Where Alan Guy once saw beer bottles, crack pipes and litter, he now sees kale, tomatoes and spinach.
The Astoria Hotel parking lot at the corner of East Hastings Street and Hawks Avenue once played host to drug dealing and binge drinking. But community gardeners transformed it in autumn 2009 to the thriving urban farm SOLEfood.
They replaced the former addicts and loiterers, said Guy, who lives lives near the farm and is a SOLEfood employee.
“People used to come by and just use [the parking lot] to sell and smoke crack or get drunk,” Guy said. “The farm is a positive thing – definitely a positive thing.”
SOLEFood farm trains and employs 12 Downtown Eastside residents at wages up to $12 per hour. It produces 10,000 pounds of vegetables and fruit a year, then sells it back at wholesale prices to the community through farmer’s markets and at retail prices through local establishments such as The Potluck Cafe.
But it also costs the city hundreds of thousands of tax dollars, which the city must look elsewhere to make up.
Listen: SOLEfood gardener Jessica Yliruusi on an average work day[audio:http://thethunderbird.ca/files/2010/11/Interview-with-Jessica-Yliruusi.mp3]
Shirley Chan, the CEO of Building Opportunites with Business, a non-profit organization that helped establish the SOLEfood garden, said there should be more attention to how the city makes up the lost revenue.
“The tax benefit means that land owners save money but the city has to collect [the lost revenue] from other tax payers,” Chan said.
The price of the colour green
SOLEfood negotiated the deal with Astoria Hotel to turn the lot into an urban farm. The arrangement resulted in a change in land use and tax abatement that lets the hotel save $130,000 in taxes a year, according to the Vancouver Tax Bureau.
B.C. Assessment values property based on various criteria, including usage. When a lot with a hotel on it changes to a garden, its classification changes from “business or commercial” to “recreation or non-profit.”
That lowers the tax rate from 18.6 per cent to 6.1 per cent. B.C. Assessment then reports to the city tax bureau, which charges the property owner accordingly.
This process can lead to larger money grabs by developers, called “land banking.”
Land banking occurs when owners change the use of their property. They receive tax breaks for a couple years then destroy it and move on to develop when it can be sold for profit.
Andrew Pask, a city planner who deals directly with environmental initiatives in the city, did not know exactly how much money the city loses yearly due to these tax abatements.
“It is not a small amount of money, I’ll grant,” he said.
Two former urban gardens in Vancouver highlight the issue.
Omni Development’s garden, which used to be at 1372 Seymore St., saved the company $18,668 over the two years that it was in operation, according to Vancouver Revenue Services.
Prima Properties Limited’s newly-developed Davie Village Community Garden on the corner of Davie and Burrard – prime real estate downtown – received $212,740 in tax abatements in 2009, according to Vancouver Revenue Services.
Lyle Dunn, a senior appraiser at B.C. Assessment, said eight private properties applied to be reassessed last year after owners changed the use of their property to include community gardens similar to SOLEfood.
“The impetus for putting those in place [is] to save some taxes,” said Dunn. “They usually roll out some grass, put out garden boxes, get involved in a situation there to get into a lower tax rate.”
An honest discussion is needed
Andrew Yan is a Downtown Eastside urban planner with Bing Thom Architects who works with Vancouver city on economic stimulus projects. Yan said the city should support urban farming but said an honest discussion about tax abatements needs to happen.
“At what point is [urban farming] just rewarding those who are land banking versus using something that is actually underutilized?” Yan said.
Sean Dory, project manager of SOLEfood, said tax abatements for private landowners are necessary because of Vancouver’s extremely high market property values and because poor areas such as the Downtown Eastside benefit economically and socially from the urban farms.
“What were trying to do here is create a social enterprise that supports itself,” said Dory. “It wouldn’t be possible to support itself at market value in the city.”
Ken Vallee, a neighbourhood resident, said the garden changed his life – and the community’s – for the better. Vallee is on social assistance, and SOLEfood put him through its horticulture program then hired him as a part-time worker.
“[The farm] does change people, it’s true,” he said. “It’s really good. The people live in the neighbourhood watch out for it.”