Church sale opens door to much-needed townhouse project

Peaceable transaction

More than two years after it first hit the market, Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Sophia Street and East 15th Avenue has finally sold.

The deal closed at the end of October, with the congregation selling it to Multiland Pacific Holdings Ltd. for townhouse development. The price was $14.5 million, $4 million below the price at listing.

The lower price reflects the general downturn in prices this year as a wave of properties has become available for sale, outstripping demand. Buyers are more cautious and valuations more conservative.

“Prices have dropped,” said Mark Goodman of Goodman Commercial Inc., who handled the listing with Cynthia Jagger. “Those value-add buyers are not as active as they used to be.”

The redevelopment potential of the Bethlehem site made it appealing from the get-go, however. Since it was first listed in 2017, it was touted as a multi-family development opportunity. It would be developed either with residential units alone or with a mix of residential units and 7,000 square feet on two levels for Bethlehem’s use.

However, the congregation subsequently opted to sell it for multi-family development alone, something permitted under the existing RM-4 zoning. With no rezoning required, the site was attractive to a development-minded buyer.

“It seemed positive that you wouldn’t need to do that,” said Jagger, noting that there was healthy demand.

“Normally, when we’re selling sites, there’s tenant relocation, there’s density issues, there’s the time frame of how long it will take to rezone,” Goodman added. “There’s all these obstacles that are put in front, and this was one of the rare times when there were very few obstacles to make this deal happen.”

The result was a largely hassle-free sale that allowed the church to recoup equity for its own purposes and will see much-needed housing developed in the neighbourhood.

“It’s a win-win for the community; the buyer is happy and the seller is very happy,” Goodman said.

Alleluia!

The prospect of townhouses on the Bethlehem Lutheran Church site should raise an “Alleluia!” from the city. According to a report on the headway being made towards the 10-year targets set forth in the Housing Vancouver strategy, the city had approved just 6% of the 5,000 townhouse units expected as of the end of 2018. A few more won’t hurt.

Realtors have long lamented the dearth of townhomes on the market in Vancouver. While the city is racing ahead with laneway homes, which property owners can rent out, townhouses aren’t readily found by purchasers and are therefore rented even less often.

According to the latest sales figures from the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, townhomes have been in short enough supply to see some of the strongest gains in price this year.

While the benchmark price for the market as a whole increased in October for the first time since May 2018, prices for townhomes began to show signs of life this past April. They’ve posted gains in four of the past seven months, and today the benchmark price for townhouses is $771,600, just slightly below where it sat in March.

Clarification

Simon Fraser University associate professor Josh Gordon was incorrectly reported as renting an apartment from family in a report from a panel discussion the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business hosted last month regarding housing issues. While the condo unit is owned by a family, it’s not his family; he misspoke, and later corrected himself in a clarification that escaped the notice of yours truly.

Gordon stands by his point that vacancy rates among purpose-built rental units correlate more closely with economic activity than with construction rates of purpose-built rental housing. The stance helps explain his support of policy measures that address who occupies housing rather than construction activity.

Those measures include the city’s empty-homes tax, which is entering its third year. The tax has contributed $17 million to the three-year Community Housing Incentive Program, which the city recently launched as part of the Housing Vancouver strategy to “increase the affordability of social and co-op housing projects.” •

pmitham@telus.net