store.

“My roots and heart are just in this block,” said Cohen, describing this as her family’s legacy project, which will be aptly named “The Cohen Block.”

“We just began the process, and it has been amazing so far. I’m feeling a lot of positive energy from this partnership.”

Bosa explained that they were not only attracted to this property because of its large size and potential to help revitalize the Downtown Eastside, but also because of the history of the Cohen family.

“When we saw Jacqui’s family’s commitment to the area, there’s not many people in the Lower Mainland that are that committed long term… it’s just really rare,” he said.

“As a family, we think multigenerational and we see long term, and so to see the Cohen family not even talk about it but demonstrate it, we knew we shared similar values in that respect. We were really attracted to that.”

army and navy 36 west cordova street vancouver

North parcel of the former Army & Navy building at 36 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. The north parcel features the heritage facade for preservation. (Google Maps)

Both partners have agreed on redevelopment principles that focus on community and inclusiveness — attracting families, children, and young professionals such as tech workers to the area — while also ensuring the project is economically feasible to build.

There would be affordable and market rental housing components, but unlike Woodwards, there would not be any strata units in The Cohen Block. Office, retail, restaurant, and community spaces are also being contemplated to generate employment and vibrancy.

The laneway that divides the properties has been deemed as an integral piece of the redevelopment, with early ideas for the activation of this public space entailing retail and restaurant frontage, public art, and “cultural aspects.”

Bosa says the laneway will certainly be activated, but at this point it is too early to determine whether the proposal will include elevated or underground connections between the parcels across the laneway.

army and navy 36 west cordova street vancouver

The laneway separating the Army & Navy site at 36 West Cordova Street (right) and 15 West Hastings Street (left), with both buildings connected underground and by a skybridge. (Google Maps)

Although a retail component is intended, Cohen has dismissed any possibility of bringing back a downsized revival of the Army & Navy in the redevelopment, especially with the ever-changing and highly competitive nature of the contemporary retail landscape. The department store has, for certain, ended its run after 101 storied years.

However, Cohen suggested the project’s design could incorporate nostalgic elements of Army & Navy.

The team has contracted Michael Green Architects for the creation of a design concept that uses mass timber, and preserves and restores the heritage facade along West Cordova Street.

“In our city, facades like this are so unique. I would argue that this facade is one of the nicest in Vancouver from a heritage perspective, and that will be another key focus on the development,” said Bosa.

The team is currently inviting the public to share ideas and provide input to help them create the plans for the future of the Army & Navy site by email: [email protected]

No formal rezoning application has been submitted to the municipal government, but the proponents intend to submit their pre-enquiry rezoning plans in August.

“We’re committed to moving this forward as quickly as we can. What we’re focused on is the city has objectives on what’s important to them, and we’re doing our best to meet those objectives,” said Cohen.

homeless shelters

The former Army & Navy store at 15 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. (Google Maps)

With all that said, the area is already seeing some changes in the right direction. Immediately north of Army & Navy’s north building, just across the street, is Westbank’s 33 West Cordova Street redevelopment, currently under construction.

This is a smaller project, but it is not insignificant, with a 10-storey building preserving the West Cordova Street heritage facade of the previous buildings, containing 142 homes — 80 social housing units and 62 market rental units — and retail, restaurant, and entertainments on the ground and single basement levels. Additionally, the project establishes major public realm improvements by incorporating a publicly accessible mid-block connection to reach Blood Alley on the north side of the property, which is also set for a redesign by the municipal government.

33 West Cordova Street Vancouver

Artistic rendering of 33 West Cordova, Vancouver. (Henriquez Partners Architects/Westbank)

westbank blood alley 33 west cordova street vancouver construction march 2021

March 2021 construction progress of the 33 West Cordova Street redevelopment next to Blood Alley. (Google Maps)

Prior to its closure, Army & Navy had multiple locations, including a substantial property in downtown New Westminster at 502 Columbia Street — a 1901-built, four-storey building on a 37,000 sq ft lot that spans a significant length of the riverfront block. The 74,000 sq ft building is currently leased to a school for a five-year term.

Cohen says she is currently focusing on one project site at a time, but is excited about what the prospects are in the future for the New Westminster property.

Aside from The Cohen Block, other Bosa projects within Vancouver currently entail a pair of towers with 575 rental homes proposed for the east side of the intersection of Harwood Street and Thurlow Street. His firm is also planning to submit a formal application soon to the city for a rental housing project at the southeast corner of the intersection of Barclay Street and Thurlow Street, which would replace the previous proposal for twin condominium towers designed by German firm Buro Ole Scheeren.

Both of Bosa’s proposed redevelopments along Thurlow Street are made possible by Vancouver City Council’s decision in late 2020 that granted developers in the area permission to propose market rental housing with a below-market rental housing component, instead of condominiums with a social housing component plus a significant community amenity contribution. The latter option was deemed no longer economically feasible due to the prolonged poor market conditions at the time of the decision.

Bosa also has projects in Coal Harbour, including the Fifteen Fifteen condominium tower, which is set to launch in Fall 2021.

army and navy west hastings street vintage

Vintage photo of Army & Navy at 36 West Hastings Street, Vancouver during its heyday. (Army & Navy)

army and navy west hastings street vintage

Vintage photo of Army & Navy at 36 West Hastings Street, Vancouver during its heyday. (Army & Navy)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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