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Second recycled shipping container development planned for Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

VANCOUVER ARCHITECT ANTHONY Boni is excited about his new project.

Although he has done a variety of projects in the past, from homes to museums to commercial buildings, this one is a first, not only for the principal of Boni Maddison Architects but also for Canada.

Boni is working with the Downtown Eastside–based Atira Women’s Resource Society to build the country’s highest residential building using shipping containers. “It’s a prototype. I mean, this hasn’t been done before at this scale,” Boni told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

Atira is proposing a seven-storey building to house women and children at 420 Hawks Avenue, currently zoned industrial. The nonprofit has applied to the City of Vancouver to rezone the 3,050-square-foot lot for comprehensive development.

Once completed, the project will have 26 self-contained social-housing units. Twenty of these will be studios. Six units will have two bedrooms for women and children.

“Our goal here, aside from providing housing, which is the most important thing, is to see whether we can make this idea feasible,” Boni said.

The development will be adjacent to Rice Block Housing for Women, a 38-unit supportive residence also operated by Atira. The Hawks Avenue project will be the second of its kind for the nonprofit.

On August 1, 2013, Atira unveiled the country’s first social-housing development utilizing recycled steel shipping containers. The three-storey development at 502 Alexander Street has 12 self-contained units.

In its application to city hall, Atira indicated that it will rent units at the Hawks Avenue development for $375 a month for singles and $570 for a woman with one child. (These amounts are the shelter component of income assistance currently received by people on welfare.) The sizes of the suites will range from 280 square feet for studio units to 420 square feet for the two-bedroom units.

Atira explained in its application that although the units don’t meet the city’s minimum-size requirements, they have a functional layout that will be sufficient for the intended tenants. The group noted that future residents will likely come from single-room-occupancy units measuring only 100 square feet.

To make the undertaking financially feasible, Atira is asking the city to allow the development to have no automobile-parking component. Boni said: “People who are being housed here really don’t have the income level to support vehicles.”

Support staff for the project will be required by their employment contracts to get to work by transit, bicycle, or walking. The project will feature 41 bicycle parking spaces. “The site is really quite small,” Boni said. “To develop an underground parking really would not be feasible on this particular site.” He said the project would require 13 car stalls, based on city regulations.

James Weldon worked as construction manager of Atira’s Alexander Street shipping-container housing project, which has no underground parking. Weldon, principal of the North Shore–based JTW Consulting Ltd., has been retained to do the same for 420 Hawks Avenue. He told the Straight by phone that parking spots cost about $30,000 each.

According to an apartment-parking study released a few years ago by the Metro Vancouver district authority, parking is at the “nexus” of encouraging compact communities, sustainable transportation choices, and housing affordability in the region.

“Given that apartments represent over one‐half of new housing starts in the region today and will remain so over the next three decades as the population grows by one million people, having current and efficient parking requirements are critical to the achievement of a sustainable region and livable neighbourhoods,” the 2012 paper states.

According to the study, the cost of constructing on-site parking in Metro Vancouver ranges from $20,000 to $45,000 per stall, plus maintenance costs. “Ensuring the parking requirements match actual demand can help reduce unnecessary housing development costs,” it states.

Atira will hold an open house about its proposed shipping-container housing project on January 26 next door at Rice Block Housing for Women (404 Hawks Avenue). Boni said he will be joining Atira and city staff at the event, to be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., to answer questions from the public.

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