City hall could forge ahead on Hastings site

Colleen Jordan -
Colleen Jordan
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Victoria and Ottawa aren't in much of a hurry, but Burnaby city hall is tired of waiting for something to happen on the Urban Renewal Site on Hastings Street.

The city's planning department is seeking council's approval to move forward on producing a development concept for the sizeable property, in hopes that will spur some action on the part of senior governments.

The site, at 3802 Hastings St., is almost half an acre in size. Half is owned by the federal government, through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), while the province and Burnaby city hall own one quarter each.

Coun. Colleen Jordan, chair of the community development committee, said the land was assembled in the 1960s under a program that saw all three levels of government jointly create sites to be used for economic development projects.

"This site never took off."

And it's sat vacant pretty much ever since.

City hall also owns the remainder of the block, .67 acres to the west of the shared section. A 2008 city staff report proposed that the site be used for non-market housing, possibly for seniors, people with disabilities and families.

Jordan said it could also possibly serve a role in providing transitional housing with programming and supports.

"People have been bugging us to do some sort of housing. They always say, 'come up with some land,' so here is some land."

She explained that while Burnaby owns a lot of land, it's almost all designated for future parks or road development. This site is not.

She stressed that Burnaby would likely follow the lead of other cities which don't actually give away land for non-market housing projects but rather retain ownership and allow for long-term leases of 60 years or more.

The trick will be to get the provincial and federal governments involved.

"Generally, past experience in the non-market housing sector has shown that the contribution of land alone, by federal, provincial and city government, is not sufficient financial support for a project of this nature," a city staff report said. "Significant senior level government support is necessary to support the viability of social housing."

According to the report, previous proposals from city hall got lukewarm responses.

In 2008, the province indicated a willingness to look at a partnership but said there was no money available. It could, however, offer low-rate mortgage funding to an agency willing to take on the project, Jordan added.

CMHC, meanwhile, indicated in recent years that it would be willing to work on a development framework for the site but would expect to receive market value for its share of the land.

"I would like CMHC to sell at 1966 prices which is what they paid for it," Jordan said. "I guess the federal government doesn't have to pay capital gains tax on property it's been holding for 40 years."

If given approval by city council, Burnaby's planning department would work towards a development concept to determine the capital and operating costs of a non-market housing project on the site. It's hoped that knowing what could be built at what cost could help bring senior governments on board.

Jordan noted that the recent federal election and an expected provincial election in the near future could help change the governments' positions on the issue.

"We will just keep trying."

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