The owners of the Columbia Theatre are prepared to invest several hundred thousand dollars into a feasibility study to assess the possibility of building a hotel and residential tower above the heritage theatre.
Tricor Pacific Land and Redic Developments have submitted a pre-application review to the city regarding a proposal to build a 22-storey mixed-use residential and commercial development on the Columbia Theatre site at 530 Columbia St. In addition building a tower with 70 to 80 hotel units and 155 residential strata units, the proponent is proposing to retain and restore historic elements in the interior and exterior of the atmospheric-style theatre that opened in 1927.
“We are working with a jewel that’s very dusty and has not been properly maintained,” Adel Bellemlih, Tricor’s founder and managing director, recently told the city’s land use and planning committee. “The whole idea was, let’s make this whole list of community benefits happen through the polishing and rejuvenation of this jewel, and let’s make people appreciate it and let’s make it become again the centrepiece of what used to be a bustling Columbia Street.”
The Columbia Theatre is “struggling to stay alive” in its current form, Bellimilih said, but the beauty of the vision being proposed is that it creates a “really interesting synergy” by having a theatre, restaurant, hotel and condos on the site.
“It is not a slam dunk,” he said of the project moving forward. “It is a complex project. It helps that we as a developer all have a very strong technical background.”
Bellemilih said the project requires a “uniquely collaborative process” between the city and the developer to ensure it works technically and economically and meets the community’s objectives. He said his company is willing to invest several hundred thousand dollars into a feasibility study, before even submitting a detailed application to the city regarding plans for the 8,690-square-foot site.
Staff sought feedback from the committee on questions such as including having a hotel at this site and allowing “significant density” beyond what’s currently permitted.
“I am not terribly concerned by the FSR (floor space ratio). I understand why it would be as high as it is – it’s a small site. I think that the proposal is a very exciting one,” said Coun Mary Trentadue, one of three council members on the land use and planning committee. “I think the Columbia Theatre needs this kind of proposal in order to survive.”
Along with Trentadue, Mayor Jonathan Cote and Coun. Chuck Puchmayr expressed support for having a hotel at the site, for considering density beyond what’s available under current zoning and for preserving heritage elements of the Columbia Theatre and allowing the community theatre to be a continued use at the site.
Britney Quail, a heritage planner with the city, said this site is currently protected by a heritage designation bylaw which protects the exterior of the building. Conservation covenants also protect the front façade on Columbia Street and interior elements, including about 40 plaster works and mural features in the building.
Because construction would occur around an existing theatre, Quail said a lot of work still has to be done determining what’s possible in this space in terms of restoration. She said staff have always approached heritage revitalization agreements by thinking about the balance of heritage benefits to the community compared to the zoning relaxations provided to the applicants.
Committee members also provided staff with some feedback on questions concerning “significant relaxations to parking, loading and servicing” requirements for the project. The project is proposing 80 parking stalls in two levels of above-grade parking and three levels of below-grade parking on Front Street. (Because of the site’s small size, a car elevator may be a possibility in the parkade.)
Calling it a “really unique proposal” for the site, Cote said he looks forward to seeing how the proponent integrates a tower over the Columbia Theatre.
“To me, I think that will be more important than normal because it’s a heritage building that we don’t want to have erased through this,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more work and details that need to be done. For this project ever to get closer to the reality stage, a lot more information on how this project will protect and enhance an important heritage aspect in the community.”