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New Firetraps for Downtown Vancouver?

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
Pantages Site [photo: Rider Cooey]
Pantages Site [photo: Rider Cooey]

A report last month on anticipated fire code changes for Surrey tossed out this tidbit:

Meanwhile, more proposals for taller, wood-frame buildings are being accepted, including a six-storey, wood-frame building proposed for Vancouver — a $30.6-million social housing project slated for 1050 Expo Blvd.  (Sherlock, July 18)

Six storeys built of wood is based on changes to building code in 2009 to allow for a 50% increase in number of storeys. The two incentives: to boost forest industry revenues, to enable developers to lower costs.

The trade-off risk? A hell-on-earth inferno, like the May 2011 flameout at the Remy development in Richmond that sowed a lot of secondary spot fires.

Notice where this double-sided profit opportunity seems to head first in Vancouver. To social housing.

Then think beyond that first wooden box. Think about why the development proposal for the Pantages site at 138 East Hastings is six storeys tall, with no attempt to seek a rezoning. Bingo! Because the project can then be built of cheaper wood-frame construction. As Thomas Wolf, Architect, stated to the Urban Design Panel review on 27 July 2011:

In order keep the costs reduced the building will be of wood frame construction.

The proposed Pantages development — "79 one-bedroom units, which will sell for about $227,000" — is part of a development said to be "worth more than $20 million"  (Bellett).

Be certain that the math rules. Practically all of the 79 market units are designed at a size of 450 square feet, according to the developer's application letter of 15 June 2011. That calculates out to an anticipated sales price of over $500 a square foot for cheap construction of ugly little boxes. Here is a case study in profit maximization — factors are location, original land costs, necessary approvals, and doing the demolition and building. (Current assessed value of land alone is said to be $3.7 million.)

Make your own guesstimate of expected profit margin. Is your guess closer to 100% than to 15%?

The Urban Design Panel focused only on design and aesthetics in its review, and voted non-support by 7 to 0. A single example shows the huge gap between developer claims of quality, and the reality of crap. The application letter cites "superior materials of Swiss Pearl Panel and metal siding," and the architect touts "swiss pearl with textured metal." Meanwhile:

The Panel thought the materials wouldn’t stand up well and thought the hardi panel should be replaced with masonry, stone or metal to make it have more permanence.

The city's development planner who interfaced for the project at the UDP review

specifically sought advice on the Panel's expectations for design quality of the street and lane fronting facades, including materiality and detailing. He asked the Panel if the proposal met their standard for support recognizing its contextual importance near important heritage, and other, distinguished buildings.

The UDP appears to have answered that question in the strong negative.

In all of the foregoing, note these points of development strategy:

      Employ firetrap construction with cheap finish and then market at what seems on first glance to be a relatively low price.
      Establish beachhead in the area with hoped-for segmented comprador purchasers, while looking ahead to higher density and more upscale future development in a blockbusted neighborhood.
      Pay much attention to costs, margins, materials, and possible speed of completion — but make no assessment of social impact.
      Make sure to make money, always as much as possible, whatever the conditions.

If there are no holdups, Williams said construction could start in November with the complex being completed within 14 months.  (Bellett)

*     *     *

Further Reading:

Joseph Jones. Flameout in Richmond. Vancouver Media Co-op (6 May 2011)

Tracy Sherlock. Big wooden structures face tough new fire-code regulations. Vancouver Sun (18 July 2011) A3

Tracy Sherlock. Province warned of fire risks from code change. Vancouver Sun (19 July 2011) A1-A2

Frank Antonio. Wood First initiative marginalizes other industries. Vancouver Sun (19 July 2011) A9

Tracy Sherlock. Wood-frame developer heeds fire chief's advice. Vancouver Sun (22 July 2011) A4

Gerry Bellett. Pantages Theatre site to be turned into suites. Vancouver Sun (28 July 2011)

Downtown Eastside outraged at Pantages owner [News release]. Vancouver Media Co-op (29 July 2011)

Medha. Design panel puts brakes on Pantages site proposal. Vancouver Sun (29 July 2011)

Rider Cooey with Joseph Jones. Pantages in play: where will the antics end? Vancouver Media Co-op (2 August 2011)
 

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