Mayor and Council expressed “deep sadness” at the loss of trees and affordable housing, but none had the courage nor imagination to refuse the proposal.
AT A PUBLIC HEARING on March 24, 2022, City Council unanimously approved a new development in the heart of James Bay, despite overwhelming opposition.
The developer, Primex, proposed to demolish 45 units of affordable housing, to build a 6 storey building with 137 market priced rental units. All existing tenants are to be displaced and a row of iconic flowering plum trees lining the city’s boulevard are to be destroyed. An additional 13 of 17 bylaw-protected mature trees on the property are also to go.
A few of the flowering plum trees to be removed along Menzies Street in James Bay (photo Leslie Campbell)
To say the community was not exactly keen is to state it mildly. To understand why, consider this. James Bay is already the highest density area of the City. With property values soaring, and its proximity to Downtown, development is fast and furious. Infill is rampant and older single family dwellings, even smaller multiple unit buildings, are fast disappearing to make way for bigger, higher and denser buildings. This trend threatens affordable housing for James Bay’s diverse population as older buildings are demolished and replaced by developments with greater profit margins.
To maximize land use, developers, with City Council approval, build more storeys, sacrifice green-space, reduce setbacks to almost nothing, cut down more and more mature trees and cut parking well below bylaw requirements, so it spills over onto the streets. Add this to City “improvements” which eliminate more parking and the strain of parking from people working or visiting downtown and you have a parking crisis.
James Bay is a community faced with the threat of becoming a mere extension of Downtown and of losing the character and charm that makes it an attraction to visitors from all over Victoria and from around the world. They are drawn here to stroll or drive in horse-drawn carriages along its welcoming streets of heritage housing and fruit trees.
The magnitude of the grassroots opposition to this latest development is symptomatic of this ongoing threat. It gained momentum with the threat to cut down our decades-old flowering plum trees. Those trees may have been the trigger but they ignited long smouldering concerns that erupted to say: Look at what we have already given up and now you want more? Enough is enough.
Tenants will be displaced from 45 units of affordable housing like these. (photo by Mariann Burka)
The community’s reaction should have been a wake-up call for City Council. There were over 150 responses from the community—a strong hint that there are fundamental concerns to be resolved. At the heart of these responses were key questions: How big is big enough? At what price density? Does more market rental housing justify eliminating affordable housing? Why are trees always dispensable? Why must we lose the character of our neighbourhood? Why is Council not listening? Unfortunately, Council was asleep at the wheel.
Over 85 percent of the submissions and presentations had concerns about the development and urged significant changes to one or more key elements. They included pleas to save the plum trees as essential to the heritage and character of the community, the environment and the health of its residents. They protested the magnitude of the development: 6 storeys is out of scale with the surrounding 2 to 3 storey buildings; it is triple the size and density of the current buildings on the property; onsite parking is inadequate; extreme setback reductions create loss of greenspace, privacy and sunlight to the neighbourhood; and the plan’s overall inconsistency with the James Bay Neighbourhood Plan and the City’s Official Community Plan objectives for James Bay is disrespectful.
The most tragic consequences of this development is the human cost. Despite claims of creating 137 new units of market rental housing, the development actually results in a loss of 45 units of affordable housing and the displacement of tenants who cannot afford the higher rents. Councillors read and heard personal accounts from tenants impacted, some of whom had lived here for decades. They spoke of the stress of losing their homes, being separated from friends and community, their inability to find affordable housing and palpable fears of homelessness.
The Times Colonist reported there was also “a lot” of support for the project from “residents”. However, a review of all submissions shows support was less than 15 percent, most coming from last minute callers who identified they were not from the community. They did not share the concerns of the community.
In response to questions from Councillor Thornton-Joe, City staff admitted the plum trees were in fair condition and that it was the construction that would compromise their condition. Were it not for this particular development, they said, the trees would be retained and simply monitored to maintain their health.
This information presented an opening for a compromise and possible win-win. Reducing the magnitude of the building could potentially also save the trees! Alas, calls to consider alternatives fell on closed ears. The Mayor and Council all expressed “deep sadness” at the loss of the trees. They “wished” there was another way but none had the courage nor imagination to demand one.
Council also expressed sadness at the displacement of existing tenants but were satisfied with the developer’s efforts at some compensation (which they are obliged by law to provide). Mayor Helps felt the developer went beyond expectations with their efforts to provide a tenant relocation advisor, a fund for tenants with special needs and a voluntary contribution of $75,000 to the City’s Affordable Housing Reserve. Prior to the public hearing, the developer had upped their offer of a right of first refusal from a discount of 10 percent to 20 percent but this is still unlikely to make the higher cost affordable.
All boulevard plum trees and 13 bylaw protected trees are to be destroyed. (photo by Mariann Burka)
Despite the overwhelming opposition and appeals for alternatives, Council approved the development unanimously with no request for changes.
The Mayor said she felt for the many neighbours who were experiencing “a sense of loss and worry at the prospect of change.” No doubt this will be a great comfort to the people who will lose the homes they have lived in for many years. And for the people of James Bay to know that their concerns are standing in the way of progress.
This development has been approved but it does not resolve the concerns for James Bay, especially with phase two of the development already planned. City Council says it had to find a balance. But what they need to balance is their zeal for “density intensification” and developments that provide real benefits to the community.
To achieve a better balance, here are some suggestions for the issues at the heart of this hearing.
City Council needs to demonstrate a greater commitment to the preservation of mature trees. Development and trees cannot be seen as mutually exclusive. Cutting down a mature tree should always be a last resort.
Council must require developers to retain trees where possible or clearly justify where they cannot. Without this, our tree preservation bylaws and Urban Forest Master Plan are no more than empty rhetoric.
The City also needs to change their tree preservation and replacement policies to acknowledge that flowering fruit trees, while they may not be native to this region, have become an essential part of Victoria’s urban landscape. Recent studies show cherry trees, for example, are more drought tolerant than the City has indicated. Flowering fruit trees must be included for protection, preservation and, if needed, replacement.
Approval of developments excessive in scale and density to the neighbourhood are dangerous precedents. Trends in the creation of ever higher, ever denser buildings, elimination of setbacks, deficits in on-site parking and other features that destroy the character of residential neighbourhoods must stop.
The James Bay Neighbourhood Plan has provisions to respect existing streetscapes and character and to encourage visual harmony of form and scale between new buildings and adjacent ones. All too often, Council overrides neighbourhood plans.
Neighbourhood plans must be observed and developments that are inconsistent must be denied approval.
Any development eliminating affordable housing is unforgivable. We desperately need more low income and affordable housing and cannot afford to lose any of the rare stock we have.
The City must require developers who seek to demolish any low income or affordable housing to replace it with an equal number of units designated low income or affordable. They also need to ensure that any tenant displaced has a right of first refusal to a unit at their original level of rent.
Transparency & accountability
The extent to which Council failed to address the concerns of the community demonstrates its failure to listen and to understand. Council members need to take personal and collective responsibility for their decisions and no doubt will at the ballot box.
Victoria’s municipal system of representation is in serious need of reform. It is time to require that City Councillors reside in Victoria to hold office. Residency is a sign that you have roots in the community on which you depend, through which you contribute and to which you are accountable.
It is also time for Victoria to move to a ward system of municipal representation where Councillors are elected to represent and be accountable to their community.
Mariann Burka is retired from the provincial public service where she served as executive director and assistant deputy minister in several ministries. She has been a resident of James Bay for 32 years.