The recent B.C. Supreme Court decision throwing out a controversial set of Yaletown developments has forced Vancouver to halt negotiations on as many as 15 similar proposals in the Downtown Eastside and West End involving social housing, Brian Jackson, the city’s planning director, said Wednesday.
With the impact of the so-called Brenhill decision still being assessed, the city doesn’t want to jeopardize developments that would involve awarding of bonus density in return for social or affordable housing, Jackson said.
Making matters more difficult, council rejected a staff proposal to fix the easiest of three issues identified in the court decision. Jackson wanted to reopen recently passed West End and Downtown Eastside community plans to correct language around “low-cost housing,” and to hold new public hearings.
Instead, having just been criticized by the courts over its public hearing processes, a skittish council unanimously sent it back for more work. They said they had all been inundated with criticism-laced public commentary complaining that the proposed fix was not clear enough.
Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie, the acting mayor, said the report had been rushed.
“I think it was late in giving the public the opportunity to understand and digest what it was,” he said. “We were getting lots of calls and emails and reports in the media from people who said they didn’t have enough information.”
Non-Partisan Association Coun. George Affleck agreed. “It is about providing the public with the kind of report it deserves. I think this report was lacking in clarity and lacking in detail,” he said.
As a result, it could take months for the substantive issues raised in Justice Mark McEwan’s decision to be resolved. In the meantime, Brenhill’s construction of a social housing project at 1099 Richards remains frozen and the city has “chilled” negotiations on many others.
“What we have is developments that are in the pipeline that may involve land exchanges with the city,” Jackson said. “We have put a halt on (them) until we sort out the other aspects of the judge’s decision. It is causing a chill for us … but it is also causing issues for the development community because of the potential exposure that they would have.”
Jackson would not identify the potential developments because they are in various stages of sensitive negotiations.
Jackson said the city’s housing strategy calls for 1,000 rental units and 500 social housing units to be built per year. That strategy could be affected if the Brenhill court issues are not resolved soon, he said.
“The longer the delay, and the more uncertainty that is created for us to offer advice to the development community, the more difficult it will be to achieve those objectives,” he said.
Most major development proposals come with a demand from the city for an affordable housing component, either social housing or market rental. Vancouver’s affordable housing strategy calls for at least 2,550 units to be built between 2015-2018, of which 30 per cent would be in city-owned projects. Another 45 per cent would be in “non-city owned projects on city land,” and the rest would be projects by partners. Of the $560 million expected to be invested, $85 million would come from the city.
The Brenhill case involves a land swap between the city and Brenhill Developments of the city-owned 87-unit Jubilee House property next to Emery Barnes Park. In return for building a 36-storey tower next to the park it would build a 172-unit social housing unit across the street. The city went to a public hearing in 2013 and Brenhill later began construction on the Richards site.
But the Community Association of New Yaletown went to court arguing the deal was not properly explained in public, and residents in the downtown peninsula were not adequately notified. McEwan agreed and quashed not only the DODP but also the Brenhill development permit.
City manager Penny Ballem said the city hasn’t decided whether it will launch an appeal of the decision. But getting the first problem solved — the language in the Downtown Official Development Plan — is holding similar developments at bay.
“It puts significant risk on the (other) projects,” she said. “It impacts the whole downtown area.”
Jackson said the potential for legal challenges could cause developers to walk away or try to negotiate cheaper community amenity programs
“The developers, quite frankly, are in shock about the Brenhill decision in terms of the city having to give more information out for transparency,” he said. “There could be a chill in the air about wanting to even participate in providing significant amenities on the part of the development community.”