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Municipal Politics

Density Drive Sparks Anger on Cambie

Will Vision tower push harm the party on voting day?

Bob Mackin 14 Nov

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous pieces published on the Tyee here.

Cambie Street is a seven-kilometre thoroughfare stretching from False Creek to Marine Drive, dividing east and west in Vancouver. Plans for a massive redevelopment of the Oakridge shopping mall, which is located on Cambie, have sparked anger from area residents, aimed squarely at the Vision party that approved it.

The development required the biggest single rezoning approved by Mayor Gregor Robertson's Vision party since it was elected in 2008.

The rezoning paves the way for the construction of 14 buildings in total -- up to 45 storeys tall -- on the 28-acre site. The development will include 2,334 market strata units, 290 social housing units and 290 market rentals by 2025. When completed, the new development would house about 6,000 people.

Under a restrictive covenant, 2.83 acres must be set aside for parkland.

The development falls in line with a philosophy called EcoDensity -- originally touted by former Mayor Sam Sullivan -- to densify Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Robertson originally disagreed with Sullivan's density vision, but has since adopted main tenets of the sustainability-through-density strategy.

However, the Oakridge proposal sparked anger among some residents who believed the development was too large. They also felt shut out of the planning process and united to fight the development, forming the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods group, to lobby for a bottom-up approach similar to the old City Plan that the NPA wants to bring back.

The rift between Vision and angry citizen groups could play a role in determining who holds power at 12th and Cambie for the next four years when voters decide this Saturday.

Development approved

The Oakridge rezoning was approved March 14 after four heated days of hearings. Green Party councillor Adriane Carr and NPA members George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball cast the only dissenting votes against the Vision majority, which tends to vote as a bloc.

Sixty-five speakers opposed the $1.5-billion project and 45 were in favour.

Opponent Glen Chernen feared that the 41st and Cambie site would become a Vancouver version of Burnaby's Metrotown mall-and-towers cluster.

Chernen, a Cedar Party city council candidate, believes the city got a bad deal for citizens by not extracting enough community amenity contributions from landlord Ivanhoe Cambridge and developer Westbank.

Chernen obtained, under the Freedom of Information process, the appraisal reports conducted on the land for the city. The appraisal was conducted by Altus Group.

Altus estimated the property was worth $186 million "as if vacant and unimproved." The report did not factor in the redevelopment proposal. It was dated Oct. 1, 2012, two weeks before the rezoning application was filed but seven months after the March 29, 2012 open house about the project.

Chernen got a second opinion from another appraiser to compare. He hired Aedis Appraisals which pegged the value of that 2.83-acre parcel, 10 per cent of the site, at $75 million in its January 2014 report. Based on that, Chernen estimates the entire property would be worth as much as $750 million.

The city's staff report to council said the value of the developer's community amenity contributions for social housing, a community centre, seniors centre, library and daycare would be $148.7 million of which $2.53 million is cash and the rest in-kind.

City hall watchers say it appears city appraisers underestimated the value of the land, which is surprising given the Vision party's past record of extracting maximum dollars from developers.

"It would be surprising that the City of Vancouver, given their policies in these areas, would lowball. That's not consistent with their general behavior, which is to extract every dollar that they can," said University of B.C. associate professor Tsur Somerville.

Chernen was provided only one valuation report from the city's FOI office and the difference between that one and his estimate was $423 million. He believes that means the city may have missed out on an estimated $274 million in community amenity contributions.

"Why are we subsidizing one of the largest developers in town?" asked Chernen.

Neither planning general manager Brian Jackson nor city manager Penny Ballem responded to an interview request. City hall Communications manager Tobin Postma refused to answer questions about the difference in the two appraisals. "In this situation we are not saying anything than what is available in the council documents," Postma said.

According to Vision Vancouver's Nov. 6-released list of donors, Westbank gave $15,000 since Jan. 1, 2014. Its consultant, Gary Pooni, gave $1,780 personally and $5,500 from his Brook Pooni Associates firm.

Density push at Marine Drive

Meanwhile, near the southern tip of Cambie St., resident Jillian Skeet has questions about another large redevelopment. It's Concord Pacific's proposal to replace townhouses with towers at 445 Southwest Marine Drive.

Skeet wonders if the developer also got a sweetheart deal.

Skeet lives in the 70-unit Marine Gardens complex, which was built as a showcase for the Vancouver-hosted United Nations Habitat conference in 1976. The townhouse complex is slated to be torn down and redeveloped by Concord Pacific, the developer of the old Expo 86 lands.

Residents have asked that it be saved.

Construction is underway on other corners of the Cambie St. and Marine Drive intersection where towers are rising above the Canada Line station.

Skeet hopes whoever forms the next city council turns back the clock and saves Marine Gardens from the wrecking ball.

Concord wants to build 21- and 27-storey towers and a seven-storey apartment block. All told, the development would include 514 market rentals and 70 affordable units that Concord says would replace those lost at Marine Gardens.

Skeet is angry because the development is not yet approved by city council and no public hearing has taken place. She and fellow residents have complained to British Columbia’s Office of the Ombudsperson, which includes local governments in its jurisdiction.

Skeet said the company is acting as if it already has the go-ahead to build. She said it has offered to pay $750 in moving expenses for those who want to leave now.

Concord Pacific is also offering the complex's residents first right of refusal on rental units that it said are capped at $1,750 for two bedrooms and $2,100 for three bedrooms in the new complex.

A two-bedroom, 1,100-square-foot townhouse at Marine Gardens was listed at $1,100 per month last spring.

Pacific Concord has donated $40,000 to Vision Vancouver in 2014, according to the party's list.

The city has told Marine Gardens residents that the townhouse complex can't be saved because that would contravene the city's goal to densify neighborhoods around transit stations.

In a 2013 letter to Skeet, planning general manager Brian Jackson said saving the townhouses "would not be considered an option" because it would contravene staff's goal to densify area surrounding transit stations. Those words shocked the Green Party's councillor Adriane Carr when she visited Marine Gardens on Nov. 6.

"To have the director of planning actually say it's not an option to retain it is circumventing the authority of council," Carr said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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