ONE DAY, Focus may tell you about a housing proposal that everyone in the neighbourhood is happy with, where the public process surrounding it is hailed as transparent, inclusive, effective and painless for all involved. But that day isn’t here yet.
When it was announced last summer that Oak Bay United Church wanted to build some affordable housing on its property at Granite Street and Mitchell—just one block over from Oak Bay Village—it sounded refreshingly bold and in tune with the times. Affordable housing is the region’s number-one need.
Oak Bay United Church in Oak Bay
Soon afterwards “Stop Overdevelopment by Oak Bay United Church” signs popped up like mushrooms on neighbourhood lawns. A “concerned citizens” website was created, and media reports citing divisions and alarm were heard. Some early concepts for the development indicated up to five-storey buildings and 160 units could be proposed. For a 1.2-acre lot in a leafy, mostly single-family neighbourhood, it did seem perhaps too bold.
Now, church representatives claim they have listened, and in their recent plans—unveiled at open houses at the end of April—have tried to meet neighbours’ concerns as much as possible. We shall see how that works out.
IN HER OFFICE in a 1920s-era duplex behind the church, Oak Bay United Church Minister Michelle Slater told me the idea of developing the property stems back to 1994 when the heritage church was “condemned” as unsafe, and the congregation had to conduct services elsewhere. It wasn’t clear that the church, built in 1914, could be saved, so everything was up for consideration, including selling off the whole property. Eventually, it was decided that restoration was possible, and the congregation worked hard for years to raise $1.5 million. In 2010, 16 years after its closure, the church reopened.
Oak Bay United Church Minister Michelle Slater
Once back in their church, congregants had little appetite for further change any time soon. But, said Slater, “it was always accepted that that was just the first step to renewal.”
There are five structures on the 56,000-square-foot property. The church occupies 9000 square feet. There is also a large storage shed; an office building (often called the “duplex”); the cinder block, seismically-challenged Gardiner Hall (with a gym); and Threshold House, which is rented to Threshold Housing Society, and has nine studio apartments for vulnerable youth. With the exception of the church, the latest plans call for demolition of all these structures.
Slater said that if the 200-strong congregation was dwindling, they would look at amalgamating with another church and selling off the property. But it’s actually growing, though that includes those who use the church’s many services.
“We’re becoming increasingly aware, particularly through our ministry to children and families, of the real crisis with diverse and affordable housing,” said Slater, mentioning seniors who attend weekly coffee meetings and young parents who come to church activities.
Sometimes congregants can’t afford a prescription they need, so the church steps in. It has also provided food vouchers, or even a funeral for those in need.
In all, she estimates that Oak Bay United provides about $2.5 million annually in community services (calculated by a formula arrived at through research by the Halo Project at McMaster University). Some of it, she noted, comes in the form of saving the community money—for instance when members notice another congregant is unwell, and ensure they receive help before needing an expensive hospital bed.
At this point, Slater stopped herself, noting wryly that it sounded as if she’s trying to justify the church’s very existence—perhaps in reaction to the heated atmosphere in the neighbourhood of late. The social services she alluded to have added an extra layer of complexity to the debate. Do such services mean the church deserves more right to develop as it pleases, despite neighbours’ concerns?
Continuing the historical overview, Slater told me that a few years ago, the board asked a couple of members to look into options for developing the 56,000-square-foot property, in keeping with the mission and purpose of Oak Bay United Church. That led to them devoting $20,000 to a feasibility study led by Chris Corps, a land economist, which in turn led, in March 2017, to the church board giving unanimous support to applying for a $500,000 loan from BC Housing to do a thorough proposal involving “diverse, inclusionary and affordable housing,” said Slater.
“We could make a lot more money if we just put up some luxury condos. But that’s not what this community needs,” said Slater. “And making the most money is not the most important thing to us.”
The church got the BC Housing loan, and by last August, its board members had started knocking on doors to inform immediate neighbours that the church was thinking of developing its property. Some became alarmed, Slater said, and asked for a meeting. About 60 people came. They wanted to know the plans, but, said Slater, “We’re not a developer; we wanted input first.”
