Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Micro Lofts Come to Vancouver

I was filled with delight and envy when I read about the proposal by Reliance Holdings and ITC Construction to renovate the Burns Block in the DTES into 270 square foot rental mini-loft suites. Delighted because I think it is a good idea, especially in this location. Envious, since this is an idea I have talked about doing since the early 1970's when CMHC approved Bradwin Court, a 'high-rise rooming house' on Sherbourne Street in Toronto under its $200 million demonstration program.

A few details about the project:
  • An innovative market rental housing project built by Vancouver companies Reliance Properties and ITC Construction Group
  • Located at the site of the historic ‘Burn’s Block’ in the Downtown Eastside, the building dates back 100 years and is on the City of Vancouver Heritage Register
  • Building will feature 30 self-contained affordable market rental suites or “micro-lofts”
  • Suites are approximately 270 square feet, making them the smallest in Vancouver
  • Average rental value for each suite is projected at $750 per month and starts as low as $675 per month. Suites will also be offered furnished for a small extra charge
  • The building is 18,000 square feet and has five floors, of which one will be fully-furnished
  • Spatially-efficient design contains built-in pull-down wall beds with integrated folding tables, compact appliances, ample storage, built-in safe for storing valuables and “wet” bathroom
  • Building also features a rooftop garden, basement gym and several environmentally-friendly elements
  • The social entrepreneur partnership between Reliance and ITC is an effort to restore the building and to pay tribute to its history
  • The City of Vancouver assisted through council policy including the SRA-By Law, the Heritage Incentive Program and the Downtown Eastside Housing Plan
  • While the former use of Burns Block was for a Single Room Occupancy hotel (SRO) with shared facilities, suites in the redeveloped building will each contain a full bathroom and kitchen
  • Occupants will be students, people in transition and those looking to work and live in the heart of the downtown area at an affordable rent
  • Reliance purchased the building while it was being used as an SRO hotel in 2007, after it was closed by fire officials in 2006. ITC joined the project in 2009 to complete the construction work
  • Scheduled for completion in March 2011
Frances Bula wrote a story about this project in the Globe (I suggested that they be compared to living on a 55 foot yacht, rather than in two parking spaces) and has subsequently blogged about the initiative. Somewhat surprisingly, I have been strongly criticized for supporting this initiative. Some feel it will lead to gentrification, which is not likely true. Gentrification means the replacement of a low income neighbourhood with middle income households. I believe there has been so much money invested in low income housing in the area that the low income households are not leaving.

Another person criticized me since he assumed my clothes closet is larger than these units! Here's my response:

As for my closet, it is quite large, with a window, in a very large house. However, I often lived in rooms that shared a bathroom and kitchen with many others; and subsequently in a one bedroom apartment that I shared with another man (since the living room had a door). I subsequently lived in an older 430 sq.ft. one bedroom apartment, and was very happy to move into a very small, but brand new studio suite in the Plaza International Hotel apartments.

So I have experienced many different modest housing solutions, and that is why I believe a brand new 270 sq. ft. self contained suite with a murphy bed and new appliances that rents for 60% of the cost of the average 1 bedroom apartment is a good idea.

There's another aspect to this story that hasn't received much attention, the role of the contractor ITC. I have known the president Peter Rezansoff since the mid 70's and worked with his company on many projects. ITC (which stands for integrity, trust and commitment) was formerly known as Intertech Construction. It is now the largest construction company (based on construction volume) in Western Canada with its head office in Vancouver and a regional office in Calgary. ITC was the contractor for the Woodwards project and much of the Olympic Village. It has been selected as one of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies for 6 consecutive years.

Peter has been looking for an opportunity to be involved with a socially motivated housing project in Vancouver for some time since, in its quiet way, ITC has been involved with several Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives including: BladeRunners, a program that offers construction training and mentorship to First Nations youth and it is spearheading the creation of a similar program in Alberta. ITC is 'donating' its normal construction profit back to the project in order to make it economically viable.

I predict this project will be a success. It will be a positive addition to the DTES and I compliment Reliance Holdings and ITC for making it happen.


Jon Petrie said...

A friend with a good job in Manhattan has lived in a 150 sg ft studio in Brooklyn for the last 10 years -- he is now paying $1500 a month. Another friend raised a child on his fish boat within sight of Granville Island -- child is now a TV producer. Habitable space on the boat less than 100 sq. ft.

Part of the reason for the expense of housing is too many regulations ... in all high priced and regulated urban areas the only cheap unsubsidized housing is illegal housing -- e.g. basement suites, backyard cottages, converted attic spaces. I have built and lived in a few ...

Frank Schliewinsky said...

the comparison to a 55 ft yact is not accurate. if it's a motor yacht then the space is more like a 2 bedroom apt. if it's a sailing yacht then it's more like a one bedroom apt. i've been living on a sailing yacht for 24 years and wouldn't trade it for a 2400 sf house. houses don't go well to weather. it's not a matter of sq.ftage but how the space is organized and the view. 270 sf in an interesting neighbourhood sounds pretty good.

Kevin Key - KeyPlan said...

For helping people visualize the spaces, I agree that a parking space is not good at all. No walls, ceiling, windows, hallways. No security, not heated and no good.

A parking space in a private garage is a slight improvement in that it has walls and ceiling, but it still stores cars, not people. Even a prison cell stores people, shares walls and ceilings, offers security, and often has running water.

A yacht stores people, but primarly for travelling, not unlike a large RV. I do like the yacht/RV idea in that 'everything has its place;' storage for all stuff is item-specific and customized. But, like prisons, not many people have spent time in those transport modals.

The best example would simply be a hotel room - located in urban areas, have shared walls and ceilings, and compact rooms with closets and bathrooms to store people and their stuff.

The average size of hotel rooms on our continent is 325sqft. 'Luxury' and kitchenette rooms average in the upper 400s). And surely, everyone has stayed in one of those.

michael geller said...

Good comments...and thanks I agree that the hotel room is a good analogy... what size boat would have 270 sq.ft of living space?

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Paul Albrighton said...

I'm so glad this type of property is emerging in Vancouver. However; People's requirements remain high, but they still complain about prices! We need more "stylish" and functional housing in Downtown to convince these people otherwise. Small spaces can offer great living opportunities, a focus on layout, design and practicality can always help.

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