Brewery District looking to “unlock” last building at New West site

Wesgroup Properties has been unable to find a “unicorn” tenant, so it’s proposing changes to the Brewery District.

The city’s land use and planning committee recently considered a proposed zoning bylaw amendment that would convert 200,000 square feet of health-services density to “omnibus zoning” density in Building 8 in the Brewery District. In exchange, Wesgroup would make Building 5, which is under construction and near completion, 100 per cent secured market rental and would make Building 7, a proposed 32-storey mixed-use tower, into 100 per cent secured market rental and include 50,000 square feet of health-related commercial floor space.

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Ryan Thé, Wesgroup’s vice-president of development, said the ability to convert 200,000 square feet of Building 8’s density, or two-thirds of the building, to omnibus zoning would allow for a “much broader range of uses” so the project can better respond to market demands.

“I truly think the proposal has a benefit for everyone,” he recently told the committee. “There’s no net new density being proposed. The density is staying within the building site as it’s zoned and is simply transferring from one land-use category to another. It creates housing options.”

Thé said Wesgroup is “highly motivated” to find some commercial tenants for Building 8, regardless of the zoning that’s in place.

“We’d love to see this building fully tenanted with health services, health uses. It’s been over a decade looking for that unicorn tenant,” he said. “TransLink was one of them. We feel very, very fortunate that we were able to land them.”

Thé said the proposal would help Wesgroup complete the eighth and final building at the Brewery District.

“We believe it is near impossible to enable this development with the current zoning, and we ask that council and staff consider this proposal as far as a way of enabling this – effectively unlocking this site,” he said.

The Brewery District is a master-planned, mixed-use development on the former Labatt Brewery site at East Columbia Street and Brunette Avenue.

“Buildings 1, 2 and 3 are completed. What that’s brought to the city is 220,000 square feet of general office, with TransLink’s headquarters and the transit police and a small amount of strata offices, and roughly 80,000 square feet of health-care-related uses, including the Health Sciences Association building, quite a small amount of the Fraser Health Authority and some supporting services, the majority doctors’ and dentists’ offices,” Thé said. “In terms of residential, Building 4 is complete – 114 strata units. Buildings 5 and 6 are under construction. Under permit review is Building 7 – currently slated for 225 strata units.”

Building 8 was originally zoned to provide 300,000 square feet of health services space, which could include general offices. Wesgroup has worked with Fraser Health Authority and other companies regarding potential commercial opportunities in the building but has had no success.

“Demand really just continues to be underwhelming,” Thé said.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he’s concerned about replacing the health-services density with the omnibus zoning because he fears Wesgroup will go with whatever brings in the highest return for the developer and not what fits best with the city’s long-term vision for the area.

“I think it is too early in the game to write off the health-care office components of that, especially with the fact we are going to almost be doubling the work force on that site,” he said. “We are going to be bringing in key health-care components into that site with the expansion of the hospital site. I think this is premature, for me. To me, omnibus means it could be anything.”

Emilie Adin, the city’s director of development services, said staff believes what’s being requested is an “overall win” for the community. While there is a potential negative impact in relation to the city’s commercial and economic development priorities, she said the proposal would benefit the community by creating two new market rental buildings at a time when a housing crisis exists.

Coun. Mary Trentadue said she’s willing to be flexible but doesn’t want to lose commercial opportunities at the site because she thinks it will be required in the area.

“I would be inclined to support the omnibus – I am happy to broaden the use so that it’s not just health services, as long as it’s commercial. I am concerned about having the omnibus turned into residential because I think that is not what was intended originally,” she said. “I am happy to see the secured market rental come into play in a bigger way here.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote noted there have been some changes since the Brewery District was approved, as it had been anticipated that Royal Columbian Hospital’s expansion would likely take place on this site, but that is not happening and all of its expansion needs are happening on the hospital site. He said that’s “a changing dynamic” the city needs to consider.

“I definitely think there is some openness to see if there is something there,” he said of the omnibus zoning. “I look at that site and I don’t want it to be empty for the next 30 years, and want to see the Brewery District through to completion. Having said that, I think there are some important city goals we want to achieve through here.”

The land use and planning committee referred the issue back to staff.

The Record will be publishing an ongoing series of stories about projects being considered by the city’s land use and planning committee, which considers pre-applications from developers for projects in the city and provides feedback to city staff and the applicants that can be used to develop a formal application that could be considered by city council. Because the applications coming before the LUPC are preliminary, a lot of changes can arise before they make it to council for its consideration – if they make it that far.


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