In November, four sessions with “near neighbours” were held. “We asked what would you be most concerned about?’” said Slater. Feedback was all over the map, she said. “We got everything from ‘nothing’ to ‘six stories.’ [On style], we got ‘traditional’ to ‘contemporary.’ We gave all the input to the architect. In mid-December we presented four scenarios for siting and massing to test people’s responses.” (The scenarios involved three-, four- and five-storey buildings; many neighbours were aghast there were no smaller options.)
The biggest concerns were around height, density and traffic. “We’ve worked hard to mitigate or solve the concerns people have—which are for the most part legitimate,” said Slater. However, she argued, Granite Street, running parallel to Oak Bay Avenue, is viewed by the municipality as a transition street, from the busy Oak Bay commercial zone to residential. “It is not solely a single-family-home neighbourhood,” said Slater, pointing to the boxy, 3.5-storey Granite House condos across the street towards the Village. “Our project will be much more attentive to the character of the neighbourhood than Granite House.”
Reverend Slater is diplomatic when speaking of the resistance to the development: “I am not surprised at the depth of feeling, because everyone values their neighbourhood and wants to preserve what’s best about it. I was distressed by some of the personal comments about our consultants,” along with the level of distrust. “We feel we’re really trying to do something good,” she said. “This is a good way for Oak Bay to contribute to the region and show leadership.” She seems bewildered and dismayed that some people do not trust the church.
AN INDICATION OF THAT DISTRUST, and perhaps another brick in the wall between the church and its neighbours, occurred at a meeting of Oak Bay’s Committee of the Whole on January 15. The last item on the agenda was a request from the church that council approve a process to expedite the church’s development application, once submitted, as a pilot project for affordable housing projects. It brought citizens out in force; they filled all the seats and the hallway. Numerous letters of concern had been sent in.
Kim Fowler, the planner on the church’s team, explained that they are working on “a minimum, break even” budget, and delays would be costly. She pointed to other municipalities that have adopted streamlined processes or a “concierge”-type service with staff dedicated to ushering non-profit proposals through various hurdles at City Hall. (Fowler played a similar role at the City of Victoria when she worked as the project manager for the Dockside Green redevelopment project).
Councillor Tara Ney, noting the evident community interest, voiced a concern that “the amount of time for making decisions, the amount of time for consulting thoroughly with the community—that those parts of the process are not compromised.” Fowler assured her that that would not happen.
When Councillor Hazel Braithwaite warned that “it takes a long time to get something correct,” there was applause from the gallery. Braithwaite also suggested that shepherding the application through City Hall was Fowler’s job—and that it would have been “friendly” if the church had notified citizens of its request for expedited service.
When Councillor Tom Croft asked, “Where is the extra cost of delay when the church owns the land?” Fowler alluded to an existing mortgage (it is about $300,000), and the escalation of construction costs. At 6 percent, she said, that translates to $170,000 in carrying costs per month.
Other councillors noted that with “complicated applications like this,” the best way to expedite it is to have a good application, and to not short-circuit public engagement. Councillor Eric Zhelka advised studying the case of Oak Bay Lodge—which came to council two times with proposals that were both rejected. The lesson being: “Find a design with everyone here [meaning the audience] before you come to council, that everyone can support.”
The Committee decided not to even vote on Fowler’s request.
Later, Ney told Focus the request for an expedited process was “not an example of good timing.”
On a Saturday morning in April, I met with five members of “the resistance” at Sue MacRae’s house, right next door to the church property.
They expressed many concerns: about Oak Bay’s infrastructure not being adequate to handle another 100-plus residents on the one-acre site; about the unfairness of the church having $500,000 to put towards developing their plan and doing PR, while their group relies on volunteer time and digs into their own pockets for signs and flyers; and about the size and scale of the proposals they’ve seen and how it will impact their beloved streetscape, characterized by lots of trees and 100-year-old single-family homes.
