Homeless in Vancouver: Going for Broadway line bucks and other real estate developments

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      Checking the online real estate advertising for the Fairview and Kitsilano neighbourhoods, where I spend the majority of my time, I see there are some 25 current listings, representing 32 commercial properties, that are either up for sale or shown as having been sold.

      In case you want to explore for yourself, I’ve put them on a Google Map for easy reference.

      I also see that real-estate agents are under no obligation to date their online listings and what appear to be recent property sales can be two or three years old.

      While this is annoying, I think that even this outdated information can be useful for helping one to keep track the changing face of the neighbourhood.

      While it’s true that not every sale of an old building leads to a redevelopment, virtually every redevelopment does begin with the sale of an old building. And a developer who buys a building may take a few years to get all their ducks in a row before they can begin.

      Francesco Aquilini bought the site of the 87-year-old Santa Fe apartment building back in 2012, in order to redevelop it. What with development plans and hearings, construction on the redevelopment didn’t begin until spring of 2015 and continues even as I write.

      Banking on the Broadway SkyTrain extension

      The south side of the 1800 block West Broadway and the 60 percent that's up for sale.
      Google Maps

      The most noteworthy real estate listings I found may be for two property sales located just outside the western boundary of Fairview, in Kitsilano.

      One is huge—most of one side of an entire block. Both listings are promoting the fact that they’re mere blocks from what is expected to be the location of a transit station at the western end of a much-talked about Skytrain subway tunnel running under West Broadway.

      The really huge sale involves six of the 10 lots on the south side of the 1800 block of West Broadway. The asking price has not been disclosed but the six side-by-side lots, equaling 300 feet of prime retail frontage, have a combined assessed value of $32,961,800! Based on the general relationship I see between assessments and asking prices, I doubt that the seller is looking for less that $48.4 million.

      The real estate agent for the sale, Colliers International, lists as one of the key features the “potential Broadway line transit station anticipated to be located within three blocks (5 minutes’ walking distance) of the Property”.

      Five blocks southwest of the 1800 block of West Broadway Avenue (and less than a block from Blenheim Imports at 2075 West 12th Avenue, which has reportedly just sold to a developer), Varsity Automotive is moving from the southeast corner lot at 2880 Arbutus Street. The company has done business on this corner since 1970. Colliers is handling the sale of the property.

      Again there is no listed asking price but the Varsity property has a current combined land and building assessment of $9,328,800. As with the promotion of the six lots in the 1800 block of West Broadway, Colliers is playing the tunnel card, promoting the site’s “immediate proximity” to the Broadway transportation corridor and a “future transit station”.

      Technically, there is no “future transit station” because the Broadway Skytrain extension out to the University of British Columbia is still just a plan in need of hundreds of millions of dollars of funding before it can begin to become a reality.

      However, who doubts that it will go ahead or that it will lead to the sale and redevelopment of a lot more property along West Broadway than just the south side of the 1800 block?

      Both of these sellers are clearly banking on the inevitability of the Skytrain extension. It will be interesting to see if they find buyers and at what price.

      Two oldtimers on redevelopment watch list

      Oak Properties at 3050 Oak Street dates from 1927.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Two of Fairview’s old streetcar-era apartment buildings, built in the 1920s along Oak Street, have changed hands in the last two-and-a-half years.

      The younger of the two buildings dates from 1927. This is the three-storey, 12-unit, stucco apartment building at 3050 Oak Street, which is listed as having sold at an unspecified date (probably 2013) for $1,600,000. This a little less than the 2015 land value of $1,687,000 and far below this year’s combined land and improvement value of $3,364,000.

      The 89-year-old structure can be seen in a set of archival 1929 photos, one of which I used to create a “then and now” comparison.

      Charlotte Court at 1006 West 12th Avenue dates to 1922.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      The older of the two buildings is just three blocks north along Oak Street at 1006 West 12th Avenue. Built in 1922, Charlotte Court is a stately three-storey stucco apartment building that's been a fixture on the southwest corner of the intersection with 12th Avenue for just six years short of a century. The property was sold in 2013 for $4,230,000, over $400,000 below its current land and improvement value of $4,665,000.

      A building with all kinds of tile and style!

