First look at Vancouver DTES Army & Navy property development plans

Minnie V. Muir

Analysis: Cohen and Bosa, scions of Vancouver business empires, have high hopes and lofty ambitions for Downtown Eastside development. But they also expect scrutiny and criticism

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Last year, two of Vancouver’s most prominent multi-generational family companies quietly entered into a partnership that looks set to make a dramatic impact on the city’s most historic neighbourhood.


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This new business relationship began last fall at Gotham, a tony downtown steakhouse, where Jacqui Cohen, longtime CEO and president of the Army & Navy retail chain, sat down to lunch with Colin Bosa, CEO of major local developer Bosa Properties.

“Obviously, I knew of Jacqui,” Bosa said recently, recalling their meeting.

“But we hadn’t met,” Cohen finished his sentence.

The two scions evidently hit it off.

“It was love at first sight,” Cohen said. “It just seemed right.”

Now, they are ready to talk publicly about their partnership and plans. Since last year’s lunch, the two companies have been working on what is likely to be a particularly important and quite possibly contentious real estate venture — a redevelopment of the flagship Army & Navy department store property in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.


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In an interview last week at the now-empty Army & Navy building on West Cordova, Cohen and Bosa provided a first glimpse at the project, which envisions a mix of market and non-market rental housing, along with retail and office space, as well as publicly accessible community amenities.

Cohen and Bosa say it is too early to discuss many of the key questions people will inevitably ask, such as building height, the numbers of homes, or the mix of market and non-market units. Those details will be hammered out, the pair expect, with city officials in a process that is likely to take years, and will eventually become public. Considering the historic significance of the existing buildings, and the sensitivities around development in such a vital but troubled neighbourhood, the project is likely to face substantial scrutiny.


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The partnership is far enough along that they expect to submit a pre-application letter of enquiry to City Hall by the end of this summer, Bosa said, and they have already engaged Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture for the project, because of the firm’s reputation as a leader in building with mass timber.

And the project already has a name: The Cohen Block.

View of West Cordova Street from Carrall Street, 1960s, including the Army & Navy store.
View of West Cordova Street from Carrall Street, 1960s, including the Army & Navy store. PNG

When Cohen announced, in May 2020, that Army & Navy was closing for good after 101 years in business, due to financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, she told The Vancouver Sun at that time that whatever ended up happening with her company’s properties, “certainly it will be something that benefits the community.”

Army & Navy Properties owns significant real estate holdings, including their retail locations in New Westminster, Edmonton and Calgary, as well as Vancouver’s historic Dominion Building. But the Downtown Eastside Army & Navy project would be the company’s first foray into real estate development.


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The Downtown Eastside location occupies space on two adjacent city blocks, separated by an alley and connected by an elevated walkway.

The north building, with an entrance at 36 West Cordova, is considered one of Vancouver’s most historically significant. The 1888-constructed building, also known as the Dunn-Miller Block and once home to Vancouver’s first synagogue, is on the city’s heritage register and protected by a heritage designation bylaw. The southern buildings, at 15-27 West Hastings St., are not listed on the heritage register.

Archival photos of the Army & Navy Department store in Vancouver.
Archival photos of the Army & Navy Department store in Vancouver. Photo by Submitted photo: Army & Navy Arc /PNG

The boundary of the city’s Gastown Historic Area actually bisects the two Army & Navy buildings, running through the alley between them. That could mean that whatever development happens on the south side, on Hastings, may not be subject to the same restrictions as the north building, on Cordova.


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The Hastings building is currently serving as a homeless shelter, after the city and province announced in February they would co-lease the space from Cohen’s company.

Shortly before the shelter opened in May of this year, Cohen told The Vancouver Sun she knew her “Grandpa Sam,” who started the business, would be proud the building was being used to help some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“Grandpa Sam” is Jacqui’s grandfather Sam Cohen, who came from San Francisco to Vancouver, where, in 1919, he opened the store that grew into the Army & Navy retail chain. Colin Bosa is the middle son of Robert Bosa, who immigrated to Vancouver from Treviso in northern Italy in 1958 at age 11, started working in construction at age 14, and eventually launched what became one of B.C.’s largest real estate development firms.


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Army & Navy founder Sam Cohen was an avid fisherman, which is why the store has always had a strong outdoor component.
Army & Navy founder Sam Cohen was an avid fisherman, which is why the store has always had a strong outdoor component. PNG

Cohen had other potential suitors, she said. Many local firms wanted to develop her family’s property. But Cohen said she felt good choosing a family company like Bosa, with a shared interest in philanthropy.

For many, the Army & Navy project will call to mind the earlier redevelopment of another historic Downtown Eastside department store. Just one block west of Army & Navy sits the former site of the Woodward’s department store, which went out of business in 1993 and was redeveloped into a mixed-use project, completed in 2010 and encompassing about one million square feet of residential (both market and non-market), institutional and retail.

The Woodward’s project was massive, taking up most of a city block, but it remains a contentious question whether it was good or bad for the neighbourhood. The architect on Woodward’s, Henriquez Partners, described the project as “a model for cultural sustainability and ethical urban renewal.” Others disagreed. Jean Swanson, who in 2010 was a well-known anti-poverty activist but has since become a city councillor, described Woodward’s as “a symbol of exclusion and gentrification.”


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Asked about her neighbour, Cohen said: “Not to slag Woodward’s … but I’d like to do better.”

Cohen wants the Army & Navy development to include welcoming publicly accessible spaces, possibly including a plaza in the alley between the two buildings. She doesn’t feel “warm and fuzzy” when she walks into the Woodward’s atrium, she said, and she wants to achieve that feeling with this new development. The goal for the public space, she says, is to be what Army & Navy was for so long: somewhere all kinds of Vancouverites feel comfortable and welcome, including low-income Downtown Eastside residents, seniors from other parts of town, and children.

While the Woodward’s development a block away and a decade ago incorporated the sale of market condos as well as social housing, the vision for the Army & Navy development includes no condos for sale — only purpose-built rental apartments.


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Cohen emphasized the focus on rental housing is important for a couple of reasons. She wants the property to remain in the Cohen family for generations to come instead of selling it off for shorter-term profit. But she also believes purpose-built rental housing will benefit the neighbourhood and city more than condos.

As Cohen and Bosa are no doubt aware, a proposal producing rental apartments instead of condos will also likely be more appealing to the city’s planning department and the current council — although any final decisions will likely be made by a future council, after next year’s election.


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Still, Cohen and Bosa expect their project will face backlash and likely strong criticism from some corners.

“We’re not going to be able to be all things to all people,” Bosa said. “There are going to be people who, unless we have everything at deep, deep levels of affordability, they’re not going to be happy. But unfortunately, that’s also not economically sustainable. So how do you find that balance? That’s what we’re trying to find.”

For now, the partnership wants to hear from the community about what they would like to see at the site, encouraging input at [email protected] They expect the feedback won’t be universally positive, but they want to hear from a range of perspectives.

If this project goes the way the pair hope, Cohen and Bosa expect it could be the beginning of a long partnership.

“We talked about it, maybe one day her granddaughter and my daughter could be partners, or my nieces and nephews,” Bosa said.

Cohen added: “It’s all about the future.”

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