The project at 1401 Comox Street was “sprung” on the community and has created a great degree of anxiety. This process in no way reflects the tradition of comprehensive community planning for which Vancouver is well-known. Residents have little comfort that the review of this project is based on anything other than the desire to achieve profitable rental housing for the property owner at the expense of community history, character and livability.
A false claim that keeps surfacing is that opposition to the proposed developments is driven by owners and that renters have not had a voice in this debate. Over 12,000 West Enders have signed a petition calling for a stop to rezonings without a comprehensive plan. The majority of people signing this petition are renters, not owners. In the absence of a comprehensive plan, West End Neighbours (WEN) has asked the City of Vancouver to adhere to the existing Council-adopted zoning and development guidelines that have served the West End so well for more than 20 years.
The petition results have been substantiated by the City’s report on West End Discussion on Community Needs and Affordable Housing prepared after neighbourhood consultation sessions and a survey involving both owners and renters and published June 2010. Based on the findings, West End residents value the character of their neighbourhood and believe the recent development proposals are inconsistent with this character. Moreover they are concerned that the Short Term Incentives for Rental Program (STIR) will not address the affordability challenges faced by many renters and that there should not be further site specific rezonings until there is a comprehensive community plan.
The West End Residents Association’s West End Community Visioning Forum report published March 2010 identified several key themes important to participants, such as affordability, walkability, natural environment, community character, diversity, safety, and local amenities” Residents were also concerned about increasing density through expensive residential towers and requested a moratorium on development until there is a West End plan.
Approximately 1,000 people have attended the three open houses for this proposal, and well in excess of this number have submitted written or online comments regarding the proposed rezoning. The vast majority have indicated concerns with the size of the building.
Summary of Public Input
The recent Staff Report to Council provides a summary of public consultation and input from the February 12, 2012 Open House:
- Open house Comment Forms: 195
- E-mails/Letters/Online Forms: 27
A West End resident received written confirmation from the City Planning Dept. on February 28 and March 26, 2012 that a total of 970 comment postcards completed by Vancouver residents were submitted as input to the rezoning proposal and that the content and number of postcards would be included in the summary of public consultation for the project.
Given the acknowledgement of the receipt of this input and confirmation that it would be included in the summary of public consultation, it is surprising and disappointing that the opinions of these 970 residents have been omitted from the staff report to Council.
A draft version of the Staff Report (June 2010 attained through FOI) goes into some detail about the nature of the public input and the location of the people that commented on the proposal. It stated that “Significant opposition to the proposed development has been demonstrated by the community, with the majority of those opposing the development living in the West End in fairly close proximity to the site. While some immediate neighbours support the development, much of the support comes from outside the immediate area.”
No reference to geographic nature of support or opposition has been included in the Planning Department Report to Council.
Further, the proposal reviewed by the public in April 2010 included a community space of approximately 3,500 square feet to be used by “Qmunity” and Gordon Neighbourhood House. These two organizations rallied support for the project in an attempt to secure the space. It would be reasonable to expect that some of the support for the project from outside the immediate area would have come through the efforts of these organizations. The offer of this space has since been removed from the proposal, but the removal of the support for the program from these individuals and groups is not indicated in the report.
Little has changed since the initial rezoning proposal was made and the current proposal (Version 3) still requests a huge increase in density from an FSR of 1.5 to an FSR of 7.14. The basic bulk remains almost unchanged with a total square footage of over 123,000 square feet of floor area over 22 floors. The most significant change to the development in the current proposal is the removal of the previously-promised 3,500 square foot community space to be shared by “Qmunity” and Gordon Neighbourhood House.
While most people recognize the property owner’s right to re-develop and many recognize the opportunity to create rental housing, no compelling argument has been made on the part of the applicant or the City regarding the proposed density bonus of 5.69 FSR – a more than quadrupling of the existing permitted density.
The lack of significant changes in the development (such as a reduction in density or unit count) as a result of the input from affected residents highlights a breakdown in the planning and development review process.
The Community Actively Engaged Residents
In the West Ender, Ian Gillespie, CEO of Westbank Projects Corp. and the current owner (along with Ben Yeung of Peterson Group) of the St. John’s Church site at 1401 Comox Street, suggested that the “great deal of misinformation among residents in the West End has created a sense of panic about development” and “we’ve let people who want to make something out of this, for whatever their own reasons are, get out there and put out the wrong information.” This is untrue.
