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Comox St development raises affordable housing concerns

What the West End needs is low-income rentals: residents

 West End residents living in and around the gay village say they are upset about the potential development of a market rental high-rise in their neighbourhood, citing concerns of affordability, livability, extreme density and a “slippery slope” of future rezoning projects in the area.

Nearly a hundred people attended an open house Nov 24 to discuss the rezoning application for 1401 Comox St, current site of the St John’s United Church.

The church sold the site to Westbank Projects and Peterson Investment group for 4.5 million. The open house was part of the city’s rezoning application process.

“The land was sold, it needs to be developed,” acknowledged Johnny Lam, a gay man who lives in the village. “[But] the thing that causes me a bit of concern is that this whole process will not guarantee us low-income rentals.

“The problem is not that there are not enough rentals in the West End, but that it’s absolutely unaffordable to people making an average living in our depressed economy,” he explained.

“I know we need more rental housing but we [also] need more affordable housing,” agreed fellow queer resident Harold Brown.

Westbank has confirmed there will be no low-income or subsidized-income units available in the proposed development.

The rezoning application requests that the land – currently approved outright for a six-storey building – be rezoned for a 22-storey, 193-unit building including 13 units of three-bedroom townhouses.

Westbank has also requested that the lot be rezoned for density by five times the current floor space ratio [FSR], from nearly 26,000 sq ft FSR to 130,000 sq ft FSR.

“The rezoning [issue] is a little scary,” said Joey Lesperance, a Yaletown resident who frequents the West End. “I’m wondering if this is going to give precedents to other rezoning in the area?”

Many at the meeting echoed Lesperance’s concern.

Gay city councillor Tim Stevenson said no city-led development plans for the West End are on the table at this time.

Stevenson also noted that the caveat for the church selling its property to Westbank was that it had to be slated for rental housing.

In June, Stevenson and lesbian councillor Ellen Woodsworth discussed the possibility of the site perhaps being purchased by Qmunity for a new queer community centre. But finances halted that potential plan. “People couldn’t come up with 4.5 million dollars. It’s as simple as that,” said Stevenson.

Westbank developers are the first to take advantage of the city’s newest initiative aimed at providing more rental housing over the next few years.

The Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program is a time-limited initiative aimed at curbing the housing shortage by providing incentives to encourage development of new market rental housing.

STIR incentives include: rental property assessment (on rental units only); development cost levy waiver (on rental units only); parking requirement reductions (on rental units only); discretion on unit size increased density; and expedited permit processing.

Also under the initiative – scheduled to run for the next two and a half years – rental housing development cannot be turned into condominiums for 60 years or the life of the building.

If Westbank’s proposal is approved, they expect the 130,000 sq ft complex will take two years to build. Suites will rent for $2.25 sq ft, meaning 400 square foot studio suites are expected to rent for $900.

Architects say the proposed design of the complex will mimic a “remake of a classic ’70s apartment building.”

Westbank developed the Shangri-La and Woodwards projects. They also have an application in for the rezoning of 1215 Bidwell St, presently occupied by the nightclub Maxine’s Hideaway.  

A future public hearing regarding the rezoning of 1401 Comox St is set for “sometime after the Olympics,” said Stevenson. City rezoning planner, Karen Hoese, anticipates a final report will be presented to council by spring 2010.

For more information and to comment on the rezoning application visit the city website at