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City, province avoid a mess at Little Mountain

September 22nd, 2009 · 18 Comments

Lost in the news yesterday with all the questions about the provincial government’s new homeless-to-shelters law was the news item that the province and city had come to agreement about the Little Mountain social housing site, to wit: Provincial government gets its demolition permit; the remaining 10 families there get to stay on in one building if they choose; social housing units are the first part of the project to be completed; and province agrees to start work on the four more of the 14 social-housing sites.

That is all aimed at defusing any potential clash over the site, with buildings sitting empty and housing advocates getting more and more upset as the Olympics approach.

My story in the Globe is here. Not included are comments I got from COPE Councillor Ellen Woodsworth yesterday, who said that, although this is not perfect, she thought the city got as good a deal as it could for the residents and for the city, considering that the province was threatening to pull out of the redevelopment altogether if things didn’t start moving.

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  • While the issue of demolition and what to do with the existing residents may have been resolved, I believe the ‘Little Mountain Mess’ may just be starting. There are two many outstanding planning issues and too many potential conflicts of interest that need to be carefully massaged.

    The bid by Holborn was based on achieving a site density that was far in excess of what I thought was appropriate. And I suspect that Ned Jacobs and others will think that what I think is appropriate is far in excess of what they think is appropriate.

    Now of course the deal can be renegotiated. But that will not be fair to those other bidders who operated in good faith. I should declare that I was on one of the other teams that bid on the land.

    The problem as I see it is that the Province and City want to generate as much money as possible from the development of this site, in order to fund the replacement social housing on site, as well as a portion of the cost of the other much needed social housing projects.

    However, the planning department and other departments….engineering, the Park Board, etc. may not have the same appetite for revenue producing densities….

    While there have been similar situations in the past, there has never been anything quite like this, involving both the City and Province and so many other worthwhile projects.

    For my part, while I think this site is still a potential mess, I hope there can be a happy outcome since there is a need to come up with a good redevelopment plan for this site, with significant revenues for the public purse, and there are many other public housing properties across Canada that need to be carefully regenerated (that’s the word we used when I worked for CMHC) in the future.

  • Otis Krayola

    Frances, I’m intrigued by Coun. Woodsworth’s implication that the few remaining tenants were the reason the redevelopment was stalled. My own impression was that the private developer on the project was dragging his feet because the market for his condos has been severely depressed.

    While we’re on the subject, can one of the freebooters here explain the disconnect between our collective use of ‘market’ housing and ‘affordable’ units? I would have thought that, if you can sell them, they are by definition affordable. Or is it all about a fool and his money?

  • Frances Bula


    Must be poor wording on my part. You are right — nothing is holding up the development except for the comatose market. But there has been a bit of a stalemate over the city’s issuance of the demolition permit, because the city wanted to have a solution for these residents that was not just a straight eviction, even though the province had the technical right to do that.

    On your second point — people buy diamonds and Ferraris too. Does that make them affordable just because someone buys them?

  • IanS

    IMO, “market” is what people will actually pay for a property or unit.

    “Affordable”, in this context, usually means something less than market. When people advocate for “affordable” housing, they are usually looking for some form of subsidy to allow those who can’t afford the “market” rate to acquire the property or unit.

  • M.T.

    Contrary to what Gregor and his friends in Victoria would like to have the public believe, the 10 remaining families at Little Mountain are still being forced out. On the same day as the grand announcement of COV’s ‘deal’ with Holborn and the province, the tenants received (yet another) threatening letter from BC Housing telling them that they will not be able to remain on site, and that if they do not relocate now they will not be assisted with relocating in the future (when they are evicted, I suppose), nor will they be able to return to the new development (as had been promised).
    Gregor Robertson spun this ‘deal’ to make himself look good while backhandedly selling out.

  • Otis Krayola

    Thanks to both IanS and Frances for their responses.

    Yes, Ian, I get the context and the euphemisms we all use daily to describe different housing types. And I guess ‘market’ rolls off the tongue easier than, say, ‘wildly overpriced due to a speculative market run amok’.

    Frances, people do buy diamonds. But who actually needs them? Some here might also make a case for automobile ownership, but it needn’t be a Ferrari.

    On the other hand, everyone needs housing.

  • The city and province expected this site to sell for something in the order of $200 a square foot of buildable area. In other words the LAND COMPONENT for an 880 square foot, 2 bedroom apartment would be in the order of $200,000. Add in construction costs at $260 to $300 a foot for concrete construction (or more, depending on finishes); soft costs of say 20%, and an estimated developer’s profit of 20% of costs…

    Oh, and did I mention that the developer is expected to pay for all the new roads through the site and the new park space, and make available the sites for the social housing at no cost…

    And you are wondering whether this will be ‘affordable housing’.

