After occupying one of the most recognizable spots on the North Vancouver waterfront for more than 40 years, ICBC has announced plans to literally “leave the building” in the next three to five years.
The Insurance Corp. of British Columbia told its approximately 1,500 head office employees September 22 that the Crown corporation plans to vacate its 300,000-square-foot office within the next three to five years. The move isn’t expected until 2025 at the earliest.
The building sits on a 148, 542-square-foot (3.4-acre) site on West Esplanade, just above the waterfront in the fast-growing Lower Lonsdale area.
ICBC does not know where it will be moving its head office to yet, said Adam Grossman, a spokesperson for the corporation. Occupying several floors of a commercial office tower in a location like Burnaby is one possibility, he said.
Regardless of where it ends up, the corporation will be downsizing its physical digs and moving to a model of smaller office hubs throughout the Lower Mainland, he said.
Grossman said the primary reason for the decision is that with most employees working from home about half time, “having a massive head office building doesn’t make sense anymore.”
ICBC was already moving towards more flexible working arrangements when the pandemic accelerated the trend, he said.
More than half the building empty
These days the large office space is only 20 to 40 percent occupied most of the time, he said.
When they do come to the office, 70 percent of head office workers are commuting from off the North Shore, he added.
Vacating the current office makes sense to most employees, he said – and is a move being repeated by many larger corporations since COVID-19 brought about changes in workplace culture.
ICBC’s decision to move will be a significant change for a key area of North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale neighborhood.
The key unanswered question so far is what will happen to the prime piece of real estate once ICBC leaves.
So far, “There are no firm plans or commitments on the future of this head office building,” Grossman said. “It’s obviously prime real estate space. That will be years away.”
Five years ago, a leaked report prepared by ICBC at the direction of the previous Liberal government showed the Crown corporation had developed a business case for moving and selling the property at 151 West Esplanade, which has been in use since 1980.
Among the challenges noted in the report were “significant expenditures for maintenance and upgrades will be required over the next 10 to 20 years. This expenditure is estimated to be at $184 million, with the majority of the costs required during the first 10 years of this period,” stated the business case, obtained by the News at the time.
Among the upgrades needed, according to the report: $36 million for seismic upgrades, $27 million for deferred maintenance, $23 million for building envelope repairs and $44 million for enhancements.
Spending that kind of money on a building that is rarely more than half occupied doesn’t make sense, said Grossman.
Property assessed at $103.8 million
In 2016, when the business case for moving and selling was written, the property was assessed at $79.8 million.
Today, the ICBC property is assessed at $103.8 million – almost all of that in land value.
Bowinn Ma, MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, said when she first heard about the announcement this week, “I have to admit my reaction was of surprise and worry.”
In particular, Ma said she was concerned about what the exodus of workers would mean for local businesses.
But given the fact most of those people are often working from home anyway, Ma said she’s now looking at the change as an “exciting opportunity” for revitalization of a key area.
She added with discussion of both more rapid transit for the North Shore in the future, and the need for housing, the land could play a key part in those discussions.
“We’ve been talking a lot about transit-oriented development,” she said, adding the government recently passed legislation that allows the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to purchase and hold land for purposes other than direct transportation.
“So building housing and building complete communities, there are lots of opportunities there.”
Ma added personally she would like to see the land remain public rather than being sold off to private development interests.
In a statement, City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan said she was surprised to learn about the plan to close the ICBC head office.
“While I’m sad to see such a large public sector employer leave, this represents a significant opportunity for our community,” she said. Buchanan said the city is eager to engage with the province on future plans.