Last summer, urbanist Stephen Bohus raised questions about a Vancouver land swap. Writing online, Bohus wondered: did taxpayers get a bad deal? More specifically, did the public lose almost $45 million in the property switch?
After taking a look at the latest B.C. Assessment appraisals of the two downtown properties traded by the City of Vancouver and private company Brenhill Developments Limited, Bohus now believes that he wasn’t far off the mark.
“Is it more than just a bad deal?” Bohus further asked during a January 19 phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
In 2011, Brenhill approached city hall with a proposal to trade its property at 1077–1099 Richards Street for a city-owned plot of land at 508 Helmcken Street.
Brenhill wanted to build a 36-storey mixed-use tower at 508 Helmcken. In order for that to happen, the site had to be rezoned. In return for the city agreeing to the exchange, Brenhill would replace the social-housing building known as Jubilee House, located at 508 Helmcken Street. It would build a new public-housing facility at 1077–1099 Richards.
The two parties entered into a contract on January 28, 2013. In order to complete the transfer, Brenhill must finish the construction of the new social-housing facility on or before December 1, 2015. The agreement stipulated that the city property was worth $15 million and Brenhill’s was valued at $8.4 million, for a difference of $6.6 million, as estimated by the city’s real-estate department.
On July 23, 2013, council approved Brenhill’s rezoning application for 508 Helmcken Street.
The staff report that recommended the rezoning stated that the developer had offered a $25-million community-amenity-contribution package, with the largest component, $24 million, covering most of the $30.6-million construction cost of the new social-housing building on Richards Street. The city would kick in its $6.6-million proceeds from the exchange.
On May 6, 2014, a local neighbourhood association filed a petition for judicial review of the actions by the city in connection with the land deal. According to the Community Association of New Yaletown, the city did not disclose details of the swap when Brenhill’s rezoning application was subject to a 2013 public hearing.
Bohus, who doesn’t belong to CANY, lives in Mount Pleasant. He was present, however, on the fourth, and last, day of a B.C. Supreme Court hearing on the CANY petition, on August 29, 2014. That same day, Bohus, a trained landscape architect, posted a piece on the CityHallWatch blog about his estimates of the current value of the two properties.
According to Bohus, the rezoned 508 Helmcken Street likely would be valued at $74 million and 1077–1099 Richards Street should be worth $23 million, for a difference of $51 million. In his blog post, Bohus noted that there’s a huge discrepancy, more than $44 million, between his $51-million difference and the original $6.6-million city estimate of the difference in the values of the two properties.
This month, B.C. Assessment released its appraisal of the market value of properties across the province as of July 1, 2014. According to that, the city remains the owner of 508 Helmcken Street, which is now valued at more than $59 million. Brenhill’s Richards Street property now stands at $9.5 million. That’s a difference of almost $50 million, which is about $44 million more than the city’s former estimate.
Neither the city nor CANY’s lawyer granted the Straight an interview about the values of the properties, a matter that is not part of the pending court case, which is a legal action about procedural fairness. The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision.
For his part, Bohus said in the interview that “someone has to take responsibility for this and explain it.”
Again, he asked: “Did the city get more than just a bad deal?”