With the redevelopment of the Central Presbyterian Church site at Thurlow and Pendrell streets in the West End finally underway, Rev. Jim Smith – who’s been shepherding this project since its inception six years ago – can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
“I can probably relax for almost a whole day now,” he says. “Everything has fallen into place. Our faith is affirmed. It’s very much a God-driven project, and we proclaim that to all.”
A ground-breaking ceremony to officially mark the start of construction took place February 12. On hand were representatives of Bosa Properties (the project manager), architect Gregory Henriquez and Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry.
When construction is completed two years from now, a 22-storey multi-use building will occupy the site. Central will move into a three-storey podium along with a daycare, various community facilities and commercial retail space. Above the podium will be a tower containing 168 market rental units.
Bosa will use the revenues from these units to fund 42 social-housing units for seniors that the church – the project developer – will oversee through a non-profit housing society. The project will be entirely self-funded.
“Bosa Properties,” Henriquez said during the ceremony, “is producing a benefit for this community which is unprecedented in the history of Vancouver – and unprecedented in my 30-year career of building buildings.”
Faced with an aging structure well past its prime, Smith says his congregation and the other two that share the space – Galilee Korean Presbyterian Church and Christ Alive Community Church – agreed that some radical action was needed.
“We’re very active on a whole bunch of things – a daycare, a Montessori school, food bank, AA group, karate class, community meetings, voting station, seniors’ roundtable – and we were out of time and space,” he says.
“The building was being used from six in the morning to 10 at night seven days a week. It was built in 1976 and was never designed for the kind of use it was getting. It was just getting hammered into the ground.”
But the real impetus for doing something more than just putting up a new church building on the site was their growing concern over what was happening to many West End seniors due to what Smith calls “renovictions.”
“These old four-and five-storey walkups are being purchased by developers,” he says. “They slap on a coat of paint and then – poof! – the rent is doubled. The stories are legion of seniors who have lived in this community for 30, 40 years in the same building, and can no longer afford to be in that building.”
Since November, Central’s 60 or so members have been meeting Sundays at the Sands Best Western Hotel on Davie Street – and “as we expected,” Smith says, their attendance has grown.
“People like to be part of something where there is something happening, where there’s a future and hope. And they’ll put up with inconvenience to do that,” he says. “It’s when there’s nothing happening and there’s no future and no hope that people don’t want to be part of that kind of a sinking ship.”
Even so, for all the joy at finally getting to this point, Smith says many of his people were feeling a sense of loss prior to the ground-breaking. “Tearing down your church is a very traumatic exercise,” he says. “The congregations are supportive, but nonetheless you still feel that anxiety and angst. This provides some reality to the future.”
This is Bosa’s third church-based redevelopment project, the others involving Christ the King Lutheran Church in Surrey and Catholic church property in Victoria. Senior vice president Daryl Simpson says the key to getting a project like this off the ground is a high level of trust in his company’s ability to make it happen.
“It’s a relatively intimidating idea that you’re going to build this high-rise tower and a brand new church and the millions of dollars that are part of upfront funding and ongoing support and the skills and expertise you need to do that,” he says.
“It’s a daunting task to somebody who is not familiar with our business. It’s when you have organizations such as this with people who are passionate and trusting and open and collaborative that this happens. They’re the ones that are willing to say, ‘Let’s try it.’”
“We’re sitting on some very valuable property which we see as a legacy that’s been left to us by the people that have gone ahead of us in the congregation,” Smith says. “So we needed to do something responsible with that stewardship.”