Oliver Webbe, the president of North Vancouver’s Darwin Development, feels most comfortable when his projects are just a short drive from its North Shore headquarters.
“The company was founded by my father in 1987 and our office has been in the District of North Vancouver since then,” he told RENX in a recent interview. “Our office was . . . originally on Riverside Drive, and we’re now on (the Dollarton Highway), probably about only 1,200 yards away from where we first started.”
Darwin might be the busiest developer on the north side of Burrard Inlet these days. And the company is increasingly focused on adding rental housing stock to a market feeling the pressure from a Lower Mainland housing crunch.
North Shore Innovation District gets revision
Among its top ongoing concerns is the massive North Shore Innovation District (NSID).
Darwin recently revised its plans for the master-planned mixed-use community and is preparing to unveil the revisions to the district’s newly elected council. The project is a partnership with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in the Maplewood community that, if approved, would have a mix of commercial, residential, recreational and community amenities.
The plan calls for 1,120 homes including townhouses and low-rise apartments, as well as several commercial and light industrial components.
It would also include parks and conservation areas, and housing tailored and discounted for staff and teachers who work in the North Vancouver School District, according to a new deal between the developer and the school district. Eighty per cent of the homes would be rentals.
Last year, Darwin proposed the NSID as an 18-building complex on 45 acres of mostly treed land with buildings up to eight storeys high.
However, that plan collided with local opposition. Much of the criticism blasted the project as too large and for adding more traffic to the already congested North Shore corridor. The entitlement process was also halted to make way for municipal elections.
Now, Darwin has a revised proposal.
“We reduced the density by about 600,000 square feet,” Webbe said. “That’s about a 20 per cent reduction in the density.”
It is also proposing to increase the environmentally protected areas from 14 to 16 acres and increase the public park and plaza space from 16 to 18 acres, he said.
Darwin resubmitted the revised rezoning application on Jan. 21 and hopes to bring it before council within the next two months.
Office-building, mixed-use developments
Meanwhile, Darwin is also preparing to build the Offices at Harry Jerome in the City of North Vancouver. That project would include about 15,000 square feet of street-level retail space beneath 75,000 square feet of class-A space designed for medical offices.
The building is part a larger, multi-phase redevelopment of the Harry Jerome Neighbourhood Lands between 21st and 23rd Streets on the east side of Lonsdale Avenue. The overall plan includes a park, cycling and pedestrian paths, a daycare, and more than 800 housing market rentals and senior’s housing in a mix of four mid-rise and high-rise buildings.
Webbe said construction on the first phase is expected to start by the end of 2019.
Among other projects, Darwin is also working on the Sentinel at the site of a former Earl’s restaurant in West Vancouver. The 26-storey tower will include a mix of market condos, rental apartments and non-profit housing, Webbe said.
Darwin’s plan to increase rental housing stock
“Of all of our residential (developments), I would say about 50 per cent, if not more, is going to be rental housing,” Webbe explained. “Then we’ve got probably about 25 per cent of it will be commercial office or industrial, and then the other 25 per cent will be market housing.”
There is a tremendous lack of rental housing in the North Shore, which is actually having some negative impacts on employee retention, he said. To learn more, Darwin recently surveyed a major local employer with more than 500 staff.
“We surveyed their employees and 73 per cent of them live off the North Shore,” he said. “We know that building new condos isn’t going to be making a significant difference to that employee. We need to build more rental housing.”
He said it appears the new council agrees.
“I have personally met with all seven council members and I think all of them are aware that we have a housing crisis on the North Shore,” he said. Webbe believes the new council is willing to be more proactive about green-lighting projects which include rental homes.
North Shore remains the priority
“We don’t own any real estate off the North Shore,” he said, noting Darwin does have 10 construction projects outside of the community, including buildings for other developers, B.C. Housing and municipal buildings.
“Our two divisions really are the construction division, building for other people, and then we have our development division where we build for ourselves.
“The North Shore has always been a stable market because there is very little land available on the North Shore,” he said. “There is a strong demand with very little supply. It’s been that way for 20 years and I see it happening for another 20 years.”