Temporary Urban Farms Used for Tax Evasion

Along the north eastern shores of False Creek, between Science World and BC Place, lies a vast expanse of land owned by developer Concord Pacific. The parcel of land hosts Concord Pacific’s sales centre and is used primarily as rental space for special events.

Recently however, the lot has become host to an urban farm run by a group called SOLEfood. SOLEfood is a self-described “social enterprise” that grows produce in order to sell it at farmers markets, as well as directly to local restaurants. While initially funded by grants and donations, the project aims to be self-sustaining.

While Concord Pacific is leasing the property to SOLEfood for three years at no cost, the farm is highly profitable for the developer. Under the City of Vancouver’s tax classifications, the property would normally be designated class six: “business or other,” with a taxation rate of 1.75 per cent. The presence of the urban farm re-designates the lot to class eight, or “recreation and non-profit,” which lowers the tax rate to 0.56 — less than a third of the original rate.

Concord Pacific’s project map shows that the company intends to develop a number of sites on the lot, near where the Georgia Viaduct now sits, by 2020. The SOLE in SOLEfood stands for Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical. With a three year lease on a lot intended to be developed in less than a decade, it would seem that sustainability is not its strongest feature.

Concord pays around half a million dollars per year in taxes on the property, 10 Pacific Boulevard. In a recent interview with Zoe McKnight of the Vancouver Sun, the company estimated their savings via SOLEfood in the $15,000 range. However, if the new urban farm tax rate is applied to the entire property, Concord will pay only one-third of its taxes, saving instead over 300 thousand dollars per year.

Concord’s Senior Vice-President of planning, Matt Meehan, was quoted in a Vancity press release saying that these property tax savings will go into a “foundation for future green projects and initiatives such as SOLEfood.” Similarly, in 1988 Concord committed to building a large park on it’s North False Creek lands. No park has been built to date.

“We compliment the current property tax system that encourages landowners to allow these kinds of temporary urban farms, and we expect to see many more of them spring up all over the city,” Meehan also said.

SOLEfood is not the first urban agriculture project on Concord’s property. 58 West Hastings is a highly contested piece of land a few blocks North of the False Creek site, across from Save-On-Meats. Owned by Concord Pacific and left empty for years, it was originally intended to be the site of the Greenwich condo development. In 2010, the property became the site of the Olympic Tent Village. As of May the property hosts the Hastings Urban Farm, a project run by the Portland Hotel Society.

The proposed Greenwich condos for the property were opposed by community activists from the start. When asked about Greenwich, a Concord Pacific salesperson stated to The Mainlander that the project has been put on hold due to public opposition, but that online registration is still available and the project would possibly still go ahead at some point after next year.

Concord also owns 117 East Hastings, next to InSite, which has been home to The Hastings Folk Garden since 2008. The 117 Hastings property is small, but since 2005, when the property was worth $400,000, its value has nearly quadrupled to $1,415,000. The urban farm could save Concord up to $17,000 in taxes per year, making it more affordable for the corporation to sit on the land and continue to speculate while the surrounding neighbourhood gentrifies.

It was these two parcels of land that Concord Pacific offered the city in 2011. In exchange, Concord wanted the ability to ditch their social housing requirements on two of their False Creek properties. The city requires that 20 per cent of all new residential developments be designated for non-market housing, and this swap would have erased that commitment. The city has not accepted the offer as of now. However, the negotiations are further evidence of Concord’s savviness in circumventing taxes, fee requirements and other community contributions.

Concord Pacific has no incentive to rush development on its lots with urban farms. Minimal property taxes won’t put a dent in their profits, especially as they’ve found a convenient way to save money that also deflects public attention away from properties left empty — properties that continue to climb in value. Concord is not alone in using this strategy for real-estate speculation. Other developers such as Omni Developments and Prima Properties have also used urban agriculture to avoid paying taxes on their properties.

Vancouver already has some of the lowest corporate taxes in the world. In combination with a competitive housing market, further tax breaks on land speculation only make matters worse by incentivizing coordinated upscaling, displacement, and property inflation. Urban agriculture projects are something that members of the community may benefit from, but most so if they are permanent additions to the neighbourhood and can provide true food sustainability — not temporary tools to help developers speculate on land.