But they were most perturbed by the public consultation process, and the distrust they feel it has fostered.
Both Reverend Slater and the church’s development team co-chair Cheryl Thomas have told me that what they were actually trying to do in consultation sessions in the fall was get neighbours’ input before designing anything. But it seems to have backfired, as these neighbours believed that there was a plan, but it was being kept secret. They pointed to the church’s application for a BC Housing loan, which they obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Though 90 percent redacted, it shows that as early as March 2017, the church was outlining options to BC Housing and Oak Bay municipal staff—whereas the neighbours only got notified in August that the church was considering development. Cheryl Thomas assured me that only financial models went to BC Housing, not actual designs, yet it seems clear those would have required some assumptions about size in order to project costs and revenues.
Diana Butler, a former mayor of Oak Bay who lives on Granite Street, suggested the fall consultations were mostly for show, and as evidence, pointed to the short time lapse between the November “consult sessions” and the “reveal sessions” in December, at which the scenarios involving 101- to 160-unit buildings were presented. The development team’s unwillingness to entertain a project with a much smaller profile fuelled suspicions around the church’s motivations, as well as its strategy.
Two of the church's neighbours, Wayne Todd and Diana Butler
At our meeting, neighbour Wayne Randall said he believes it’s now the church’s strategy to focus solely on the wider community and ignore the neighbours. Butler concurs. She has written extensively on the Concerned Citizens’ website (ccn-oakbay.com), at one point writing: “We have spent hours and hours working with the development team to design a better consultation process. We placed our trust in the development team truly wanting to engage the neighbourhood in a meaningful discussion. We are very disappointed that they have so abruptly abandoned this route, in preference to taking their project to the wider community where they hope to get more support.”
The development team contracted Gene Miller to help with consultations with this group of neighbours, who say he sincerely tried to help. They told me he met with them separately a couple of times, to try to work out a better process. But, they said, “he failed.” (Disclosure: Gene Miller writes for Focus. I did not know he was involved until recently, and have not had any communication with him about the project.)
Curtis Hobson, a special education teacher who lives directly across from the church, told me, “We feel excluded, manipulated, and are being painted as against change or affordable housing.” Hobson and other neighbours I spoke with said they are in favour of affordable housing on this site, but not at the scale the church has in mind.
Curtis Hobson and Sue MacRae, both close neighbours of the church's property. Threshold House (in the background) would be demolished to make room for the project.
At the meeting, these residents provided me with an outline of what they would accept: A maximum three storeys, with massing along Granite Street, with some variation in height, and a more traditional design in keeping with the neighbourhood. Ideally, they’d like the buildings broken up or clustered so that pedestrians can move through the site. They want to keep Threshold House, but if it must go, they want alternative housing to be provided on the site for the nine vulnerable youth (age 16-22) now housed in its studio apartments. This heritage-style building, they argued, is only 25 years old, fits into the neighbourhood well and serves a valuable purpose.
The main stumbling blocks towards agreement, however, will be the massing and the number of units: the neighbours’ wishlist calls for 25-40 suites, whereas the latest church plans (not unveiled when I interviewed them) call for 98.
AT A MEETING WITH the Development Team co-chair Cheryl Thomas and architect Rod Windjack, I was shown rough drafts of the plans that will be unveiled at the late-April open houses. Thomas lived in Oak Bay when her kids were growing up, and got involved in the church in 2012—mostly to sing in the choir. She ended up on the board and came to realize “we’ve got to make this place sustainable.” As a congregation, she said, “we wanted to live our values and provide something that was truly needed. Obviously affordable housing is desperately needed.”
Windjack, an architect who was involved with the design for the new Oak Bay High School, had his work cut out for him, trying to accommodate the needs of both church and neighbours. Besides the concern over size, he said, one thing that came through loud and clear from neighbours was that the development shouldn’t result in additional parking on nearby streets. This, he noted, created a burden on the church financially, because underground parking is so costly.
