WEN issues letter to Council opposing 1401 Comox STIR tower rezoning, citing MANY reasons

WEN posts letter to Council opposing 1401 Comox STIR tower rezoning, citing MANY reasons, Public Hearing today, June 11, 2012

June 8, 2012
Mayor Gregor Robertson and City Councillors, City of Vancouver

 RE: 1401 Comox Street rezoning

 On June 11, 2012 you will hold a Public Hearing regarding a concurrent rezoning and development permit application for 1401 Comox Street. We urge you not to approve this rezoning application and instead refer it back to staff and the applicant to propose a project that can be successfully integrated into the neighbourhood and supported by the community – a project with a significantly lower floor space ratio. Further, there are a number of errors, omissions, and misrepresentations in the Staff Report on the project that should be addressed. Below are some of our concerns with this project, and issues pertaining to the Staff Report:

▪                This application proposes an increase in density from the existing permitted 1.5 FSR (25,938 sq. ft. of floor space) to 7.19 FSR (124,330 sq. ft.) to construct 186 market rental units in a 22 storey tower. The Staff Report fails to reference the intent of the RM zones adopted by Council in 1989, and instead bases many of its arguments on comparisons to what it implies is a potential 190 foot tower on the site under the existing RM-5 zoning. These comparisons are not reasonable, as a theoretical building at 1.5 FSR with 18 stories and a floor plate of 1,862 sq. ft. (livable area of 1,510 square feet per floor) is not a realistic development scenario for this site, and should not be used as a point of comparison to justify the current 22 storey proposal with a floor plate of approximately 6,000 square feet.

▪                The Staff Report states (in Appendix, p.29) that the “proposal’s tower positioning and unit orientation provides for the best possible outlook and privacy for the neighbouring units”. It also states that “the 4-storey neighbouring building to the west was designed to orient away from the existing 2-storey blank wall of the church…and therefore incorporates blank walls facing the proposal site.” This is not correct. The 4-storey neighbouring building to the west has several balconies and windows facing the proposed development that will lose their privacy due to the extensive balconies and windows on the west side of the proposed development.

▪                The Staff Report does not provide any justification for the massive increase in density and floor area, apart from the applicant requesting the additional density. Further, there is no indication in the Staff Report why a building of a lower FSR could not be considered. No other projects under the now-expired Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) program, under which this application was made, have required this extreme density bonusing (over 5.6 FSR) to achieve market rental units.

▪                The West End’s RM-5 Guidelines were adopted by City Council in 1989 and with the exception of the tower spacing component of the guidelines are only mentioned in passing in the Staff Report.

▪                The Staff Report does not substantiate the claim that “extensive” revisions have been made to the project in its three different versions. In fact, the two most relevant considerations of the rezoning, the tower height and proposed FSR, have remained essentially unchanged throughout each revision.

▪                The Staff Report does not describe the potential implications arising from the removal of the previously offered 3,500 square foot community space from the proposal, such as the substance of endorsements for the proposal by some members of the community groups on the expectation of the now non-existent community space they stood to benefit from.

▪                The developer has suggested the proposed building should be supported because buildings surrounding the site at 1401 Comox Street are as tall or taller than the proposed structure. However, 1401 Comox Street is surrounded by a majority of low-rise buildings ranging from 3 to 4 stories. Some towers nearby are in the range of 4 to 10 stories. A small number of buildings in the West End have more than 15 stories. The only recent towers constructed at the height range of the proposed building are at 1005 Beach Avenue (270 ft. – 2.90 FSR) and the recent and controversial new development under construction at 1215 Bidwell Street (210 ft. – 6.27 FSR). It should also be noted from the 1996 Staff Report for the rezoning of 1005 Beach Avenue:

On the basis of the existing and permitted building densities surrounding the site, staff feel the proposed density of 2.90 FSR is generally supportable. Staff are nevertheless cautious about recommending densities above 2.75 FSR anywhere in the West End. When the West End zoning was revised, there was a general understanding that while densities would vary throughout the community, 2.75 FSR would be the benchmark beyond which development would not be approved. Should Council decide to refer this application to Public Hearing, public delegations will help determine if there is any (as yet unheard from) community concern about this issue.

▪                The Staff Report does not document the differences in support between residents of the West End (those most directly affected by the development) and those from outside the community.

▪                The basis on which the proposed market rental units have been defined as “affordable” is legally questionable, based on WEN’s previously-expressed concerns regarding the City Manager’s authority to define the affordability of rental units.

▪                The Staff Report’s proposed rent levels appear conservative and at odds with other new rentals currently leased in the West End. For example, 234 new market rental apartments coming on-stream at the “Pacific Palisades”, a former hotel at Jervis and Robson newly renovated for rental, starts renting at $1,500 per month for a one bedroom unit, whereas units in the proposal are shown in the Staff Report, page 14, to rent up to “$1,465 for a 1-bedroom”. What’s more, the units in the proposal, unlike the Pacific Palisades units, include in-suite laundry, which would be expected to drive the rents even higher. Another example is the city’s first newly completed STIR project at 1142 Granville, where the rents for the 320 square foot suites were originally estimated in the Staff Report for $960 month, are now renting as furnished suites starting at $1,195 or $3.73 per square foot.

▪                The proposed project includes a “hidden” floor area exemption for balcony space. The City’s normal exemption for balcony floor area is 8% – any balcony area in excess of 8% counts toward the FSR of the building. The proposal includes just under 12% balcony area, but the proposed CD-1 zone has been formatted to allow a balcony floor area exemption of up to 12%. This increased balcony area would result in an FSR of 7.48 under the existing zoning bylaw provisions, yet this proposed change to interpretation is not mentioned in the Staff Report to Council. The result of this exemption is added “bulk” to the building that the developer could then use to charge even higher rents for the proposed rental units.

▪                The Staff Report says that this development will have only marginal shadow impacts on the park and on neighbouring buildings and that changing the shape of the upper portion of the tower reduces the amount of shadow on the Broughton mini-park and other nearby properties. However, the bulk and height of the tower will create shadows over the Broughton Street mini-park during the hours that children are using this park. In the winter and fall months it will be especially dark. Moreover, shadows will be created for all the surrounding properties affecting both private outdoor spaces and common roof terraces in the neighbourhood. Significant shadowing in the morning hours will negatively affect properties to the west, which are “down-slope” from this project.

▪                The Staff Report reviews view impacts from the existing tower buildings on Nelson Street, but fails to recognize that the view of the sky is an important aspect of neighbourhood livability. The combination of the proposed building with the existing tower at 1424 Nelson Street will have the effect of walling-in this portion of the West End, and is an unacceptable relationship to the existing tower.

In general, the Staff Report reads more as a justification of the proposed development, rather than an objective analysis of the impacts and benefits of the proposal. The building’s lack of compliance with the RM-5 guidelines will result in damage to the livability of the neighbourhood and the developer should have been sent back to the drawing board to produce a building that reflects Council’s existing guidelines for development in the West End.

Information for public record about a rezoning or development application going to a public hearing must be balanced, objective, and accurate. This Staff Report fails to meet these tests, and fails to justify the large density bonus sought by the applicant.

Approximately 12,000 people have signed a petition requesting that there be no rezonings in the West End without a comprehensive plan – a plan that can guide the future of the neighbourhood in a rational, predictable manner that will protect the quality of life and unique character which West End residents cherish.

West End Neighbours requests that the rezoning proposal NOT be approved. Council’s duty under the Vancouver Charter is to protect the public interest above all. We hope that your decision on this matter will do so.


E. Pereira, President

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