It was reported in the Burnaby Now that Metro Vancouver is planning to shell out a total of $34.7 million to renovate its new home in the Leed Platinum Metrotower III. The purchase of the $205 million building was revealed quietly in December. Originally, the projected tenant improvements at the new location were budgeted at only $28 Million, “slightly less than the planned upgrades to the old office space.” The latest report reveals that Metro Vancouver expects to occupy 16 of the 29 floors. This is up from the original plan to occupy only 13 floors and lease the remaining floors which included 5 empty floors. This means there are three fewer floors for Metro Vancouver to collect revenue from.

Another uncertainty is the disposal of the old building. According to the Now,“while the mayor said the city has no interest in purchasing the building, he suggests it will probably become part of a bigger development.” The property is assessed at $86 million, and part of the plan is to use the proceeds of the sale to offset the $205 million price tag for Metrotower III.

Competing with the need to pay for Metro’s new platinum palace is the imperative to increase the supply of affordable housing stock. One suggestion that the MRA is putting forward is converting the two former towers, 10 and 19 storeys, built between 1983 and 1987, to affordable market and rental housing. With the potential demoviction of thousands of people from the neighbourhood, the necessity for public lands to be made available for affordable housing goes without saying. The City refuses to offer land in Metrotown for such a purpose as they insist it is not their responsibility. In this case, the City is not the landowner. Metro Vancouver has been a provider of affordable housing in the region and now has the means to succeed where the City has miserably failed. Why sell off the land and building, when it will likely be demolished?

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There is a precedent for the conversion of an office tower to residential. The Electra at 989 Nelson Street in Vancouver, is the former BC Hydro building, which was redeveloped into condominiums in 1995.The building was converted into 242 residential units and has 205 commercial units comprising street-level retail and executive offices.  The building was originally constructed in 1957. Suites in this prime location range between $300,000 for a 500sf 1 bedroom to $1 million plus for a 1400sf 3 bedroom.

Metro Vancouver’s existing head office complex consists of two office towers located at 4330 Kingsway and 5945 Kathleen Avenue in Burnaby. The taller building has over 190,000sf of floor space. The smaller building has over 56,000sf of floor space. If all the space was utilized for housing, we could achieve over 240 units of affordable and market housing with an average floor space of 1000sf!

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By keeping the new units under $750,000, selected new homebuyers would be eligible for exemption from the property transfer tax.

Metro 2040, the region’s growth strategy, calls for 68 percent of population growth to be focused in urban centres and along the Frequent Transit Network. It also sees a transformative role for transit to create complete and healthy communities, providing mobility and access to residents while reducing their dependence on car ownership and driving.According to Metro Vancouver, “transit can be a means of creating housing and economic opportunities that are inclusive of low and moderate income working households.”

What can Burnaby do, in general,  to encourage the construction of affordable housing near transit?

  • Burnaby should set a strategic expectation for Metrotown and Patterson Stations to include affordable housing, and, on larger sites, new on-site purpose built rental housing units.
  • The City should set targets for market rental housing and affordable housing, including preservation of existing affordable housing, in the Skytrain corridor.
  • žBurnaby should prepare a Housing Action Plan that demonstrates how the municipality plans to achieve the estimated local housing demand for low and moderate income households.
  • It can, along with other levels of government, žfacilitate supportive and transitional housing for vulnerable populations by providing municipal land at low or no cost . ž
  • Burnaby should use its substantial Housing Reserve Funds to lever the development of new non-profit housing by providing grants, purchasing land for non-profit use, and reducing permit fees.
  • It should Adopt standards of maintenance bylaw to retain, renew, and enhance the market rental housing supply in a way similar to what the City of New Westminster has done, Secured Market Rental Housing Policy
  • The City can grant additional density to small scale residential developers, including cohousing groups, in exchange for on-site affordable housing units

Transit-oriented locations are highly sought after for redevelopment. Lack of affordable housing near transit is currently at crisis levels. We cannot wait on the implementation of  the grand vision for transit expansion that has been adopted by the Mayors’ Council to tackle affordability. Burnaby needs to equitably develop the 11 Skytrain stations it is blessed with. It must ensure that every transit oriented location has a mix of housing choices.

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