In response to the sudden and dramatic rezoning applications, a self-organizing citizens’ movement was born in November 2009. It has grown steadily. In April 2010, this group of volunteers adopted the name West End Neighbours. It has been engaged in an active awareness-raising program in the community.
West End Neighbours:
- Holds information and education forums and posts the outcomes on the WEN website
- Supports the West End Residents Association to hold information sessions and encourage residents to attend
- Encourages the City to hold information sessions and maintain a website related to these issues
- Holds weekly sessions on the street, discussing development issues with West End residents as part of petition gathering Attends meetings and events ranging from City Council and Urban Design Panel meetings to meetings with various community groups and local associations
- Regularly discusses relevant issues with the media and posts all related articles on the website so the whole community can see the outcomes
- Maintains an active Internet presence with a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts, providing up-to-date news of ongoing developments
- Distributes regular email bulletins to thousands of residents who have signed the WEN mailing list
- Distributes information to West End residential buildings about upcoming events and issues
- Encourages the City to increase their community outreach for any upcoming development proposals
- Distributes flyers to inform residents about upcoming community open houses and suggests relevant questions to ask in these meetings
In contrast, the proponents of rezoning for the 22-storey tower at 1401 Comox Street have provided only the minimum information required by the City (yellow rezoning sign and three open houses), but no other outreach to affected neighbours. In addition, through the public relations firm Pottinger & Associates Ltd., they held a private meeting for members of the two groups they selected to receive free space to discuss how participants could help “secure a brand new neighbouring facility” at the church site by essentially lobbying the City council to approve the rezoning.
The printed materials prepared for and distributed by these two organizations, as well as the text on a large sign previously displayed on the church lawn (in violation of City sign bylaws) had the same misleading information the developers continue to put out to the media and other venues. This was part of an ongoing attempt to undermine efforts of West End groups trying to find viable solutions to the problems associated with the STIR program and development pressures.
Here are examples of the misleading or concerning information:
- In the West Ender, Ian Gillespie stated that “the height [of 22 stories for the proposed Comox tower] is comparable to others in the area.” In fact, this developer has asked for a massive increase in density, almost five times the floor area permitted under current zoning. And a quick walk in this neighborhood shows that almost all except one nearby building would be dwarfed this proposed tower. Most existing buildings in the vicinity (3 to 7 stories in height) would be denied sunlight, views, and privacy and the proposed building’s streetscape would be completely at odds with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
- Information on the developer’s promotional cards prepared for members of Qmunity and Gordon Neighborhood House previously slated to receive free space if the rezoning is approved, stated that the “site is presently zoned for a 190 ft residential building.” This is incorrect. The site is zoned RM5 which allows an outright height of 18.3 metres, equivalent to 60 feet (4).
- Permitted height can only be increased with the discretion of the City’s Director of Planning or Development Permit Board, and then, only when certain criteria have been met (livability and environmental quality of the surrounding neighbourhood is not unduly harmed, and consideration is given to (a) all applicable policies and guidelines adopted by Council, (b) the submission of any advisory group, property owner or tenant, and (c) the effects on public and private views, sunshine, privacy and open space.” RM-5 Zoning Schedule, Section 4.3.1).
- St. John’s church had 13,000 square feet of indoor space previously used by a variety of groups in the community for a wide range of events. Plus there was a popular outdoor garden. By comparison, the developer offered 4,000 square feet that two organizations would share. Once the developer demolished St. John’s church it left the community without this substantial community space. This amounts to a significant loss of a valued community amenity that is already limited in the West End.
- Similar to other projects, the community lost a hundred year old heritage site with the possibility that only a few elements from St. John’s Church might be incorporated into a massive glass, steel and concrete tower. This is another example of how current polices are eroding all but some small fragments of our history.
For all of the efforts of Gordon Neighbourhood House and Qmunity, the developer rescinded on their offer last fall, leaving these organizations in the lurch and depriving the community of important community space.
The residents who “want to make something out of this” are doing their sincere best to raise awareness of the facts about the proposed developments in their community and to protect the livability and character of their neighbourhood and home.