After numerous iterations, Windjack eventually came up with a 3.5-storey (four floors), L-shaped building with 98 units (predominantly one-bedrooms) and tilted it, so it’s not monolithic from the street. “We’ve tried to deal with how the building responds to neighbours, through how it sits on the site and by playing with the massing of the building—using articulation in front, further extended by our use of materials,” Windjack said. Materials include some brick, echoing the church. The main building has a gently-sloped roof with dormer elements that are common in the neighbourhood. At 51 feet high, it is slightly higher than the ridge line of the church.
Oak Bay United Church's 98-unit proposal, unveiled at the end of April
In the location where the church office now stands on Mitchell, the project is proposing a three-storey “brownstone” building with four market-priced leasehold units.
Parking—for 116 vehicles—would all be underground. Virtually the whole site would need to be blasted (through granite) to create a two-storey parkade, costing about $5 million of the $26-million total price tag. About half would be for church-goers and the other half for project residents. While they cannot prohibit a resident from having a vehicle, they can tell prospective renters that units do not include parking. Residents would have good bike storage and likely a car-share vehicle, perhaps even bus passes, noted Thomas.
Everyone with the church and the neighbourhood was in agreement that a green strip, with majestic Garry oaks, that runs along the back of the property, had to stay.
Units would be small, even by present standards: one-bedrooms approximately 420-455 square feet, two bedrooms 650-700 square feet, and three bedrooms 850-900. “That’s what makes them affordable,” said Thomas. (Brownstone units are larger.)
Rents for the affordable units would be set by BC Housing and CMHC, and rent increases would be tied to the cost of living (not the market). A one-bedroom unit would cost about $1000 per month.
Thomas stressed that the development team has tried to accommodate all that they heard from neighbours, but the financial realities are limiting. In their attempt to keep the height to 3.5 storeys, only 50 units will be officially “affordable,” though 44 others are characterized as “market affordable.”
The feedback at the Open Houses planned for late April might help them “further refine what we’ve got, but we don’t see major changes,” said Windjack.
CURTIS HOBSON DIRECTED ME TO an interesting 2014 article in the United Church’s Observer magazine, called “The Perils of Redevelopment.” In discussing the trends for many churches—declining congregations, rising costs, and the sale or redevelopment of their properties—it warns, “Even a plan conceived with the best of intentions can go horribly wrong.”
The article stresses the importance of constructive community outreach, without which, it warns, years can be spent fighting with neighbours and municipal governments.
Neighbour Wayne Todd researched every development mentioned in the article and found virtually all of them had been sold or failed, with congregations forced to rent other facilities. But he also inadvertently stumbled on one church project, not mentioned in the Observer article, that worked out well; in fact it may become Canada’s first net-zero-energy multi-family building.
Andrew Gregory chaired the planning committee of the North Glenora Community League during the time (2013-2015) the Westmount Presbyterian Church in that Edmonton community sought rezoning for its property in order to put up affordable housing. In a report on it, he stated: “It took dozens of meetings and hundreds of hours of focused effort on both sides to get to ‘YIMBY.’”
He mentions the wisdom of arriving at “a mutually understood definition for community engagement.” He writes: “It seems that the Achilles heel of most re-development plans in the city is that too many decisions are made too early without involving the community…committing the developer to a plan before engagement has taken place and derailing authentic dialogue before it can happen.”
Certainly in the Oak Bay case, it does not appear that the church went to neighbours with a blank slate. It had priorities and financial realities that led it early on to think big.
One major difference between the Edmonton church and the Oak Bay church is that in Edmonton, the North Glenora Community League’s planning committee (all volunteers)—took the reigns to negotiate a community engagement process. Then it took minutes of every meeting which were posted, hosted periodic town halls, and conducted surveys on specific aspects. In Oak Bay, there’s been no similar body providing such leadership. (The Oak Bay Community Association did host a community forum on housing affordability that both sides appreciated.)
