West End town hall opposes Comox tower

Published in Xtra! newspaper | June 6, 2012 | Circulation: 39,600

“The neighbourhood should decide the future of the West End, not individual development projects,” says urban planner Michael Hartford. Photo by David P. Ball

West End residents at a June 4 public meeting voted overwhelmingly against rezoning 1401 Comox St to allow construction of an apartment tower on the site that for years housed a one-storey church.

The proposed Comox St project, set for city council hearing on June 11, faces mixed feelings in the neighbourhood, but the city says it’s needed to boost rental stock.

Roughly 120 residents attended the town hall organized by West End Neighbours (WEN). Many voiced concerns about the height of the proposed 22-storey building and the city’s planning process overall. In March, the project’s developer, Henriquez Partners Architects, rescinded its offer to house parts of BC’s queer resource centre Qmunity in the new tower, citing divisions in the community.

“The neighbourhood should decide the future of the West End, not individual development projects,” urban planner Michael Hartford told the public meeting. “I’m absolutely not opposed to development. I’m opposed to development that is achieving all the benefits for the proponent and few benefits for residents and the community.”

In May, the city began consulting West End residents about its new community plan to guide future development and the neighbourhood’s overall direction. Hartford says he’s encouraged by promises of transparency but hopes current development proposals will also be influenced by the community plan discussions. The community plan is expected to take 18 to 21 months to complete, according to the city.

“Right now, it’s ‘let’s make a deal’ planning,” Hartford says. “That should not be permitted in the West End in the future.”

Councillor Tim Stevenson says the current timeline ensures the process is “transparent and open all the way.” The city has listened to concerns about 1401 Comox St, he adds.

“There’s no doubt that with 1401 Comox, we stopped it midstream,” he says. “We had so much feedback that people were concerned. So we looked at other angles and said, ‘Okay, we need to incorporate that.’ We incorporated people’s ideas going forward.”

But he warns that without 100 percent rental apartments such as this one, the city cannot meet the urgent need for new rental stock.

“This is responding to the huge need for more rental housing,” he says. “What we are very determined to do, and was one of our campaign promises, is to increase purposely built rental stock.

“There hasn’t been rental stock built in 30 years. This is an enormous jump forward. In the West End, 80 percent of people rent — the need is huge.”

A majority of attendees at WEN’s public meeting voted to urge city council to “ensure that any programs promoting affordable housing and purpose-built rentals respect the scale and character of our neighbourhood, respect existing zoning provisions and development guidelines, and be implemented in our community only if there is demonstrated community support.”

But not everyone agreed. One self-described neighbourhood newcomer says arguments about the West End’s “character” risk stymieing efforts to increase affordability.

“People who don’t live here yet often can’t afford to live here,” says Kyle Thompson. “I think that often has to do with a limit on the supply of housing more than anything else.

“Restricting density in the name of character can be excessively restrictive because character is not defined,” Thompson adds.

Elizabeth Murphy, who ran unsuccessfully for council on the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver slate last November, says “out of scale” apartment towers jeopardize affordability and risk escalating the cost of land.

“These large developments impact not just that particular development, but set a precedent for all the properties around them and put a lot of development pressure on the surrounding community,” she says. “There’s expectations or speculation of increasing that format for other properties. If you have buildings of very high [cost] rentals, those higher rentals will affect the rents in older, more affordable buildings around it.”

Bill McCreery, a former Non-Partisan Association city council candidate, encouraged residents to attend the June 11 council hearing to voice concerns about the neighbourhood’s future.

“The West End is a pretty darn nice place to live,” he says. “It can get better or it can get worse.

“I’d suggest the current direction the city’s going in with spot rezonings — it is going to get worse. There’s other ways to make housing affordable,” McCreery says.

Henriquez Partners Architects did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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