Affordability and urban design were among the concerns raised by over a dozen speakers who addressed Vancouver city council Tuesday (February 19) at a public hearing on a West End rezoning application.
More than 50 people were signed up to speak to the proposed in-fill development of 133 rental units at the Beach Towers complex, located at 1600 Beach Avenue and 1651 Harwood Street.
A crowd of dozens watched the proceedings from the town hall room on the first level of city hall, as audio problems in the council chambers forced the relocation of the hearing.
West End resident Tom Heffron told council that his neighbourhood has been “under the cloud of this rezoning proposal” and a previous plan for the site.
“The costs are many, ranging from erosion of property values and privacy in the adjacent buildings, and the undermining of a heritage site that was carefully designed to balance height and openness,” he stated.
“What I see is the creation of new luxury rental units on a privileged site, for a relatively small number of high-income individuals, and I’m troubled by the fact that all the negatives of the proposal, and the disruption to many people, is not off-set by what I would consider a significant social good.”
The property is not listed on the city’s heritage register, but was recognized in Vancouver’s “recent landmarks” inventory as having heritage value for its “contribution to the development of the West End, as a cultural landscape, and for its architectural design,” according to a staff report to council.
Many speakers expressed their concerns Tuesday evening about the affordability of the proposed new rental units.
Christine Ackermann, the president of the West End Residents’ Association, noted her organization supports the creation of rental units over condos. But she asked council to consider a model that would see one-third of the units rented as affordable housing, one-third priced at market rental, and the remaining units at luxurious rental prices.
In an interview, Ackermann noted that $38,500 is the median income for the West End. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s definition of housing affordability as 30 percent of income would translate to a rental rate of about $950 a month.
“We want starting rents in a third of the building at $950 a month for the one bedrooms,” she told the Straight.
The development is being considered by council under the former Short-Term Incentives for Rental Housing program. According to Abigail Bond, the city’s assistant director of housing policy, the goal of the STIR program was to provide affordable market rentals for moderate income households that can’t afford home ownership in Vancouver.
A staff report to council indicates that the proposed rents, ranging from $1,125 to $1,310 for a studio, to $1,390 to $2,600 for a one bedroom, to $1,900 to $2,720 for a two-bedroom, are similar to or “marginally higher” than the average price for condo rentals in the area.
Ackermann said some West End residents will be able to afford the proposed rents, but “most won’t”.
While the majority of speakers voiced concerns about the project, some stated their support for the proposal, including Duncan Wlodarczak, who is part of the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee.
“As a renter I just think it’s vitally important…to not only maintain but replenish the existing rental stock that’s aging in the West End, most of it built between 30 and 40 years ago,” he told council.
He also argued that many factors should be considered when calculating affordability, including the cost of transportation.
In addition to the issue of affordability, other topics raised by speakers Tuesday evening included criticism of the consultation process, and the potential effects of shadowing on neighbouring homes as a result of the proposed development.
Stephen Bohus, who is on the speaker's list to address council when the public hearing is reconvened, said the issue is really "about urban form". He argued the proposal will create too much density on the site and not enough open space.
"This proposal, if it goes ahead, will substantially detract from the West End," he said in an interview. "It will compromise the heritage value of those buildings, it will impact the liveability of the West End and the connection to the waterfront…purely from an urban design point of view, it shouldn’t be approved."
Diana Matrick told council the proposal should be put on hold until a collective discussion is held as part of the West End community plan.
“As a community, we need to have a discussion of what spaces we would like protected by the terms defined by the new community plan," she said.
Council will continue hearing from speakers on the Beach Towers proposal this evening (February 20).