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City council approves Bidwell St rezoning application

But Woodsworth says community consultation needed

 A majority of Vancouver city councillors voted in favour of allowing a new rental high-rise in the West End Dec 15, but at least one councillor thinks a public consultation is still needed.

“The main problem that I have with this proposal before us is that there has not been a community plan developed with the community. There has not been a visioning process,” lesbian COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth told council.

The NPA’s only representative on council, Suzanne Anton, agreed with Woodsworth, adding that the studio-sized units slated for the proposed building at 1215 Bidwell St are primarily for single tenants and therefore family housing was unfairly overlooked in the planning process.

Anton also questioned the affordability of the units before introducing a three-part amendment to the rezoning proposal.

Her motion to refer the application back to city staff to reconsider unit size, condos vs market rentals and a public benefit/amenity space plan was defeated. 

“The GLBTQ centre has been under discussion for a long time now,” Anton reminded council. “And the mayor has made a recent commitment for funding it. Well! Here’s an opportunity!”

The question is not affordability or a rental shortage, Anton continued. “The question is whether or not city taxpayers should be paying for private market-rental housing and I don’t agree that they should.”

Anton said the $112,000 the city puts into each unit in incentives under the recently launched Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing program [STIR] could be better used. “Public benefits would be better off used in a public way in the West End,” she said.

Randy Helten, member of an ad-hoc group of citizens concerned with livability in the West End, also questioned the city’s financial priorities during a mini-protest held at the proposed development site Dec 9.

Helten challenged the city for dolling out millions of dollars through the STIR project at a time when major cuts to numerous civic-funded social organizations are occurring.

STIR is a temporary city-led housing initiative aimed at curbing the rental housing shortage by providing incentives to encourage development of new rental accommodation.

Under STIR certain development fees are waived and permit processing is expedited provided the suites remain rental properties for 60 years or the life of the building.

The Bidwell rezoning application is the first to be accepted under STIR. The application was accepted by city staff with recommendations that there can be no separate sales of the units or rental blocks, and the stipulation that the façade of Maxine’s Hideaway (the building currently on the site) be preserved under the heritage revitalization bylaw.

The application was amended and the motion passed.

Millennium Properties and Henriquez Partners Architects initially submitted their rezoning application in 2007. They resubmitted under the STIR initiative in June 2009 with the request of additional units. The application had gone before two community open house consultations and two public hearings at city hall before it was recommended by city planners and given the nod by council.

The approved application allows an increase to the lot’s allowable density, bringing it from a maximum floor space ratio (FSR) of 2.20 FSR to 6.27 FSR.

The increase means the new 210-ft residential tower will have space for 98 condo units and 49 rental units.

The motion to accept the rezoning application for 1215 Bidwell Street was passed by all the Vision Vancouver councillors: Tim Stevenson, Kerry Jang, Raymond Louie, Heather Deal, Geoff Meggs, George Chow and Andrea Reimer. It was opposed by Woodsworth and Anton.

Stevenson, who is gay, said he was “absolutely appalled” to witness the “far right with councillor Anton and the far left with councillor Woodsworth” teaming up to oppose the application.

“There are literally hundreds of people who are looking for housing and is this [proposed building] going to satisfy that? Absolutely not,” Stevenson said. “But it is a beginning.”

“Is [STIR] a perfect program? I don’t think it is a perfect program,” said Meggs. “But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let’s drive forward this program and see what we can achieve with it.”

Woodsworth maintains that greater community consultation regarding housing is needed. “Until we [listen to the community] I don’t think we really know what we need to do in this community,” she says.

City planners say a West End planning program is on the list of community plans as a priority.

Henriquez Architects say they don’t expect construction on the Bidwell site to begin until late summer 2010.