Monumental battle set for Public Hearing April 14 on 508 Helmcken: City actions & policies have created huge divisions in Vancouver

508Helmcken(Update: The Public Hearing ended after 11 pm, with speaker numbers up to 30, though several were unable to stay and speak. Council is set to discuss and possibly decide at the end of the April 15 morning committee meeting.)

A monumental battle is set to unfold at a Public Hearing starting at 6 pm on April 14, 2015 regarding a land swap and development at 508 Helmcken in Vancouver’s downtown area. As we have written before, this is really about the very integrity of our municipal government. And the stakes are probably higher than anyone currently imagines. Many things about this whole deal reek of something extraordinarily wrong.

As noted by Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail today, at the hearing, Vancouver City Council will consider this controversial land deal in Yaletown that would result in two new towers. The rezoning of the city land next to Emery Barnes Park downtown is part of a land swap. Bula writes, “the deal was derailed in January after the B.C. Supreme Court quashed the city’s first round of decisions last year on the two pieces of land involved. The judge said planners hadn’t presented people with complete information or allowed them to comment on the unusual land swap between the city and a private developer.” Ms. Bula doesn’t get into details about the tricky new definition of “social housing” adopted by the City just two weeks ago and how it is already being used to grant excessive density bonuses to developers and circumvent public hearing processes.

Indeed, the process with the original approval had such a shortage of “procedural fairness” that the City got a serious wrist-slapping from the B.C. Supreme Court. Some key details of the secret deal only came out during court proceedings. The development itself violates so many of the respected design traditions of Vancouver that an elite group of academics and urban planners, including former City of Vancouver planners, wrote to the Mayor and Council to express their concerns (text copied below).

The justification for replacing the “Jubilee House” senior housing on the site is that the building was in bad shape. True, perhaps, but it was only 30 years old. Now, it appears Christ Church Cathedral, which is associated with the “127 Society for Housing” (which let the facilities fall into disrepair), is actively supporting efforts to lobby City Council to rezone the site. In fact, there could be problems with this, as the Canada Revenue Agency prohibits registered charities (if they want to keep their status) from seeking toretain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country.”

It is disappointing to see good community groups being used as pawns by the development complex, but this pattern is common across the city.

Public Hearing
Rezoning information

Our previous stories tell the general flow.

Here is our August 2014 summary video of the land swap – in 3 minutes.



Tomorrow, City Council will vote to on the rezoning of 508 Helmcken to allow a 36 story tower to be built on the corner of Emery Barnes Park. At an enormous FSR 17.4, it would become the densest residential building in the entire city.

City staff are seeking approval for this huge tower by improperly labeling the building as “Social Housing.” 

There will not be a single unit of social housing in the building. It is a 100% market rate tower. The proposed tower is over 5 times the legal density limit.

We must stop this abuse of the definition of Social Housing. If this precedent is set, people truly in need will be deprived access to true low cost housing. The City will continue this abuse of the definition of Social Housing to densify neighbourhoods across the city. Your neighbourhood could be next.

Please speak up now to prevent this abuse of social housing.

  • Email the mayor and council at A quick note saying “I oppose the rezoning of 508 Helmcken.” is all it takes. For extra impact, add one or two bullet points from the list below.
  • Attend the public hearing starting 6pm on Tuesday, April 14 at City Hall. Voice any of the objections from the list below, or add your own. You can register to speak by emailing, or just ask to speak when you get there.
  • Forward this email, and
  • Share the petition via social media.


Community Association of New Yaletown says this:

 We oppose the rezoning of 508 Helmcken because:

  • 508 Helmcken far exceeds the density limits imposed by the Downtown Official Development Plan (DODP). The proposed density is more than 3 times the highest limit allowed for Social Housing in the neighbourhood.
  • 508 Helmcken also does not conform to numerous of the City’s own Neighbourhood Guidelines, as confirmed by the City’s own reports.
  • To sell City land, the Vancouver Charter requires the vote of 75% of City Council. There has been no vote of 75% of council members authorizing the sale of 508 Helmcken, rendering the land swap illegal.
  • The recent DODP amendments redefining Social Housing are illegal, unreasonable, and are subject to a new legal challenge. This bogus definition should not be used until the legal challenge is settled in court.
  • The 100% market-rate 508 Helmcken does not meet even the new definition of Social Housing — only the related development across the street at 1099 Richards does. [1099 will not be all market housing. Jubilee residents get to stay at subsidized rates because that was part of the negotiated deal.]
  • 1099 Richards already received relaxed density and height limits imposed by the DODP, as well as numerous other relaxed interpretations of the Neighbourhood Guidelines, as that building was deemed to contain Social Housing under the new definition.
  • 508 Helmcken can’t then double-dip the same density bonus that 1099 Richards has already used up. The social housing at 1099 Richards can’t be counted again to also allow massive density that’s reserved for Social Housing in the 100% market rate 508 Helmcken.
  • The BC Supreme Court ruled that the public and city council must have the opportunity to evaluate the combined impact of 508 Helmcken and 1099 Richards together. There have been no open houses, no shadow analyses, no physical models, no discussions of the tradeoffs or financial implications, or any public discussion of the combination of the two buildings, in violation of the Supreme Court ruling.
  • Even if the City were to claim that 508 Helmcken and 1099 Richards are part of a single Social Housing development, this development still doesn’t meet the new DODP’s requirement that 30% of the total units be Social Housing in order for it to be considered a Social Housing development.
  • The City will be trading away the just-rezoned property at 508 Helmcken based on its lower, pre-rezoned value, essentially “gifting” $40M to the developer. By undervaluing city land, the City is wasting taxpayer assets and not receiving as much money for future social housing as it should.
  • Don’t just take our word for it. Numerous respected urban planners and former City of Vancouver planners are very concerned about this proposed rezoning. See their attached letter for details.


