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Spaces with no places: Residential land sits empty across the region

Joanne Lee-Young, The Province, Sept 10, 2016

The crux of the Lower Mainland housing crisis supposedly hinges on the lack of supply and an insatiable demand for land that can be developed.

Municipalities insist they are hung up on a way to boost the supply of affordable housing, in part, because Metro Vancouver is so hemmed in by water, mountains and land designated for agricultural use.

And yet, there are countless other little bits and wider swaths of land across the region zoned for residential use, or even commercial, that could be developed into multi-family home projects. They aren’t restricted by the Agricultural Land Reserve, but sit undeveloped with no concrete plan for the immediate future.

To see how these range in size and where they’re located from North Vancouver to Burnaby to Surrey — and why they sometimes seem curiously vacant — The Vancouver Sun scanned data supplied by Landcor Data Corp., a New Westminster-based firm that specializes in analyzing real estate data. Some of the largest plots of vacant land are government-owned or mired in plans for development that are more than decades-long and sometimes caught in community opposition. Others aren’t yet hooked up to services like water and sewage, so they have potential, but developers feel they are still too costly to touch. Faced with this, some owners would rather hold and gain rather than negotiate a lower price. (For a quick look at vacant land, click HERE.)

Of these, there is one piece of land covered in nothing more than dry, stubbly grass on the corner of Robson and Broughton Streets in Vancouver’s West End that has become the stuff of urban legend because it has been empty for decades. Now, it has become even more of a conundrum as developers scoop up any underused — never mind stark vacant — land in the surrounding blocks for big bucks.

With the city’s West End plan now allowing for much higher densities along Georgia and Burrard streets, the potential to build much taller residential towers in the area has sparked a number of high value land deals in the past year. All of this has led to the assessed value of this empty lot jumping 80 per cent in 2016 from $8.7 million to $15.7 million.

Land has become so coveted around these blocks that developers are targeting most everything from older buildings with retail on the ground to the last of gas stations.

And yet, there has not been so much as a flutter of trading activity on this almost 17,300-square-foot plot since it was purchased in 1974 by a B.C.-incorporated company using the name Melford Estates Ltd. It is connected to a Hong Kong firm whose directors are members of a well-established business family there. The Huis operate Hong Kong-based real estate company Central Development Ltd. One of the three directors, Jenkin Hui, died in 2014. Another director, Richard Hui, said in an email sent by the chief accountant at Central Management Ltd. — which shares an address with the development company — the “owner does not have any plan for the property for the time being.”

And so it seems, it will go on sitting empty.

“It is up to a landowner to develop their lands according to the West End plan and associated zoning when they choose,” said Kevin McNaney at Vancouver city hall. “The city doesn’t have the ability to compel any landowner to develop their lands.”

Of larger swaths of land, the most obvious chunk of long-held dirt is in West Vancouver, where British Pacific Properties has a plan to, over time, develop more than 2,000 acres in the hillside land it still holds around Cypress Mountain and further west.

Meanwhile, just off the West Coast Express track in Mission, there is a 1,169-acre plot known as the Silverdale Lands  — the next biggest, single chunk of residential land in the Lower Mainland. Genstar Development’s assembling of the land here goes back to the 1970s, along with that of another company, Madison Development Corp. After various starts and stops, Genstar, which is headquartered in San Diego, gave up trying to develop it in 2015. Madison also pulled back and the two have had the land listed on the market for about a year.

“These lands are a big deal for us,” said Dan Sommer, director of development services at the district of Mission, describing how Silverdale is “integral to our urban residential plan and we envision development of these lands.” However, he also added that “servicing the land, bringing sewer and water services to it, can be a significant investment for a developer” in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In North Vancouver, there are more than 600 acres of land that have been legally owned by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., some of it since the late 1960s. These parcels sit over areas near the Northlands Golf Course that are commonly known as Cove Forest, Forest Mountain and the Blair Rifle Range.

In an email, the CMHC said the title to the Blair Range property is “held in (its) name in trust for B.C. Province. CMHC has the responsibility for managing the property. While there are no immediate plans for the property, the CMHC is reviewing all options for future use of the site. This includes working with the neighbouring parks to develop a coordinated approach to managing and monitoring the use of CMHC lands.”

