City trades density for music school

Vancouver city council's planning and environment committee has granted approval-in-principle to the largest cultural-amenity density bonus in the city's history. As part of the deal at 819 Seymour Street, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will get a new music school and community groups will have access to new rehearsal space.

Pending approval by the development permit board, MacDonald Development Corp. would be permitted to build an additional 248,192 square feet of density on the site, which includes the now-closed Capitol 6 Theatres. The company plans to build a 42-storey mixed-use development, according to a city staff report.

VSO chair Art Willms, a former pipeline-company executive, told the committee on July 21 that the proposed cultural amenity bonus would offer "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to enhance the quality of life in downtown Vancouver. Willms also quipped that after the 24,568-square-foot school is built, he might take up the piano again to keep his mind active.

He noted that the VSO already performs 10 educational programs each year, which reach 50,000 young people. He said that a new school on the site will exponentially increase that number, and provide opportunities for musicians to make more money through teaching.

"It will be the most modern and technically advanced school in the entire world," Willms said.

MacDonald Development Corp. has agreed to expand the stage at the city-owned Orpheum Theatre by 7,131 square feet, and build a 14,873-square-foot rehearsal room and a 150-seat studio theatre for the city. In addition, the company will provide $1,885,918, which will offset operating expenses.

"As a 30-year patron of the Vancouver Symphony, I believe this Orpheum Theatre and music-school expansion project is an important public amenity," developer Rob MacDonald told the committee. "We appreciate the opportunity of developing it for the benefit of the city."

According to the city's director of current planning, Larry Beasley, heritage density is now selling for between $50 to $60 per buildable square foot. This means that the gross value of MacDonald Development Corp.'s density bonus could be between $12.4 million and $14.9 million, not counting the cost of building the new facilities and providing the operating grant.

In other VSO news, on July 25 the Vancouver park board approved a free summer concert by the orchestra at Lumberman's Arch in Stanley Park. The concert will take place next Sunday (August 7).