Racing forward, City Council has already scheduled approval of the density increase at 1099 Richards on April 15, 2015, the very next morning after the 508 Helmcken Public Hearing.

Referral to Council for Approval: Development Permit Board’s Conditional Approval of Floor Space Ratio increase for Social Housing for 1099 Richards Street (DE418881) and
Related Housing Agreement


Note that some of the units at the proposed tower at 1099 Richards would replace 87 social housing units at Jubilee House. That building would not be 100% market rental, because a bed for bed replacement was negotiated as part of the deal.


Letter from academics and planners

April 13, 2015

To: Mayor and Councilors, City of Vancouver

Re: Procedural Fairness for the Proposed Re-zoning Application at 508 Helmcken Street (RTS No.10912)

Dear Mayor and Council,

We are a group of Vancouver urban planners and academics including former City of Vancouver planners who are concerned about the future planning direction in the city. Our concerns relate to both the need for an overall planning framework for the city but also many individual project approvals which ignore long held planning values about the need for new developments to fit in with their surroundings.

In this regard we are very concerned that the proposed development at 508 Helmcken Street is out of scale with its surroundings. This was confirmed by the initial Urban Design Panel (UDP) review which rejected it 7-0. It is our understanding that the UDP panel reluctantly approved the project 5-3 when it was considered a second time, following very minor modifications, and only after an extraordinary intervention by the General Manager of Development Services who urged approval.

While we acknowledge this project is in a unique situation we believe the current application warrants another review by the UDP prior to consideration at Public Hearing. This will provide the panel an opportunity to assess whether earlier concerns have been addressed. It will also allow new panel members to comment.

This review will also hopefully provide guidance to Council and staff on how far the city should deviate from accepted zoning and planning guidelines in order to achieve much desired affordable housing and other amenities.

We therefore respectfully urge city staff and Council to refer this application back to the UDP prior to another formal Public Hearing.

Thank-you for your consideration of this request.

Yours sincerely,

Ken Cameron, Former Manager of Policy and Planning, Greater Vancouver Regional District; Adjunct Professor of Urban Studies, Simon Fraser University

Patrick Condon, Chair, Master of Urban Design Program, UBC

Frank Ducote, former Senior Urban Designer, City of Vancouver Planning Department

Michael Geller, President, The Geller Group; Adjunct Professor, SFU Centre for Sustainable Community Development

Dr. Penny Gurstein, Director, School of Community and Regional Planning, UBC

Colleen Hardwick, CEO, PlaceSpeak

Scot Hein, Urban Designer, Campus and Community Planning; Adjunct Professor of Urban Design, SALA, UBC

Michael Kemble, Former Planner, City of Vancouver Planning Department

Ray Spaxman, Former Director, City of Vancouver Planning Department; Principal, Spaxman Consulting Group

Erick Villagomez, Principal, Metis Design Build



The City’s redefinition of “social housing” now allows units as small as 250 sq. ft. and renting for $912 per month to be considered “social housing” and based on that, be eligible for huge, profitable benefits for the developer. Calculate a normal sized one bedroom unit at 650-750 sq.ft., (triple the size), then apply the same rate per square foot, and you come up with around $2,500, which is currently about (or even above) the regular market-level of rents in Vancouver. So, in actual fact, the new definition simply allows market rental units to be reclassified as “social housing” simply by building tiny units. Developers are then rewarded (as though they have sacrificed to help those most in need) with bonus densities, which are granted by the Development Permit Board. Zoning guidelines and Public Hearing processes are thereby circumvented, as City Council completely skips the public input step.

Many people support the efforts of Jubilee House. But it appears that the building and its residents are being used as pawns in a lucrative land deal the enriches one company.

Many people want our governments to support true social housing for vulnerable and needy people.

But through this current case, the City of Vancouver is setting a dangerous precedent that could have long-term negative implications citywide. Do the residents and church members being mobilized to lobby City Council realize these implications. Probably not. They have only been shown one piece of the big picture.

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