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Vancouver mulls letting landlords add floors to old apartment buildings

An apartment building that was renovated to add additional units in the west end of Vancouver.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It is a way to add more housing in Vancouver's apartment zones, but one that would not not result in wholesale demolition of old buildings and replacement by expensive new condos.

The solution: Allow owners of the city's hundreds of low-rise apartment buildings to add one or two floors.

That is something the association of B.C. landlords has suggested to the city as a compromise between keeping a moratorium on demolition and throwing the doors open to re-development.

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And Vancouver's mayor and planners are signalling they are open to the idea.

"There is an opportunity for some of these older buildings to be gently densified," said David Hutniak, the chief executive officer of LandlordBC. "It would prevent dumping these buildings into a landfill."

And, he said, it is likely much more politically palatable to politicians than the idea of allowing straight-out redevelopment, which would likely provoke a huge backlash from residents about the loss of affordable housing and the arrival of dozens of towers.

"There's so many of these, and if we could overnight make them four storeys, who would even notice?" said Mr. Hutniak, who said more radical change is unlikely. "Tear everything down and build high-rises? That's not going to happen."

His suggestion, first raised with the city a couple of years ago, is the first alternative from the rental sector, aside from a constant push to get back the right to demolition and redevelopment, since council imposed a moratorium on any demolition of those old apartments more than a decade ago as a way of preserving one of Vancouver's cheapest forms of housing.

Mayor Gregor Robertson brought up the idea in a speech last week about the city's plans for a dramatic change in housing policy, naming five new potential sources for housing in Vancouver that could help make the city more affordable.

One of them was the possibility of adding floors to older buildings in the city's apartment zones.

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Vancouver assistant planning director Anita Molaro said this week that "it's something we'll be looking at."

The change would require the city to alter its rules for many of its different apartment zones to allow more density. As well, she said, protections would be needed for existing tenants.

Ms. Molaro said more than half a dozen redevelopments have been done in the past few years in the West End, one of the few areas where zoning for apartments allows owners to add a floor.

One recent project by Deecorp Properties Ltd. at Jervis and Harwood streets renovated a three-storey building to four storeys, expanding the number of units from 22 to 38.

But people in the industry are divided on how workable the idea is.

"I think it's an impossible dream," said Margot Innes, who owns a 24-unit, 52-year-old apartment in Marpole. "You'd be rebuilding to such an extent, there's no point in doing it."

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Ms. Innes said the upgrades needed to meet the city's requirements for earthquake-proofing, sprinklers, foundations, stair space and more would make the whole project more expensive than any extra rent from new units could cover.

She said if the city is serious, it should pay for a test case in one building.

At one of Vancouver's biggest apartment-owning companies, the sentiment is the same.

"It would be such a major expense that it would be cheaper to tear down the building," said Hani Lammam, vice-president at Cressey Development Corporation.

But Mr. Hutniak said several owners have done that kind of redevelopment in the past few years.

He said the city would need a very clear set of rules and to show some flexibility when it comes to installing stairs and elevators to contemporary standards.

"Right now, you have to be pretty committed to go through the process at the city," Mr. Hutniak said. "If you had a nice, transparent process and some certainty, more people would come to the table."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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