The head of Reliance Properties thinks a downtown parkade could be put better use with a 47-storey all-rental tower with workforce housing: the first developer to respond to the city’s new rezoning policy aimed at clearing the housing backlog.
Reliance Properties is proposing the tower on the site of a parkade at Thurlow and Melville streets, behind the MacMillan Bloedel Building on West Georgia, which it also co-owns. Under the city’s revised rezoning policy, residential use may be considered for large sites which incorporate commercial space, which Reliance’s proposal does on the lower floors, plus with its adjacent office tower.
The proposal calls for 478 homes, 104 of which would be targeted at essential workers earning between $39,200 and $78,500 annually.
“Our initial inquiry for our workforce housing project was almost two years ago and it never saw the light of day at city hall, even though it met key housing objectives,” said Jon Stovell, president and CEO of Reliance Properties. “Council’s new policy finally gives us a path forward.”
“From ambulance paramedics, nurses and firefighters to grocery clerks and construction workers, COVID-19 highlighted the vital role of essential workers,” says Stovell. “Vancouver needs to focus on workforce housing to fill the gap for middle earners and their families – people who are employed, don’t qualify for government assistance, and cannot afford to buy or pay market-rents in the city in which they work.”
Stovell is hopeful council will make an exception for the site, given the large amount of office space already under construction in the downtown core. His firm has five other office towers already in the works downtown, part of 5.5 million square feet of office space currently under development.
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“Existing policies already allow this site to be considered primarily for residential use after seeking initial advice from city council,” he says. “The policy that precludes residential in the CBD is 10 years old and out of step with current realities for a resilient work force and affordability for city workers. There is also an abundance of new office space currently available in the CBD.”
Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC, submitted a letter of support as part of Reliance’s rezoning package.
“It is critical for emergency responders and frontline workers to live in the communities in which they serve, especially if there is a natural disaster like an earthquake, which requires immediate and coordinated emergency response. In recent years, employers in downtown Vancouver have increasingly stated that housing affordability challenges have affected their ability to recruit and retain staff.”
A 2019 housing report by the Vancouver Board of Trade found that 73 per cent of employers say housing affordability has affected their ability to recruit and retain employees.
The concept for the residential tower was put together by Hariri Pontarini Architects of Toronto, with IBI serving as the local executive architect. The all-rental tower would include ground-floor retail — primarily intended for a restaurant — as well as second-floor commercial space.
Stovell says he’s hopeful the city’s planning department and its new director will advance this project, and council will prioritize and approve it due to the scarcity of workforce housing and rentals downtown.
Vancouver city council recently approved an “internal development application and permitting modernization task force,” which will make recommendations on how to improve the process and share data with council and the public.
“Every year, proposals to build more affordable housing get stuck in layer-upon-layer of often conflicting and outdated policies introduced by past councils,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “This has resulted in a backlog with many good applications deserving a fair hearing by your elected representatives never making it to the council floor.”