Court petition details $15-million “secret” land swap in Vancouver
The City of Vancouver agreed to swap a $15-million downtown property for a developer’s lot across the street worth $8.4 million.
The trade was provided for in a contract entered into by city hall and Brenhill Developments Limited, according to a court submission filed Thursday (July 3) by the Community Association of New Yaletown.
The document is an amended version of the association’s May 6 petition for a judicial review of actions taken the city in connection with the deal.
The claims made in the petition have not been proven in court.
The swap involved the city-owned lot at 508 Helmcken Street. Brenhill wants to build a 36-storey mixed-used building with 454 residential units on the property.
In return, Brenhill will transfer ownership of its smaller lot across the street at 1099 Richards Street.
As part of the deal, the developer will replace the 87 units of social housing in the three-storey Jubilee House located on the city’s Helmcken property. It will construct 162 public-housing units in a new 13-storey building on the Richards property.
The land exchange contract provides that to complete the transaction, the city must rezone the Helmcken property so Brenhill can realize its development plan.
Council eventually approved the rezoning of 508 Helmcken Street, increasing its allowed density by almost six times.
The amended petition recalls that based on a city staff report, Brenhill approached the city with the land exchange proposal in 2011.
The same report also stated that the city will “contribute” $6.6 million “from the proceeds of sale of 508 Helmcken towards the construction of the new social housing project at 1099 Richards”.
According to the revised petition, the land exchange contract dated January 28, 2013, is “of no force and effect” because it goes beyond the powers of the city under the Vancouver Charter.
The document points out that the statute mandates that council “may only dispose of property valued at more than $400,000 by affirmative vote of two-thirds of all members of Council”.
The association’s lawyer, Nathalie Baker, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that there are no records indicating that council cast such a vote authorizing the land deal.
The amended petition also argues that the contract “constitutes an unlawful fettering” of council’s discretion because of its provision for the rezoning of 508 Helmcken Street.
It notes that the city is “in effect selling density”, which municipalities can’t do “in the absence of provincial legislation implementing a different public policy”.
“They cannot agree to change zoning in return for particular consideration, and they cannot agree to keep zoning unchanged in return for particular consideration,” the revised petition states.
The contract is one of six documents released by the city after the association filed its May 6 petition for a judicial review by the B.C. Supreme Court.
The documents were not made public by the city before it held a public hearing on July 16, 2013, regarding the developer’s rezoning proposal for 508 Helmcken Street.
“They were critical to understanding the rezoning application,” the petition states. “However, none of these were disclosed until after the filing of the within Petition.”
Over the phone, Baker said that the land contract “goes to the very heart of the rezoning”.
“We’re alleging that the city basically sold density to the developer through a very complex, sort of secret land swap deal, and that the public had a right to know about this contract and other agreements prior to the public hearing,” Baker said.
“And we say that the failure to disclose those documents, which were sort of central to the rezoning application,” Baker continued, “effectively denied the public the right to make meaningful submissions to council.”
According to Baker, the case is scheduled for a three-day trial starting on August 18.