    So then the question is HOW DO WE CREATE AFFORDABLE HOUSING for firefighters, police officers, and other city personnel who we want to live in our city, let alone all the other families who would like to be here but can’t afford $800,000 and more?

    You may not like these answers but here are some thoughts:

    You don’t try to put too much affordable housing on prime sites on the waterfront or next to a beautiful park; instead you use the revenues generated from these lands to offset the cost of ‘affordable housing’ elsewhere;

    You significantly reduce the parking standards, except for shared cars and visitors;

    You promote alternative forms of tenure; coops, shared equity ownership; rent to own;

    You lease, rather than sell sites, and place restrictions on who can live in certain developments on publicly owned land: eg: cannot be rented out; limited appreciation, etc. (This was done at Verdant at SFU)

    You allow alternative forms of housing: duplexes and triplexes in and about single family areas; fee simple townhouses; small 6 suite walk-up apartment buildings, etc.

    You allow residential development to be mixed with different uses, including light industrial, warehousing…just go to parts of Toronto where this is happening, quite successfully, I might add.

    You allow and promote more prefabricated housing;

    You simplify some of the rules and procedures…if you don’t know what I mean, check out the latest procedures to get approval for a laneway house…

    I could go on, but hopefully this gives you some idea of why some housing is more affordable than other housing.

  • Michael, “I suspect that Ned Jacobs and others will think that what I think is appropriate is far in excess of what they think is appropriate.”

    “Appropriate”? What is appropriate? I only know the site from 40 years as a drive-by lookie-loo and I have not seen Holborn’s proposal.

    Obviously Holborn see the site as lost leader to get Saint Arthur’s banal cliché up and running.

    Surely density is function of economics and proximity to amenity or better still integrated amenity.

    Evidently, incremental cost of a multi-story building diminishes as height proceeds higher than twelve stories. On that basis do we have any idea at this stage what the site can yield?

    More important, in my opinion, is close proximity, or ideally, integrated amenity, because by definition people in “affordable” or social housing should not have to depend on the auto.

    Main amenity is too far to walk home, or even transit, home loaded with staples.

    The question remains, at this early stage, . . . what critical mass density is needed sustain integrated amenity?

  • IanS


    “Thanks to both IanS and Frances for their

    You’re welcome.

    “Yes, Ian, I get the context and the euphemisms
    we all use daily to describe different housing
    types. And I guess ‘market’ rolls off the tongue
    easier than, say, ‘wildly overpriced due to a
    speculative market run amok’. ”

    Absolutely, it’s easier to say. Not only that, it describes something different than “market”. In this context, it’s generally used to express the view that market prices are too high, often in support of the assertion that we need more “affordable” housing.

  • Joe Just Joe

    I must stress that I am unaware of the exact details of Holborns proposal. My understanding is it will be a cluster of midrises varying from 4-14stories in height and totalling ~2000units, wether the social housing units are included in that number or they are in addition to it I’m unsure.
    Also there is an additional cost as the site has been discovered to be contaimantented in areas probably from spills from the old diesel tanks for the furnaces. There is also asbestos on site, and lead paint.

  • MB

    Taking into account most of the above comments, I can see the need for a major upgrade to the amenities on Main Street x 33rd Ave.

    This would not only include rezoning for commercial storefronts south of 33rd Ave (therein promoting a walkable community), but improved transit, ideally a mid-level transit-oriented development based on the #3 and #33 buses.

    A few years back the Main St Showcase project proposed bus signal-priority technology along with the sidewalk and bus stop improvements and new articulated trolleys, but that seems to have been dropped for some reason. It stands to reason it should be resurrected due to dense projects like Little Mountain and a host of other new low rise devlopents that have cropped up on the Main Street corridor.

  • Mira

    “I should declare that I was on one of the other teams that bid on the land.” MG
    Michael, I am sorry to say but you are part of the problem NOT the solution. Despite your always smiling face you and your “bidding friends”ARE the reason why this piece of land is being “redeveloped”. ‘Cause, the bureaucratic cohorts would have never took the time and put the effort into germinating such a “great” idea! For crying out loud, you start adding the cost for the new units and then say that you don’t quite know if they are going to be “affordable”? They WERE affordable Michael, your kind should have left them the way they were. But then, who would have made the commissions, who would have studied to the bone the different feasible schemes, maybe a small heritage density transfer bonus here and there, and then…a mere 20% profit? The irony. The hypocrisy.

  • Joe Just Joe

    They could not be left alone Mira, they were/are in a state of decay and needed major repairs. They were not built to last indefinately. The province’s options were sell to the highest bidder and use the money extract to build more and better housing, or pour money into trying to renovate the existing units. Those were the two options, status quo was not one of them.

  • Joe Just Joe

    And to clarify a 20% profit on a project like this isn’t large, we are talking about a major risk taking, and not to mention a project of this size takes many years to complete. If you break that profit down over a 5yr span it’s not nearly as appealing.

