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Council moves to protect office space
New Westminster council wants its staff to strengthen an office conversion policy it put before them last week.
Before a conversion can occur, councillors would like to see office space be vacant for at least 10 years, and that there also be encouragement of heritage protection.
In January, when council heard a proposal to convert a building at 737 Carnarvon St., Coun. Jonathan Coté, who voted against the application, suggested the city develop a policy to ensure there is enough office space available in the city and to preserve business property tax revenue.
Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said last week he’d also like to have criteria that promotes much-needed residential rental stock, both of the market and non-market variety, but he also doesn’t mind conversion to market housing.
“There’s some beautiful buildings on Columbia Street that we have encouraged for heritage. They’re struggling to put people in offices upstairs. Those would be prime buildings that are prime for seismically upgrading and putting in residences,” said Puchmayr. “If you take vacant office space and you turn it into residential space, sure your tax multiplier reduces, but what we’ve seen in the Downtown is the increase of people traffic and foot traffic improves the viability of the businesses down there, which in turns improves the tax base there.”
Coun. Jaimie McEvoy said if the city only required three years of vacancy before allowing a conversion there might be an incentive for an owner to intentionally sit on the empty property.
Coté said the staff’s report overall did a good job of balancing what would be an appropriate amount of office space.
“In the end we’re moving toward a policy that takes into account a lot of different factors that come into play. It will reinforce a strategy to provide a strong employment base in the city, but protect heritage and rental housing as well. It’s not the strongest that could be developed but in a dynamic city like New Westminster you have to take into account those factors,” said Coté.
Last week’s report pegged the city’s office vacancy rate at about 12 per cent “which is comparable to the regional average.” It said there was 485,000 square feet of Class A space under development, about 140,000 of it Downtown, which should increase the current inventory by about 25 per cent.
“As new Class A space becomes available, older Class A and Class B space can become less competitive and may experience either increased vacancies or the need to decrease rents to retain tenants,” said the report.
Where rezoning is required, the policy calls for the preservation of heritage values, provision of affordable housing, and requirement to have environmental features and community amenities.
Under the proposed policy, office conversions won’t be allowed if the vacancy rate for the office class in that area is below five per cent and when the rate is between five and 10 per cent with the long-term trend on the decline. It also calls for existing street level commercial to be retained. Any owner contemplating a conversion should also meet with the city to see if there are any available incentives or tools that can make it viable as a commercial property.
Upper storeys in a heritage building deemed uneconomic will be required to have an appropriate heritage revitalization agreement worked out with the city.