Residents of Vic West and adjacent neighbourhoods come together to urge caution in revised rezoning application for Bayview site.
THE MOVEMENT HAS BEEN BUILDING—with 700-plus signatories on a petition launched just a few weeks ago. A group of concerned petitioners—“People For Sensible Rezoning”—are taking their case to the public and pressing the newly elected City Council of Victoria to revisit the revised rezoning of Vic West’s Bayview Place proposed by Ken Mariash of Focus Equities. The revised rezoning application, submitted on January 16, 2020, goes from 5 towers, approved initially in 2008, to 9 towers. No small development, cost estimates for it run as high as $2 billion. The proposed 9 towers would soar up to 29 stories above the Songhees shore-line cluster of 80s-designed buildings, dominating the picturesque Inner Harbour entrance for decades. But it is more than aesthetics that are at stake.
The land and the heritage buildings on site were purchased for purposes of development around 2005 by companies controlled by Ken Mariash. It was rezoned by City Council in 2008 to exceed the height and density limits then in place in return for Mr Mariash restoring the historic Roundhouse and five other heritage buildings onsite. But rather than that happening Mr Mariash returned to the City Council in 2020 to ask to further exceed the height and density limits. This request is now before the City Council which is consulting residents within a 200-metre radius of the site about whether there is support in this vicinity for amending the Official Community Plan (“OCP”) to permit these increases. Public hearings will come later when the Council seeks to amend its zoning bylaws to permit the increases, as well if the amendments to the OCP are approved.
The Roundhouse in winter.
In a Council meeting this year on May 4th, councillors ignored the advice of their professional city planning staff on several points including restricting the increase in density. And the mayor, Marianne Alto, reduced the community stakeholder consultation period from the usual 90 days to 60 days. At the same meeting a motion the Mayor put forward to prioritize the project over every other project before the Council was defeated in a close vote.
Each successive group of condo buyers/residents in the current three towers in Bayview Place were enticed to the area for a variety of reasons—key among them was the re-development of the “red” railroad Roundhouse that has been declared a heritage site. It was claimed in Focus Equities marketing materials that it would be reimagined as a Granville Island-type retail facility. Now with the revised rezoning application, the Roundhouse is being overwhelmed by the towers, with no details having been provided about what will be done with the Roundhouse or who will move into the heritage buildings.
From Focus Equities
Concerned and even bewildered petitioners are disappointed with how the heritage site is being treated, but even more aggrieved by the request to squeeze almost double the number of towers onto the site.
Is this a case of “not in my neighbourhood” which afflicts many municipalities faced with changing times? No, according to Holly Olson, one of the petitioners. “We want to see progress made, but not at any cost.” Holly points out that “the project has languished for almost 20 years. While we want progress it should not be progress at any cost that might be borne by future Victoria residents.”
Here’s what is at stake, and here are some of the petitioners’ concerns:
Increased Density—no objection to the 5 “towers” that were approved in 2005 which even then took the density well above existing limits but going to these heights now with 9 towers is complete over-kill say the citizen-action group for such a small plot of land—just one square city block.
Delivering—whether this developer will see this project through is a concern. The business model of Focus Equities appears to be rezone, subdivide and resell. Dun & Bradstreet has placed Focus Equities in the “subdivision industry” and it has had success with this model, e.g. Deerfoot Meadows in Calgary. Bayview, though, seems to be testing the model. Thus, the second and third of the first three towers were only constructed after Focus Equities brought in Bosa Properties following a “multi-year hiatus” (Victoria News, March 16, 2011). Petitioners wonder aloud what are the risks that a hiatus like this or other problems occur again? While the City has a Master Development Agreement with the developer, it was breached once already in the early stages after the first rezoning was approved before being remedied. Not an auspicious start as one of the petitioners has remarked. The Aquara Seniors Home project which started, stopped, but now appears to have started again, is another example of a lack of continuity in the development. These concerns are there even before looking at the real risks the site poses on environmental, commercial and construction grounds.