  • I believe the decision to redevelop Little Mountain with a mix of market and replacement non-market units was very appropriate. It is something that has been contemplated for many years, and follows on the footsteps of other similar projects across Canada. In Vancouver, many of the Veterans’ properties in New Westminster, and along West 4th and West B’way were re-developed with varying degrees of success. In Toronto, perhaps the most high profile redevelopment of a public housing site is currently taking place at Regent Park.

    This is the right thing to do. A large project with a high concentration of very low income people is being turned into a much more balanced community. Revenues are being generated to fund the new social housing. The land is being developed in a more intensive way, with a high regard for ‘sustainable’ planning practices.

    Little Mountain had the potential to be a model redevelopment. I personally disagreed with the decision to try and vacate the entire project before offering it for sale, but the Province was concerned about the potential for some ‘hold-outs’ who might try and block the future purchaser from proceeding. As it turns out, they were right to have this concern.

    If the project was not so well located, adjacent to a park, in what is becoming an increasingly affluent area, then there would likely have been a broader mix of more affordable housing. Similarly, if there wasn’t such a need for additional funds to finance other social housing units, one might not have aspired to such high densities (Urbanismo-I thought the upper limit on an appropriate density might be in the order of 2.0 FSR, given the 0.6 FSR single family housing, and 1.2FSR along Main Street. However, like JJJ, I have not seen the plans, but understand that the density is higher than 2.0. (The density calculations are complicated by the basis of measurement….are the area of roads and parks included in the calculations, etc.)

    For those not familiar with the situation, the community indicated that they did not want to see any buildings higher than 4 storeys. Again, I disagreed with this constraint, and understand that all of the submissions, prepared by some very responsible and talented architects, included buildings higher than 4 storeys.

    I hope this additional information will be helpful to anyone who thinks the old decaying, outdated buildings at Little Mountain (that grossly under-used a well located site) should have been allowed to remain.


    And while I am on the subject….there are also a number of non-profit rental and cooperative housing developments that should be considering some future redevelopment. These projects are now approaching 35 years of age (I know, since I approved them while with CMHC in the mid-70’s). The non-profits and coop residents do not have the funds to repair the buildings, (and the governments are not necessarily going to make funding available) and so a solution must be found.

    I believe the solution may be to selectively redevelop portions of lower density sites to generate revenues from either higher value coop or condominium units. This will allow the NP’s and coops to fund the repairs and be able to remain in the projects. It will also result in a more intensive use of well located sites, and an increased supply of housing.

    As I noted on this site last winter, there are many multi-family projects in BC, publicly owned, privately owned, and owned by the ‘third sector’ that have not been putting away adequate monies to undertake the cost of essential renovations. This is going to result in a problem with a degree of severity that will rival the ‘leaky condo’ problem, in terms of hardship for residents.

    If anyone reading this is a resident of an older multi-family project, I hope you are questioning what ‘replacement reserves’ you have to undertake the necessary repairs that will inevitably be required. And if you want an idea of how serious the problem might get, just check out what happened to Glen Robin Place…

    From a report prepared a few years ago:

    The worst project with water problems is likely the 15 acre Glen Robin Place (Strata Plan NW-580) project in Burnaby. This California style development was built by the provincial government as subsidized rental housing in phases between 1975 and 1980. There are 96 apartment units in three story structures and 24 townhomes. The provincial government sold the project in 1995 and a private developer reorganized it into strata units and units were sold to homeowners and investors.
    The architects and builders are long gone and the combination of investors and homeowners with their lifetime savings at risk is a difficult decision making combination. A condition survey in 1997, is an eye opener about the deterioration process of wood construction if buildings are poorly designed for the wet climate. There are problems with the exterior cladding, exterior walls, windows and sliding doors, party walls, decks, drainage, railings, kitchens, bathrooms, roofs. According to professional investigators, not even the concrete slabs are sound. One architect has commented that “it is likely the whole development will have to be demolished, possibly eliminating any investment the strata owners have.”

    Guess what happened.

  • IanS


    I’m not certain what you are getting at with respect to the Glen Robin condo report. From what you’ve described, it sounds like a typical leaky condo situation, albeit a somewhat older development. How does that relate to your point re coops projects?

  • False Creek south was a well-intentioned example of mixed, social/affordable/coop/amenity in the ’70’s.

    However, and unfortunately an economic/amenity study was not conducted, consequently the Leg-in-Boot square shopping node did not survive in its intended form.

    If, indeed, the city takes “green” seriously proximity and convenience to amenity has to be the governing factor in density considerations.

    Higher buildings have the advantage of smaller foot-print and economy of unit cost to height.

    Leaky condos should no longer be an issue in new construction. Building envelope specifications and inspections establish safe guards.

    Density without proximate amenity (shopping, health, transit public space etc) has no place in contemporary planning and I am surprised this is not reflected in this conversation.