British Columbia

Fight over access to details of Little Mountain purchase contract heads to B.C. Supreme Court

The B.C. Supreme Court has set aside two days to hear arguments on whether the public can see the contract that privatized the Little Mountain lands in Vancouver more than a decade ago. 

Years-long battle to make contract public set to be heard over 2 days

There has not been much to see at the Little Mountain social housing site in Vancouver since the demolition of more than 200 units of social housing in 2009. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

The B.C. Supreme Court has set aside two days to hear arguments on whether the public can see the contract that privatized the Little Mountain lands in Vancouver more than a decade ago.

The case could be heard as early as Thursday, although one of the lawyers involved says it's on an overflow list awaiting a judge.

The years-long effort to reveal the details of the purchase agreement between B.C. Housing and developer Holborn Properties has been the subject of a protracted freedom of information battle between the developer, the Crown corporation, the CBC and co-applicant David Chudnovsky.

The CBC and Chudnovsky, a community activist and former MLA, had both requested the documents.

The Little Mountain lands lie between Queen Elizabeth Park and Main Street in East Vancouver, just south of Nat Bailey Stadium. The six-hectare site was home to 224 units of social housing that existed from the 1950s until the land was sold in 2008 by the B.C. Liberal government to developer the Holborn Group.

In 2009, all but four units of social housing were demolished.

Most of the six-hectare Little Mountain site has sat empty since the controversial demolition of the existing buildings in 2009. (Holborn/City of Vancouver)

While displaced residents were promised that they would be able to return to newly-built social housing, only 53 units were ever constructed. 

Twelve years after those evictions, the site remains mostly vacant, despite the developer's initial public plans to build 1,400 market value homes and 234 units of social housing.

"We're in the midst of a housing crisis that is bad and it's getting worse so, it seems to me, there's urgency in terms of strengthening public trust and transparency," said OneCity Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle.

"If this was a bad deal for the public, then it should be renegotiated, however possible."

Fight for Information Continues

After first filing the request to obtain the purchase agreement under B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the CBC received a mostly redacted version of the contract.

That led to a request for a review from the province's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

An OIPC adjudicator ordered B.C. Housing on Sept. 23, 2020, to hand the contract over to the CBC and Chudnovsky. But Holborn Properties filed for judicial review resulting in a stay of the order pending the upcoming hearing in B.C. Supreme Court.

The initial Little Mountain site rezoning plan called for 1,400 residential units and double the density that existed when the site was demolished in 2009. (Holborn/City of Vancouver)

According to written submissions from Holborn Properties, the company will argue that it was unfairly disallowed from submitting materials confidentially to the OIPC.

It will also be arguing that the purchase agreement in question contains information that was supplied in confidence and would harm the company's business interests if released.

According to court documents, the OIPC will argue that the September 2020 ruling from its adjudicator was reasonable and should be upheld. It will also contend that, by virtue of entering into mutual negotiations with B.C. Housing, Holborn did not, in fact, supply information in confidence.

While the hearing could lead to an order of the release of the Little Mountain contract between the developer and the province, any such order could also lead to an appeal to the BC Court of Appeal.

If Holborn's argument is successful, a new OIPC process could result. 

Either way, the public will likely have to wait a little bit longer before it learns all the details of what happened with the sale of the Little Mountain lands.

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