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Plan for Dunbar seniors home way up in the air

Peter Gaskill is convinced that it makes sense to build a six-storey complex for seniors keen to live near the heart of the Dunbar business strip.

The president of Pacific Arbour Retirement Communities wants to be seen as a local hero who is striving to provide rental housing for an aging population. Instead, Mr. Gaskill's vision to construct a 130-suite building on Dunbar Street has upset residents such as Lynn Miller, who objects to a structure that would encroach on single-family zoning.

Being cast as the villain by Ms. Miller and others isn't deterring Mr. Gaskill from drafting preliminary plans. He sees his mission as a vital one for seniors requiring accommodation in their familiar, leafy neighbourhood on Vancouver's westside. They would be close to their Dunbar Village dentist, pharmacy and bank. The monthly rent will be roughly $5,000 for a one-bedroom unit in the proposed "independent living" retirement residence. The goal is to provide seniors with three meals a day, weekly housekeeping, social outings, exercise classes and other services.

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"These are pretty wealthy seniors in Dunbar, compared with the provincial average. Affordability really is a perspective thing," said Mr. Gaskill, who warns about a looming housing crunch for people seeking spots in retirement homes, especially those age 75 years and older. He argues that if a senior is able to bank $1.5-million from a house sale and invest that money while saving on home-upkeep expenses, then $5,000 a month in rent is well within budget.

Care Planning Partners Inc., commissioned by Pacific Arbour to study the Dunbar area's demographics, noted that 3,100 people, or 12.5 per cent of the population in Dunbar and surrounding blocks, were aged 65 or over in 1996. In 2016, the number of seniors is forecast to be 4,550, or 18.3 per cent of the total. Mr. Gaskill hopes to tap into that greying market as baby boomers age.

Pacific Arbour already runs two retirement complexes in North Vancouver and one in Burnaby, and a fourth facility will open next year in West Vancouver. Mr. Gaskill now has Vancouver in his crosshairs, part of an expansion strategy to add four more retirement homes.

Privately owned Pacific Arbour recently acquired two houses on the east side of Dunbar Street, just south of West 30th Avenue. It has entered contracts to buy another four, subject to rezoning of the 4600 block of Dunbar Street. Assembling the six properties could cost a total of $20-million, with the final four houses possibly averaging $3.8-million each, or more than double their market value in single-family zoning.

"We love Dunbar, but if we're blocked from doing it because we're not allowed to build the density that we require, we will have to go somewhere else," said Mr. Gaskill, who argues that his project fits into the "special needs" category permitted under a city-approved, Dunbar "community vision" document produced in 1998.

The City of Vancouver recently unveiled an interim policy to allow six storeys under certain conditions, notably to create rental or affordable housing. But Mike Andruff, a member of the Dunbar Re-vision group of neighbours, said even if Pacific Arbour obtained rezoning, the project would be two storeys too high because it is not truly affordable housing.

The popular Stong's supermarket, located just north of Pacific Arbour's planned construction site, has commercial zoning that could make it easier for its own redevelopment plans. The Harwood Group owns the property where Stong's and McDermott's auto body shop next door are situated, said Gregory Henriquez, managing partner at Henriquez Partners Architects. The firm has been retained by the Harwood Group.

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Stong's, whose roots in Dunbar date back to 1931, has garnered goodwill, and the grocer is being encouraged to be the main tenant on the redeveloped site, which is zoned appropriately for four storeys, say Dunbar Re-vision members. By contrast, they say that Pacific Arbour is offside.

Mr. Gaskill has considered buying the venerable Dunbar movie theatre across the street from Stong's, but acquiring adjacent buildings will be difficult, not to mention what to do with the public library on the corner. His best bet is win approval to rezone six homes from single-family to site-specific. "If we don't get going soon, it's going to be too late and seniors won't have their voices heard," he said.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More


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