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Four sites Qmunity could call home, maybe

Queer community centre still looking for a home in Vancouver’s West End

Two years after Qmunity received $7 million from the City of Vancouver to build a new queer community centre, planners are still searching for the right site. Daily Xtra checked out four sites that could work, including the one currently home to St Paul’s Hospital.  Credit: Nathaniel Christopher

It’s been nearly two years since the City of Vancouver gave Qmunity $7 million to build a new queer community centre in the West End.

The money, part of a community amenity contribution from Jim Pattison Developments in exchange for the city rezoning sites elsewhere for an unrelated development, was warmly welcomed by Qmunity’s executive director, Dara Parker.

“We’re so thrilled. This is such a long time coming, and we couldn’t be happier,” Parker told Daily Xtra on Dec 17, 2013, after city council unanimously approved the funding.

The challenge since then has been finding available real estate in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village.

Daily Xtra recently consulted with Parker about four possible locations in or near the Davie Village:

  1. The Gabriola House at 1523 Davie St.
  2. The Comox Building currently standing vacant at St Paul’s Hospital.
  3. The hospital site once St Paul’s moves to the False Creek flats (as it’s expected to do by 2023).
  4. The former Shell station site at Burrard and Davie streets (currently home to a community garden).

Gabriola House

Located at the corner of Davie and Nicola streets, the 17,327 square foot Gabriola house is one of the last Victorian mansions in the West End.

“It has enough space, it’s in the right location, it’s beautiful — but we just don’t have the capital or operating costs at this stage to make it happen,” Parker says.

The mansion was put up for sale in 2014 for $10 million, the total budget allocated for the new community centre’s development. (In addition to the $7 million already approved, Qmunity anticipates an additional $3 million from the city from other development projects’ community amenity funds.)

But the Vancouver Sun reported Oct 19 that the property was recently sold for $6.72 million to Nevin Sangha, who plans to convert it into rental suites. Sangha didn’t return Daily Xtra’s calls for an interview.

Though the mansion sold for less than its asking price, Parker notes it still would have been prohibitively expensive to renovate and maintain.

“There are three heritage designations on that property, including the exterior, the interior and the grounds, which is great,” she says, “because it’s a fabulous space that I would like to preserve. But that comes with some very significant operating costs and property taxes, and it would require a serious renovation to make it an accessible community space.”

Parker says it would have cost approximately $400,000 a year, half of Qmunity’s annual operating budget, to maintain the property. “We did look at the property and love the romantic idea, but it broke down in terms of the costs,” she says.

Kevin McNaney, the City of Vancouver’s assistant director of planning, confirms it would have cost another $3 million to renovate the mansion. “Several years ago an organization looking at the building estimated that it would cost 2 to 3 million to get it up to code,” he says. “I understand there’s some water damage inside. Other required upgrades include basic repairs and an elevator. Additionally, some of the facade might need improvement.”

Still, the grandson of sugar magnate Benjamin Rogers, who built the mansion in 1901, likes the idea of Qmunity moving in.

“I think that as a structure it should be preserved as a community centre and not as an apartment,” Brian Rogers tells Daily Xtra. “I think Qmunity would do a marvellous job with it.”

“It’s a wonderful building in the heart of the West End and it should be enjoyed by the public in general,” he says.

Comox Building

The Comox Building, located on the northeast corner of the St Paul’s Hospital campus at Comox and Thurlow streets, is one of the largest vacant structures in the West End.

But Shaf Hussain, a spokesperson for Providence Health Care, which runs St Paul’s, says the 85-year-old building is slated for demolition as part of the site’s redevelopment.

“We want to tear it down but have no timeline,” he explains. “In the past, we have partnered with community groups to use the space for very temporary arrangements, but the issues were becoming way too prevalent. Its piping has deteriorated over the years and there is extensive water damage to the walls and floors caused by the rain and the pipes.”

Hussain says the building’s antiquated and unreliable electrical system limits the use of modern office equipment. “Everything is old and the building doesn’t contain any form of cooling or air conditioning,” he says. “Ventilation is achieved by opening windows, and heating comes from radiant heaters using steam. There are control valves on every floor that sometimes work and sometimes don’t work.”

When asked if the Comox Building could make a suitable home for Qmunity, Parker says she can’t comment without more specific knowledge of the building.

“We are willing to consider any building in or close to the gaybourhood, and we are hoping to advance the project as soon as possible,” she says.

St Paul’s site, post-hospital

Though Providence is hoping to move St Paul’s Hospital to its new site on Station Street by 2023, Hussain says there’s no plan right now to sell the Burrard Street land.

“The land will help pay for the new site,” he explains. “We may lease it or find new partners. We are likely not selling the land.”

With the BC government expected to contribute $500 million towards the construction of the new St Paul’s Hospital (which could cost $1.2 billion to build), Hussain says the Burrard Street site will be used to raise a portion of the remaining $700 million.

Asked if a portion of the current St Paul’s site could be converted into a home for Qmunity, Hussain says it would depend upon the outcome of the planning and consultation process.

“It could be that the hospital moves but there will still be a lot of services that serve the West End, such as walk-in clinics and support services,” he explains. “We will work with our partners at Vancouver Coastal Health, which has a mandate for primary care and community services, and the neighbourhood, to determine what those services should be.”

Vancouver Councillor Tim Stevenson thinks it’s an “interesting possibility” but says that eight years might be too long to wait to find Qmunity a new home.

“We’re having sessions with city planning and meeting with [Parker] to see how we might try to secure something sooner,” he says. “It’s really difficult. There’s not much available. Staff have been looking and looking and always keep their eyes open in the Davie Street area. But there hasn’t been anything, so I’m going to meet again with staff to see what else we can consider.”

“It’s been two years since I was able to secure $7 million and we haven’t been able to use it. It’s nobody’s fault,” he says.

Parker says she hopes to advance the project as soon as possible.

“We are open to any possibilities in or close to the neighbourhood, including the St Paul’s site, that will best serve our communities,” she reiterates.

Burrard and Davie garden

In the absence of a suitable vacant building, McNaney says the city will continue to work with Qmunity to find a suitable location for a purpose-built facility.

“We have no leads,” he says. “It’s tough to find good sites in the West End near the Davie Village.”

Parker says a new centre would have to be “totally accessible” and would also require some ground level space.

“Other than that, we’re looking at a combination of flexible multi-use spaces and trying to stay away from one-use purpose-built space, such as a theatre or pool,” she explains. “We need spaces that can evolve over time.”

The Davie Village Garden at Davie and Burrard streets has long been proposed as a possible site for an LGBT community centre. “That location definitely comes up a lot,” Parker says. “It’s definitely a space we’d be interested in.”

The land is owned by Prima Properties, which has previously discussed the possibility of building a mixed-use highrise development on the site.

It was the site of a Shell gas station and other retail businesses until 2007, when it was converted to a community garden.

Daily Xtra wanted to ask Prima about its current plans for the site and whether those plans could include a queer community centre — but the company did not return calls before posting time.

McNaney says the city does not have any active applications for development on the site.