A court has struck a blow to a controversial deal between the City of Vancouver and a developer.
It’s a victory for a neighbourhood association that questioned the city’s fairness to the public regarding its transaction with Brenhill Developments Limited.
In a decision Tuesday (January 27), B.C. Supreme Court justice Mark McEwan ordered new public hearings on two downtown properties that the city and Brenhill wanted to exchange.
McEwan quashed both the rezoning bylaw for the city-owned lot at 508 Helmcken Street and the development permit for Brenhill’s 1077–1099 Richards Street land.
Since the rezoning of 508 Helmcken Street and the development of 1077–1099 Richards are conditions for the land exchange, the court’s decision means the two parties may have to start from scratch if they want to go ahead with their plans.
“They don’t have anything at this point,” lawyer Nathalie Baker told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. Baker represented the Community Association of New Yaletown in the organization’s petition for a judicial review of the city’s actions in connection with the land swap. “The whole thing starts from square one. All of it,” Baker said about what the court’s ruling means.
Coun. Geoff Meggs of the ruling Vision Vancouver caucus declined to comment, stating that the issue is a legal matter. The Straight had wanted to ask if the city will appeal the court’s ruling.
“It’s anyone’s guess at this point,” Baker said about how the matter will move forward.
Brenhill has started work on a new public-housing facility at its 1077–1099 Richards Street property. The developer was supposed to finish construction before the end of the year so that it could turn over the building to the city.
In exchange, Brenhill would have gotten the city’s 508 Helmcken Street property, where an existing social-housing building stands. This facility would be demolished once residents moved to 1077–1099 Richards Street.
The city and Brenhill agreed on a land swap on January 28, 2013. Less than six months later, council approved the developer’s application to rezone 508 Helmcken so it could build a 36-storey tower there for condos and other uses.
In its petition for a judicial review, the New Yaletown group told the court that the city didn’t disclose everything related to the deal, in particular details of its land exchange with Brenhill.
Judge McEwan agreed that the residents didn’t get a fair shake.
“I have concluded in this case that the public hearing and the development permit processes were flawed in that the City has taken an unduly restrictive view of the discussion that should have been permitted to address the true nature and overall cost/benefit of the 508/1099 project to the City and its residents,” McEwan wrote in his 49-page ruling.
The judge further noted that the process was also “flawed” because the dollar values attributed to the two properties at the time of the agreement “cannot be evaluated”. According to McEwan, “it is impossible to tell whether the numbers have a real-world justification or are simply used to set up an offset that the proponents have chosen, to give the appearance of adequate consideration.”
The Straight previously reported that when the city and Brenhill agreed to exchange properties, the city’s 508 Helmcken Street property was valued at $15 million and Brenhill’s at $8.4 million.
The Straight’s report also indicated that the latest B.C. Assessment appraisal shows 508 Helmcken Street is now valued at more than $59 million. Brenhill’s Richards Street property stands at $9.5 million, according to the new assessment.
In his decision, the judge also pointed out that it should be obvious that, given the complexity of projects such as this one, “by the time a matter has reached the point where a public hearing is called, City staff and some members of council will be behind it.”
Despite this, according to McEwan, public hearings “should be a kind of counterweight, and as fair, open and transparent as the nature of the overall project dictates”.
McEwan noted: “A public hearing is not just an occasion for the public to blow off steam.”