Construction has officially begun on the 28-storey rental building at the intersection of West Broadway and Birch Street in Vancouver that drew extensive controversy when it was proposed and then approved in 2020.
The project is being developed by Vancouver-based Jameson Development Corp at 2538 Birch Street (formerly 1296 West Broadway), a site that was once occupied by a Denny's.
The project drew the ire of many residents of the Broadway area because of the size of the proposed tower, particularly in relation to its surroundings.
The project was initially proposed in 2017 as a 16-storey building with 153 rental units, which received rezoning approval, but construction never commenced.
Jameson later changed the proposal to 28 storeys to take advantage of the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP) the City of Vancouver introduced in late 2017, which -- among other things -- waived the Development Cost Levy for developers in exchange for below-market rental units.
The current iteration of the project consists of 258 rental units, 58 of which will be MIRHPP units, atop a commercial podium with office and retail space, as well as five levels of underground parking with 174 vehicle stalls.
Street-level views of 2538 Birch Street on W Broadway. (Jameson Development Corp)
Public hearings were held over three days in July 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and City of Vancouver memorandums following those public hearings showed a variety of issues that were raised by upwards of 100 people.
Regarding a question about the value gained by the developer from the additional 12 storeys, Gil Kelley, the General Manager of Planning, Urban Design, and Sustainability at the time, and his staff said that "the cost to an owner to legally secure below-market rental units over a long period of time is significant when compared to market rental housing" and that "the proposed below-market rental units in this project will rent at approximately half the rate of a market rental unit in the same building."
"The City's Real Estate Division has evaluated the applicants' pro forma and determined the cost to secure 58 below-market rental units at this location, over 60 years, is equivalent to the value of the additional floor area requested," City staff added. "No additional land lift or profit is generated."
Regarding concerns about the height of the building in relation to its surroundings, City staff acknowledged that an exception was made for the project in favor of the below-market housing units, saying that "the number of storeys correspond directly to the amount of floor space that the project requires to achieve profitability from the type of tenure that is targeted."
Staff also added that they required the form of the project to be a slender tower atop a podium in order to achieve certain urban design objectives, so, therefore, the only way to make the project financially viable was to increase the height of the building.
Surrounding context of 2538 Birch Street. (Jameson Development Corp)
In a March 2020 report referring the project to the public hearing stage, staff said that the floorplate of the tower is 6,500 sq. ft and that "limiting the floorplate size helps to control the physical slenderness of the tower, which in turn limits its impact on the surrounding areas with respect to physical imposition and shadowing impacts."
Acknowledging the surrounding context, staff also noted that "this area of Broadway is currently developed with two to four-storey commercial buildings and mixed-use towers" including an eight-storey tower and two 13-storey towers in its immediate vicinity.
On Wednesday, commencement of the project's construction was announced by the Ministry of Housing, who is providing Jameson Development Corp with a $164M low-interest loan for the project. The Ministry also noted that Jameson will be providing $81.41M for the project and the City of Vancouver $3.1M through the Development Cost Levy waiver.
The Province touted the project as "one of the first tall rental buildings to be developed along the Broadway Corridor," but other tall buildings have been proposed for the Broadway Corridor since the Birch project, including a 29-storey and 28-storey project at the old Mountain Equipment Company, as well as a 40-storey mixed-use building atop the future South Granville Station of the Broadway Subway.
Construction on the Broadway Birch project is expected to be completed in 2025.