Change coming to Vancouver’s Commercial Drive

Commercial Drive is an old Vancouver working class neighbourhood where community street festivals are the norm and Grandview Park doubles on weekends as an informal flea market. It’s the antithesis of Robson Street or Fourth Avenue, where consumerism rules.

But no neighbourhood is immune to change, and city planners have spent a large part of their year coming up with a community plan that will densify the Grandview-Woodlands area with a series of residential towers.

Community plans are under way for four Vancouver neighbourhoods. However, resident backlash against some of the proposals, particularly for towers, has been so fierce that on Sept. 24 the city will consider a motion to extend the consultation process by at least six months.

“We heard loud and clear from the community that they were concerned about the scale and height and extent of towers shown in the emerging direction we put out in June,” says the city’s assistant director of planning, Matt Shillito.

“We are now looking at alternative forms of density,” he says. “I wouldn’t say there won’t be any towers in the revised plan, but the concern is the number of towers and height.”

The decision to delay the plan worries a Commercial Drive non-profit group that is long overdue for an expansion that would include low-income housing and a rebuilt centre for their clientele. Bereft of government funding, the Kettle Friendship Society has formed a unique partnership with a local developer to fund expansion of their facility, at the northeast corner of Commercial and Venables.

The Society has 47 signatures on a petition so far, urging the city to make an exception and allow their application to go forward immediately.

Daniel Boffo, a young developer who wants to build a mid-size tower at the corner, is keenly aware of potential push back. He might have an appetite for challenge, with another controversial project proposed in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, a 29-unit market and non-market housing project at 555 Cordova.

The mixed use project he plans for Commercial Drive will take over the corner best known for Astorino’s banquet hall. A residential tower there already fits with the city’s community plan for more density, but it’s unique in that Mr. Boffo’s project will subsidize several units of non-market housing.

Mr. Boffo, who lives in the area, purchased several properties around the Kettle building and is working to acquire a city-owned parking lot to the north. When the community plan is completed, he will apply for rezoning. Mr. Boffo is hoping for a 15-storey tower on the site, which will have several buildings of varying scale.

“I think we are looking at 20 per cent non-market,” says Mr. Boffo. “But it depends on what we can get on the density side, to be able to put residential, retail and an office component together. We are proposing 25 to 30 units [of non market], and we are hoping to target about 150 market units, give or take. It’s all variable depending on how this process plays out.”

They are also hammering out a plan that would take the 37-year-old Kettle facility from 7,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet.

“I would be thrilled if we got that,” says Nancy Keough, the Kettle’s executive director.

The society owns the existing building, a former egg factory, and started looking at expansion plans in 2006. Their neighbour Leo Astorino asked if they’d be interested in purchasing his building, but the society didn’t have the resources.

“With government cuts, there was no money, even though we went to everybody with our plan,” Ms. Keough said. “Then when Daniel bought Astorino’s, and started talking to us about possibilities on the site, it was synchronistic.”

Ms. Keough says that, gauging from reaction at open house meetings, residents are mostly positive.

“It’s hard for people to get behind it until they really know what we are talking about,” she says. “There were a couple of people who don’t want any change at all.”

Ms. Keough said the project’s chief architect, Seattle-based Tom Kundig, played a key role in helping explain to residents how the Society would benefit from the plan. Mr. Kundig has worked in B.C. before, but he’s just become acquainted with the Commercial Drive area.

He is no stranger to transitioning communities. It’s become part of the job for urban architects. In Seattle, he’s worked on mixed market-non-market housing projects, including a Lutheran church. Supporting non-market housing with for-profit housing is a workable model in a world of government cuts and expensive real estate, he says.

“Kettle is overbooked in a marginal facility. This will provide them with a better facility, more housing a more commodious gathering area – not only internally but externally,” Mr. Kundig said on the phone from Seattle. “The courtyard would be like an urban courtyard and it will accommodate people from all walks of life – which is the strength of Commercial Drive because as a true urban centre, it represents the complete urban condition, rather than a sanitized version.”

The Drive, which is part of Grandview-Woodlands, isn’t the only neighbourhood getting ready for transformation. City staff are devising community plans for the Downtown Eastside, the West End and Marpole, looking at building heights, parks, public amenities, transportation and heritage issues within a 30-year framework. The idea is to move away from one-off rezoning.

There was major resident pushback against the proposal of towers ranging from 22 to 37 stories around the transit SkyTrain hub at Commercial and Broadway, which was revealed in June.

The more likely scenario for the major transit intersection is the development of mid-rise buildings, which are 10 to 12 stories. Mr. Shillito said the Boffo development might have to fall within that restriction.

“It would be more of a move to mid-rise form in that area as well,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Kundig is just waiting for the city to tell him the rules. He’ll also be sympathetic to the community when the project does get under way, knowing full well that any tower in the area has the potential to be a lightning rod.

“We have similar neighbourhoods here in Seattle and all over California,” says Mr. Kundig. “Commercial Drive is a beloved neighbourhood, like a lot of those neighbourhoods are. They were ignored for a while, then had their own sort of character develop, and now it’s changing. This is what architects and planners all have to deal with – every day it’s a changing world.

“And I think the pressure in Vancouver is higher than even Seattle,” he adds. “Vancouver is more like San Francisco, where it’s unbelievable what’s happening there with housing prices. You have that offshore money that’s driving the inflation in Vancouver … and it’s absolutely impactful for a community.

“It really does have an effect on a community that’s been born and raised there, and has developed the culture of a place. I wish I had the answer for how to deal with that.” Kerry Gold, Globe and Mail

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