      The 55-year-old building at 2910 Alder Street.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      I can’t tell you how sad I was to see that the apartment building at 2910 Alder Street has been put up for sale. The asking price is $13,168,000 (described as reduced). The property’s combined land and building assessment is $8,885,000.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      This four-storey, 36-unit, concrete building was built in 1961. Essentially it’s a straight-sided box surfaced with alternating building-height panels of mustard yellow stucco and ceramic tile mosaic work in two colours—a ground of redish-ochre tile, picked out with repeating pen-line verticals of white tile.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Many of the suites have slim balconies with spidery black wrought-iron railings, which, in turn, are echoed by the fine black line of a parapet-style railing around the perimeter of the roof.

      In my eyes at least, this building is a modest exemplar of taste and style. I love it. And I have to say that its owners have maintained it beautifully!

      The Winston at 1396 West 11th Avenue.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Finally, two apartment buildings on the southeast corner of 11th Avenue and Hemlock Street—the Greenwood Lodge and the Winston, at 1386 & 1396 West 11th Avenue respectively, are being sold together for $10,700,000.

      The two-storey, 9-unit, Greenwood was built 104 years ago in 1912 while the two-storey, 20-unit, Winston is only 91 years old, having been built in 1925. The two properties have a combined land and property assessment of $7,327,000.

      Old age catches up with the Fairview neighbourhood

      The degree to which Fairview is both livable and affordable has much to do with the neighbourhood’s large percentage of 60- to 80-year-old apartment buildings and storefronts.

      However, the fact that so many old buildings survive in such good condition is due to continual maintenance, paid for by high rents and leases, justified, both by the overall desirability of the area and, in some cases, by the well-kept-up buildings themselves.

      Many owners of the surviving streetcar-era apartment buildings that were built in the 1920s along the streets Oak and Hemlock, assiduously preserve their buildings’ fittings and character in order to profitably cater to the select crowd of renter who happily pay a real premium to live in such authentic heritage apartments.

      These 1920s apartment buildings—built to the high standards of their day, with fabulous plaster work and custom fittings, not to mention big old growth timber beams, in expectation of handling tons and tons of cast-iron tubs and stoves—are arguably the cream of the crop of Fairview’s old housing stock. But even the younger, less well-made “dingbat buildings” of the post-Second World War era are highly maintained, or so it seems.

      In my 11 years of binning through the alleys of the Fairview neighbourhood I’ve watched all the cycles of building maintenance and renovation play out on dozens of old apartment buildings—the reroofing, the repainting, the rebalconying.

      I’ve also watched, with a mixture of dismay, disapproval (and some understanding), a handful of renovictions, where all the tenants are kicked out to allow a top-to-bottom upgrade of a building, followed by a huge increase in rents.

      Any degree of affordability to Fairview rents is actually imposed by the age of the buildings. There is a ceiling on how much landlords can get away with charging for suites in very elderly buildings, no matter how well-kept-up they are, especially considering how many of these building don’t have all the mod cons, such as elevators.

      The truth is that there comes a point when the owner of every early 20th-century apartment building or storefront in Fairview is no longer able justify the high rents needed to both turn a profit, pay the taxes, and maintain the high quality of the building, which (coming full circle) is absolutely necessary in order to justify the high rents.

      This is is where spot renovations and all-out renovictions come into play but eventually, even these won’t work. A point will come when the only economically sensible thing to do is either sell or redevelop.

      Arguably, all of Fairview’s early- to mid-20th-century buildings are living on borrowed time—especially those cheaply-built, California-style, stucco-clad boxes from the 1950s and early 1960s. No elevators, no underground parking; not equipped to receive fibre-optic Internet and TV service. How prehistoric!

      Consider the effort and diminishing returns of trying to keep such buildings competitive as they get farther and farther past their sell-by date, combined with the tax burden of ever-rising property assessments. And compare that grind with the giant payday and freedom offered by just giving in and selling out to developers.

      What do you think a Fairview owner (often a family rather than a company) sitting on such aging property would do?

      I really think that the Broadway Skytrain extension, when and if it gets real, could be the extinction event that wipes out whole species of dinosaur buildings along the Broadway corridor—from three-storey walk-up apartment buildings to the dozens of old low-rise storefronts along West Broadway, like the two-storey Naffzinger block in the 500 block.

      Personally, I will mourn the passing of the old buildings more for the loss of character than any reduction in affordability. Remember, I’m homeless. I can’t possibly afford to rent or own anything in the Fairview neighbourhood, I just live there. If nothing else, I like to have interesting buildings to look at.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.