Mayor of North Vancouver district Richard Walton said about 75 per cent of this land is owned by the CMHC and the rest by the province, adding that any eventual development plans need to first include settling negotiations with the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Elsewhere in the district, he said there is some vacant land in “the northern forest area” but many of these sites were removed “from the list for future housing in the 1980s and 1990s. We were done with cutting down trees.”

These days, a more obvious concern when it comes to developing land is traffic, said Walton.

“It’s a real challenge to get from East to West across the North Shore along the Upper Levels highway.”

The combination of a “flurry of construction and the renovating of houses going back to the 1950s, and you have service workers who cannot afford to live in the area because of an increase in housing prices,” said Walton. “The reality is not enough houses at the right price, not a scarcity of land. Density is key, but if you have multi-family units in Edgemont (Village) that are going for $1.5 million to $2 million, that’s not solving the housing problem for our adult kids.”

Surrey has the highest number of vacant residential lots (2,357) less than two acres in size, according to Landcor, compared to 2,045 in North Vancouver, 812 in Richmond and 794 in Vancouver. In the Metro area, it also had the highest number of empty lots larger than two acres (351).

Some of the vacant land in Surrey, especially in the southeast corner and Hazelmere, will “become part of a more detailed plan, but right now, it’s out there. We don’t want it to be built on in bits and pieces,” said Don Luymes, community planning manager with the City of Surrey.

Other (vacant plots including some in the Grandview Heights and Clayton areas) have been identified in a plan, and “over the next 20 years, they will be rolled out in sequentially planned steps,” said Luymes. Some of these parcels, five-to-10 acres in size with some trees on them, are held by developers or owners for speculative purposes. “They have been sitting on them for decades.”

One piece of underused land that has a unique story, said Luymes, can be found at Zaklan Heritage Farm. It sits on an eight-acre piece of land in Newton that has a residential subdivision and industrial land right up against both sides of it.

“It is slowly being whittled away as (the owners) sell off little bits,” said Luymes. But “they have resisted redevelopment of their farmstead.”

For years, the Zaklan family owned some 20 acres of land that it bought in the late 1920s. “Then, the city ran 132nd Street through it,” said Doug Zaklan, who runs the organic farm business with his partner, Gemma McNeill.

“The family sold eight acres in the 1970s. There is a house and a barn on the other side of 132nd that is about two acres. We farm on a little part of the eight acres that is my great-uncle George’s land. He’s my grandpa’s brother.”

He said as younger farmers, they are part of a movement that believes in “small-scale, intensive farming” that involves “tight-spacing and growing three things out of each bed” instead of mono-crops.

He said realtors have lobbed in offers from developers, but he credits his great-uncle for “seeing the incalculable value of the land as an asset for the community. It holds the family together and is producing something beyond financial value. For whatever reason, he has been steadfast.”

“People come here and they say, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe this is here. It’s so beautiful. They really appreciate having green space they can access. There is the history of old pioneer families from Eastern Europe and Japanese farmers. Everyone has sold. So it’s an anomaly that we kept it.”

Plotting for the future?

Four large and small pieces of land around the region that are zoned residential (or commercial that could be used for multi-family homes) and sit empty for different reasons:

- Several plots of over 100 acres off Highway 1 near Cariboo Road in Burnaby. They fall under the city’s Cariboo Heights land use plan — which was adopted in 1987, and then updated in 2010 — marks the land for single and two family residential homes, as well as multi-family. The city still owns the land. There have been concerns over a proposed pipeline by Kinder Morgan, as well as several groups that want to preserve forest land as well as an interurban rail line for use as a bike path. (7260 Cariboo Rd., 7501 Craig Ave.)

- In North Vancouver, the CMHC and province of B.C. own more than 600 acres of land near Northlands Golf Course. There are no near-term plans to develop this, and observers cite everything from contamination concerns (part of it was once a rifle range) to pending negotiations with First Nations.

- The corner lot at 1401 Robson Street, where Robson and Broughton streets meet in the West End, has been owned since 1974 by the B.C.-incorporated company Melford Estates Ltd. It’s connected to a Hong Kong family, the Huis who run Central Development Ltd., a 50-year-old family-held real estate company.

- Another noticeable plot of empty land, also in the West End, sits at 601 Beach Cres. The city had been trying to sell it but, in mid-August, a company connected to Terry Hui, the president of Concord Pacific, sued the city, arguing the land was slated for use as a lowrise housing project when Concord turned the site over to the city as part of negotiations for density allowances elsewhere going back 20 years. For now, the sale is stalled as the lawsuit goes to court.