Offices, rental homes, and retail eyed for Army & Navy Vancouver redevelopment

Apr 12 2023, 5:00 pm

Nearly two years after it was first made publicly known that a redevelopment would be pursued for the former Army & Navy department store complex in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the proponents have revealed a preliminary concept to seek public feedback.

Up until Army & Navy’s permanent closure in Spring 2020 triggered by the pandemic, for over a century, the uses of this site — growing over time — have provided Gastown and the Downtown Eastside with an economic engine.

With the changing retail landscape and the area’s challenging realities, it beckons a reimagination of the complex, which uniquely fronts both West Hastings Street and West Cordova Street, to reestablish itself as a much-needed anchor of activity for the area.

Ahead of the on-site public open house today from noon to 6 pm, the proponents have shared with Daily Hive Urbanized their vision of the department store’s evolution into The Cohen Block, which would introduce a range of mixed uses and increased density.

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Preliminary conceptual rendering of the north parcel of the redevelopment of the Army & Navy department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the heritage West Cordova Street facade and stepped office tower shown. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties)

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Preliminary conceptual rendering of the north and south parcels of the redevelopment of the Army & Navy department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a cross-section depiction. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties/Daily Hive photo)

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Site of the redevelopment of the former Army & Navy Vancouver department store for the redevelopment into The Cohen Block. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties)

On the West Cordova Street lot, the north parcel of the department store, there will be an emphasis on generating employment space. The 1893-built heritage facade will be fully retained and restored, and a stepped tower will rise above the three-storey heritage podium. The stepped tower’s east volume is nine storeys, the centre volume is 10 storeys, and the west volume is 11 storeys.

Altogether, the north parcel will contain 18,800 sq ft of retail/restaurant uses on the ground level, and 225,500 sq ft of office space — including some non-profit office space — within the upper two heritage levels and in the stepped tower addition above. The density will be supported by 209 vehicle parking stalls and 128 bike parking spaces.

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Army & Navy’s north parcel at 36 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. (BC Assessment)

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Army & Navy’s north parcel at 36 West Cordova Street, Vancouver. (Google Maps)

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Preliminary conceptual rendering of the north parcel of the redevelopment of the Army & Navy department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the heritage West Cordova Street facade and stepped office tower shown. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties)

Residential uses will be the focus for the smaller south parcel, the West Hastings Street lot. There will be a 17-storey tower on the south parcel, containing 155 secured purpose-built rental homes, including 111 market units and 44 affordable rental units. The affordable housing component entails 28 below-market units and 16 units offered at deep subsidy rents at BC Housing’s income limits.

The south parcel also includes 2,500 sq ft of retail uses on the ground level and a 5,000 sq ft childcare facility for 37 kids on the base podium’s top floor, plus 78 vehicle parking stalls and 277 bike parking spaces.

BC Indigenous Housing Society, previously known as the Vancouver Native Housing Society, has been selected as the operator for both the affordable housing component and the childcare facility, which will prioritize the needs of local Indigenous individuals and families.

Since Spring 2022, a portion of the existing department store building in the south parcel has been temporarily used as “The Osborn” — an interim homeless shelter with a capacity for 60 people, operated 24/7 by PHS Community Services Society.

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Army & Navy’s south parcel at 15 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. (BC Assessment)

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Army & Navy’s south parcel at 15 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. The temporary homeless shelter, The Osborn, is located in this portion of the former department store. (Google Maps)

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Preliminary conceptual rendering of the south parcel of the redevelopment of the Army & Navy department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with the West Hastings Street facade shown. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties)

Unlike the West Cordova Street facade, there is no remaining heritage value for the West Hastings Street facade.

The laneway bisecting the north and south parcels could be activated, such as the possibility with laneway-fronting retail and restaurant units.

The redevelopment design, incorporating mass timber materials, is created by Michael Green Architecture and Arcadis IBI Group.

The Cohen Block carries the namesake of the family that has owned Army & Navy since its inception in 1919. Jacqui Cohen, the granddaughter of founder Sam Cohen, is the president and CEO of Army & Navy Properties, and her family has partnered with Colin Bosa, the CEO of local development firm Bosa Properties, to realize this project.

“I see it as a game changer for the whole city. I see it as a huge catalyst to reinvigorate and renew the immediate area, which will affect the whole city. We all know what’s going on at Hastings Street, we’re all uncomfortable with it. The approval of this project will be a game changer for everybody, and a dream come true certainly for me and my family.” Cohen told Daily Hive Urbanized.