Heritage—now overwhelmed and side-lined by the proposed redesign, a group of heritage-minded experts led by the City’s first full-time Heritage Senior Planner Steve Barber have written and collectively signed a letter addressed to the Times Colonist with their concerns for the Roundhouse. Steve Barber: “[s]adly, our city’s historic character is under assault. A rezoning proposal currently before City Council for the E & N Roundhouse in the Victoria West neighbourhood envisions 9 towers at heights ranging from 18 to 29 storeys. The scale and height of these massive towers threatens to overwhelm the modest scale of the nationally significant E & N Roundhouse, its associated industrial heritage structures, and the Vic West neighbourhood.” The letter though has not been published or circulated by the Times Colonist at this point. The petitioners would like an explanation for this. The fact is there are genuine concerns over the heritage component of this project which culminated in the City’s ten-member Heritage Advisory Panel turning it down. That alone should be a red flag. It also does not square with how Victoria is promoting itself. From the City’s website: “[m]uch of Victoria’s charm and character stems from its unique and well-preserved historic buildings. Victoria’s turn-of-the-century architecture creates a sense of pride among residents and throughout the community. These heritage buildings are symbols of permanence and stability in an ever-changing world.” The point then must be to make the heritage buildings the centre of this development—not an excuse for it.
Affordable Housing—it now appears that any developer who is obliged or agrees to include “affordable” housing in their proposal is almost assured of being given the green light. It’s just one of those pressing issues of our time, concur petitioners. To this end Focus Equities has held out one tower of affordable housing if the Council approves the rezoning. Surely though the trade off on height and density that is being sought by the developer in exchange for this is too high according to the petitioners. There is a fear among the petitioners that any affordable housing could be an afterthought and might come too late and be too dear to be meaningful. It should be noted that since mid-2019 Council has required developments with more than 60 units to include 20 percent affordable housing in any event. At Bayview, the one tower offered in this regard falls well below that threshold.
Pace—petitioners are all for picking-up the pace. What worries them is that rubberstamping the revised rezoning application will not see anything move faster but the costs will likely increase especially those for construction labour and materials. Given this it must be asked whether future generations of Victoria residents, including tech-sector types whom Victoria is trying to attract, will be interested in a development like this or just be put upon to pay for that decision down the road?
Climate Change—there is barely any mention of how sustainable the 9 towers will be in the end. The petitioners see this as the missing link on the project. Victor Mattu has said “no one is talking about this. It’s the elephant in the room”. Victor, who lives in Songhees, knows that the increasing wind velocity we are seeing with climate change is going to turn Bayview into “just one big wind tunnel.” He wonders how enjoyable will that be for pedestrians wanting to visit the Roundhouse.
Petitioners share one thing in common. They love Victoria and want nothing more than the City to continue to maintain, benefit and further its position as Canada’s “best small city”. As Linda Casano, another petitioner, has said “and yet there is nothing small about this development, all of it is overblown, it’s just too much, way too much.”
It is suggested that Vic West could play a part as an up-and-coming affordable neighbourhood in Victoria. That what Vic West needs is an aesthetically pleasing enclave at Bayview. One that respects heritage, has the input of today’s members of the Songhees Nation, is sustainable and environmentally sound given its prior industrial use as a railyard. The petitioners are urging City Council to not recklessly turn a well-situated parcel of land near downtown into a high-rise jungle. The feeling is that if other cities want to do that good luck to them, but Victoria is held out as a place for civic-minded people of all ages and walks of life, and a place where people are attracted to live in small human-scale neighbourhoods. It is true that “villages” dot the city. As Linda Casano notes, “isn’t that what is so special about Victoria.” Petitioners claim it’s time to bring that village mindset and a thoughtful approach to creating communities back to Vic West’s Bayview... while there is still time.
Submitted by People for Sensible Rezoning. A Change.Org petition up for about a month now has over 1100 signatures.