Globe and Mail: Westbank increases heights of contentious tower proposal next to Vancouver’s Commercial Drive SkyTrain station

“Affordability is the No. 1 issue, absolutely,” says resident. “It does not lead to a welcoming, appealing gateway entrance to east Vancouver….There is so much potential for making it something really special, having real vision.”

Globe and Mail article February 7, 2024. Linked here (paywall) or read below:




Rendering of Westbank’s Broadway and Commercial proposal.WESTBANK

The developer behind a proposal to build three residential towers along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor near Commercial Drive have submitted yet another version of their plans with even higher towers – but this time composed entirely of rental units rather than condos.

The proposed site, on what is now a Safeway grocery store that would also be redeveloped, is important because it is next to the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station, which connects two of Vancouver’s rapid-transit lines. It’s also in the heart of the Commercial Drive neighbourhood on the city’s east side and has the potential to transform it. The question is how it will transform the area.

The proposal at 1780 E. Broadway from developer Westbank and landowner Crombie REIT now includes three towers at 35, 36 and 39 storeys above a retail podium level. A little more a year ago, in 2022, they were at 31, 34 and 38 storeys, which was already several storeys higher than what was proposed in 2019. There have been several updates to the plan.

The increase is to accommodate 981 secured purpose-built rental units, says architect Peter Busby. The new focus on rentals is a response to policies that have come along in recent years designed to incentivize greater density around transit hubs.

“The city approved the Broadway corridor plan, and it provides these nodes of density around transit that are quite intense,” says Mr. Busby. “There was the thought that perhaps council would look at a higher density somewhere between Granville Woodland and the Broadway corridor.”

The site is close to, but not within, the city’s Broadway Plan, which ends a few blocks away at Clark Drive. Of the 981 rental units proposed, 99 units will be more affordable than the usual market rate rents.

The rezoning proposal includes a 20,000-square-foot public plaza that runs parallel to the SkyTrain station. The proposed floor-space ratio is now 7.9 times the size of the property, which is currently occupied by a Safeway store and parking lot. The city’s community plan calls for a floor-space ratio of 5.7.

Other changes include an extra 12,000 square feet of public space on a second level, which wasn’t in the original plan. There’s also a daycare for the nearly 1,000 units. The latest revisions revamped the look of the towers and made them more energy efficient, with an internal district energy system, says Mr. Busby.

He says the proponents are expecting a public open house before summer and a city council review of the project by fall.

“This has been going on for six years, a long time,” says Mr. Busby. “If you want affordable housing or rental housing, then approve it.”

The tension between the site owners and residents is less about heights and more about affordable housing and public space, say residents who had been involved in crafting the community plan. They feel that there are no community benefits on offer, especially for a project that is seeking considerably more density and height. The Drive is a unique neighbourhood with a large population of low-income renters and retailers who cater to that demographic, they argue. There is concern that the ultra-tall high-rises could set a precedent for the area, although they are open to towers. And there’s disappointment that only 10 per cent of units are below market rate.

“Affordability is the No. 1 issue, absolutely,” says resident Paisley Woodward. “If you are going to give away everything in the Grandview Woodland community plan, you should at least get affordability for it, and that’s not happening.”

She adds, however, that she also thinks the proposed towers are too high, warning that they will cast shadows over the neighbourhood.

“It does not lead to a welcoming, appealing gateway entrance to east Vancouver, which you could have at that site,” she says. “There is so much potential for making it something really special, having real vision, and for that, we need the decision-makers, the politicians, provincial and at the city, to get involved.”

Westbank declined an interview because the proposal is under city review, but they said in a statement that the proposal is in line with city and provincial housing policies.

“Our new proposal directly responds to Vancouver’s need for housing, while contributing to the city’s climate action goals and delivering important new additions including a daycare and expanded public realm,” the statement said.

About one-third of homes would be suitable for families. Westbank and Crombie REIT propose a much larger 50,000-square-foot Safeway store and other retail and office spaces at the podium level.

According to a recently released report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the average rent for a two-bedroom purpose-built apartment in Vancouver is $2,181. The rent for a two-bedroom condo is higher at $2,580. That’s the highest rent in Canada. The report says affordability has only worsened for low-income households. Supply of rental housing is not keeping up with demand due to immigration, as well as the 15- to 24-year-old demographic entering the job market, and the high cost of ownership.

“The first thing is, I’m glad to see Crombie and company are listening to the things we’ve been saying, and the community has been saying for a while, in that they are introducing daycare,” says Zakir Jamal Suleman, 30, who grew up in the neighbourhood.

“One of the things we’ve been mentioning from the beginning is that this is a neighbourhood with a large number of families, a large number of people who rely on daycare. … I’m glad they are starting now, 10 years in, to listen to folks about the amenities, and I think that speaks to how this process is still going, and has always gone, which is that we are trying to push for things we feel will benefit the community.”

However, he echoes concerns that the proposal doesn’t do enough to create housing that is not only below market rate, but at rates that people in the neighbourhood can afford.

“When you look at the built forms that make up the neighbourhood, that is one of the things that has enabled it to stay a haven for renters: those older buildings, those denser buildings, the social housing, and co-op housing,” he says.