Bosas added: “We want to bring commerce back to the area. Jacqui’s family ran Army & Navy for 101 years, and now it would be in a different form. Along with the secured market rental housing, including deeply affordable units, these are all things that are desperately needed in the area.

This redevelopment concept has emerged from over 18 months of consultation with local community stakeholders, with the project’s three established objectives being local commerce, heritage preservation, and housing and affordability. Bosa first began the pre-application policy enquiry process with City of Vancouver staff in October 2021, and they are now preparing to submit the formal rezoning application over the coming months, possibly in May.

The proposal will be considered by Vancouver City Council without the support of City staff.

It is noted that due to highly restrictive City policies, there are some major challenges with achieving a redevelopment containing such scope and uses to realize the economic and housing benefits, never mind pursuing an even more ambitious project.

The north parcel on West Cordova Street is affected by the existing HA-2 Heritage Policy, which restricts the maximum height of any heritage building to its existing height to a maximum of 75 ft. But the proposed stepped office tower height of up to 149 ft exceeds this height restriction by two times.

For the south parcel on West Hastings Street, the proposed rental housing tower carries a height of 169.5 ft, as this is the maximum height possible under the protected mountain view cones of J1.1 and J1.2, which emanate from East False Creek’s Creekside Park immediately north of Science World.

In the City’s view cone policy, it is noted that these view cones are currently “partially obscured by vegetation and the playground” at the park, but “regular parks maintenance and future park plans should restore the full views from this point.”

During the on-site tour, Bosa told Daily Hive Urbanized that they would be open to achieving more density through added height to generate more benefits and uses.

“We would be comfortable building a taller building if the view cone weren’t in place,” said Bosa, before adding that “there’s already enough non-conforming aspects of this project than to go through the view cone, which would make it even more challenging.”

“But if City Council said they want to see more housing, we’d definitely look at it.”

As for the choice to include a significant amount of office space — enough to hold thousands of office workers — as one of the primary uses for the project, Bosa says this use is intended to meet the expected office demand over the longer run.

He says if all goes according to their timeline, the redevelopment would be complete in about six years, and at that point the office market will be over the current hump and see stabilization.

“What we’re proposing is tall timber, so this is new generation office space with full amenities for tenants,” said Bosa, adding that the large office floor plates will appeal to tech and creative businesses.

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Protected mountain view cones of J1.1 and J1.2 emanating from the Creekside Park playground immediately next to Science World. (City of Vancouver)

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Protected mountain view cones of J1.1 and J1.2 emanating from the Creekside Park playground immediately next to Science World. (City of Vancouver)

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Protected mountain view cone J1.1 and J1.2 limiting the potential height of the south parcel of the Army & Navy Vancouver redevelopment. (Michael Green Architecture/Arcadis IBI Group/Army & Navy Properties/Bosa Properties/Daily Hive photo)

As currently proposed, The Cohen Block would still be the single largest redevelopment in the area since the 2009 completion of the Woodwards redevelopment, located just a block to the west.

It is also far larger than Westbank’s Blood Alley mixed-use complex immediately to the north, just across the road, at 23 West Cordova Street. Blood Alley complex, which recently reached completion, has a height of up to 10 storeys, and its uses include a 600-person music venue in the basement operated by Live Nation, significant retail/restaurant uses at ground level, 62 market rental homes, and 80 social housing units operated by Portland Hotel Society in partnership with BC Housing. As well, the municipal government is currently in the process of completing its Blood Alley Square renovations with a new open and event-friendly design

If the City is willing to consider it, the proponents suggest they could potentially incorporate a mid-block pedestrian connection through the complex to align with the mid-block pedestrian connection of the Blood Alley project — a continuous mid-block connection linking West Hastings Street, West Cordova Street, and Blood Alley Square, where there is also a mid-block pedestrian connection through the Water Street Garage complex to reach Water Street.

Together, the commercial uses and new density introduced by both the Cohen Block and Blood Alley developments carry synergies for bringing much-needed activity to Gastown and the Downtown Eastside.

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Blood Alley complex at 23 West Cordova Street in Gastown, which is the location of Blood Alley Music Hall. Construction progress as of March 23, 2023. Perspective looking south from Blood Alley Square towards Army & Navy’s West Cordova Street frontage. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

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