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City of North Van borrows $50M to fast-track Neighbourhood House, affordable housing tower

Taking on debt now will make the project cheaper and deliver new homes faster, council says
A rendering show the proposed new North Shore Neighbourhood House redevelopment from a northwest perspective from St. Georges Avenue and East Second Street. | City of North Vancouver

This story has been amended to add updated information about the city’s partner on the affordable housing project, which is now Catalyst Community Development, not Hollyburn Community Services

The City of North Vancouver is fast-tracking the redevelopment of North Shore Neighbourhood House and construction of an 18-storey affordable rental housing tower in Lower Lonsdale.

Council voted unanimously Jan. 22 to seek loans of up to $55.8 million to move up construction of Phase 2 of the redevelopment plan, along with two major park projects.

Council voted in 2021 to rezone the land at St. Georges Avenue and Second Street. Phase 1 of the project includes an 89-unit below-market rental housing project by non-profit developer Catalyst Community Developments and an 18,000-square foot seniors’ respite centre, which have already begun construction.

Originally, council intended to start Phase 2, which includes a 30,000-square-foot new home for North Shore Neighbourhood House and up to 180 new affordable rental homes built and run by Hollyburn Community Services, in 2028.

But council has since dropped Hollyburn as their chosen partner for the affordable housing and handed Phase 2 of the project over to Catalyst.

It was Catalyst who requested the city accelerate the timeline for Phase 2 to start in 2024.

Because the vote to switch housing partners was done in camera, or behind closed doors, Mayor Linda Buchanan said she could not elaborate on the reasons for the change.

But she did say it will make the project more competitive in securing funding from senior levels of government and deliver the housing and Neighbourhood House years ahead of schedule.

“We don’t know when but we know that there’s going to be many opportunities for funding,” she said. “From our perspective, using the same developer for both phases really allows the city to condense the overall timeline and increase efficiencies in the delivery of critical services. We’re able to move much more quickly in the event that funding is available.”

It’s also too soon to say how the change might impact the type of affordable housing that’s delivered in the end, but Buchanan said the decision to remove Hollyburn from the project is not a reflection of their abilities as a non-profit.

“Hollyburn is an excellent housing provider and we have partnerships with them and we will continue to have partnerships with them,” she said.

North Shore Neighbourhood House has served the community’s children, seniors and vulnerable populations since 1939. The organization has used up “every inch” of space available to it on Second Street, and the 1967 building is reaching its end of life, Mayor Linda Buchanan acknowledged.

A preliminary cost estimate from the city puts the price tag for the rebuild at $49.5 million.

Council has not yet had any public discussions on how its portion of the project might be paid for, but staff will now seek a loan from the Municipal Finance Authority, which offers low-cost financing for municipal capital projects.

If approved, council will have to decide in the future whether to pay the loan off within five years, or convert to long-term debt.

Council’s support for fast-tracking the project was unanimous, with council members acknowledging the importance of North Shore Neighbourhood House to the community and the dire need for affordable housing.

In their comments before the vote, council members suggested applying for the loan was the financially prudent thing to do.

“It’s an opportunity for us to take full advantage of cost and scheduling efficiencies by having both of the phases moving forward simultaneously as well as avoiding construction cost escalations and taking advantage of financing programs,” said Coun. Angela Girard.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, Buchanan described Phase 2 of the project as a “one-in-a-generation opportunity” and the most significant investment in affordable housing on the North Shore in 20 years.

“People in our community deserve a Neighbourhood House that meets their needs, and people working here deserve a place to call home at a price they can afford,” said Buchanan. “Building partnerships and securing a clear financial path forward will be one of the most important and impactful moves of this council. It will never be easier and, as I said, it will never be cheaper than it is right now to advance this important piece of community infrastructure.”

The loan application includes another $4.3 million to complete the total revamp of Kings Mill Walk Park in the Harbourside neighbourhood. The plans include a plaza, an all-ages play area, an off-leash dog park, open greenspace and shoreline habitat restoration.

And the city is seeking $1.8 million for completion of a new “Oasis of Calm” urban park on the 1600-block of Eastern Avenue, one of the city’s densest areas with the least access to park space.

Barring any new outside funding, the debt could be serviced with a one-time 5.4-per-cent tax increase, according to city finance staff. As the city heads into its 2024 budget, staff are recommending that the increase be spread out over three years, starting with a one-per-cent levy in 2024.

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