Another difference: the Edmonton church seemed willing to take its time—two years in total from announcement to passing at Edmonton City Hall—whereas Oak Bay United Church representatives seem in a hurry, and seem to believe they’ve already done much of the community consultation necessary—not the hundreds of hours allowed for in the Edmonton case. By the way, it too started out on shaky ground, but in the end, at the final Edmonton City Hall public hearing, two residents spoke in favour of the development, none opposed, and it passed unanimously.
Another noteworthy difference: the Edmonton church’s proposal was for a 16-unit townhouse development for families.
EVERYONE I SPOKE TO for this article seems to care deeply about their community and be in favour of some affordable housing on the church property. No neighbours expressed concerns about property values. Even the vociferous ad-hoc group I spoke with would accept a three-story building.
Yet even if the church wins wide community support for its project, it may be embarking on a perilous journey. Its financial straits have been alluded to time and time again, in church minutes, at consultations, at council meetings, and during interviews.
The church has a $300,000 mortgage now. To create a development on its property, it has borrowed $500,000 from BC Housing (which needs to be repaid, regardless of the outcome). If it gets rezoning approved, it will be borrowing tens of millions more from BC Housing to finance it. Yes, it will get rental income to pay down its debts, but it will also be sacrificing significant space for its activities, along with $100,000 in annual revenues from its thrift store, and $54,000 in annual rent from Threshold Housing Society. These revenues currently get fully spent on church operations and maintenance. Right now, the sanctuary needs an estimated $300,000 in repairs. When Threshold leaves, the church will also have to refund the balance of a loan the housing society provided for renovations—about $40,000 now.
But the church is committed to the project. And as of last August, it’s doubtful the congregation could back out if it wanted to. The church board transferred all decision-making to its project development team. In church board minutes, it’s noted that the team, composed of four church representatives as well as some external advisors and consultants, has “commission status,” meaning they have “complete authority” until their mandate expires at end of the rezoning process. “The governing body or executive [of the church] may not debate the commission’s decision and come to a different decision.”
Reverend Slater told me she hopes their proposal goes before council in May, and that it’s approved in advance of the municipal election in October. Given the usual pace of the development process, this seems wildly optimistic.
Interestingly, the church is already permitted, under its “institutional” zoning, to build three floors of multi-family housing on the church property. But the proposed density will make it necessary to apply for rezoning. For instance, the minimum square footage for a one-bedroom apartment has to be 603 sq ft, not the 420 the church is planning. The project would also take up a far greater portion of the land than its institutional zoning allows.
Will a majority of councillors be willing to “spot zone” the development as proposed? Will they give weight to the church’s provision of services and financial need? In light of citizens’ complaints, will they send it back to the drawing board?
When I asked Councillor Ney about this, she reiterated the message of the January meeting, that the way to ensure success is to have a robust consultative process, developing rapport with the community and coming up with something that is amenable to all. “For whatever reason,” she said, “the consultation with this proposal went off the rails,” resulting in people being scared and nervous—especially about the massing. Historically, Ney said, Oak Bay was not planned with adequate transition zones between areas of multi-unit buildings and single-family homes. Ney noted that council often has to “soften the edges” of developments so they are not pushed hard against neighbours.
But there appears little room for compromise on the part of the church. Thomas said, “Our reality is we’ve made it as small as we realistically can. We are now [in the late April open houses] putting all our cards on the table. This is the best we can do.”
So what is the church’s fall-back position if rezoning is refused? Thomas said they would probably have to subdivide, selling off the Threshold building to get enough money to do the needed repairs of other buildings. “There would be no housing. And it puts the church in a precarious long-term position,” she said.
It is admirable that Oak Bay United has stepped up to create some desperately needed affordable housing. Reverend Slater might be overly optimistic, but she’s correct in her assessment that the project proposal is “an opportunity for the community to wrestle with the ‘over-development’ issue, and how a community has that conversation.”
Leslie Campbell attended the first open house on April 25. She overheard one gentleman saying, “Well, at least it’s going in the right direction.”