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Qmunity left out of Comox development

City says community space in building wasn't publicly endorsed

BC’s Queer Resource Centre will have to continue its search for a new home as there’s no longer space allocated for it in a revised rezoning application for 1401 Comox St, developers say.

Henriquez Partners Architects has submitted a revamped development application to the city to build a market rental residential tower on the former St John’s church site. Qmunity and Gordon Neighbourhood House had hoped they would share space in the proposed 22-storey tower in the West End. But any plans for community space in the new application have been withdrawn.

Apart from the exclusion of community space, revisions also include sculpting of the tower to reduce shadow impacts, reduced height from 66 metres (216.5 feet) to 61 metres (200 feet), larger setbacks and more green space.

The initial proposal had been submitted by Henriquez Partners Architects and its fellow project investors,Westbank Corp and the Peterson Group, to the city in March 2010, but community uproar over the plan put a halt to the process pending further public consultation. Many open houses and forums ensued, and developers were required to revamp their rezoning application to address community concerns.

Last spring, during a city-hosted forum on affordable housing, Qmunity’s executive director Jennifer Breakspear faced an onslaught of community criticism when she praised the rezoning application that would allow the organization to occupy space in the tower. Breakspear described Qmunity’s Bute St home as “decrepit and pitiful.”

“We have an opportunity to better serve you. We have an opportunity through 1401 Comox St,” she told participants.

“Yes, I’m selfish,” she continued. “I want that development for what it could do for Qmunity. I want that development for what it could do for the West End. What I’m saying is please don’t stand in the way of this one development,” she appealed.

“It’s unfortunate,” says Breakspear of the lost opportunity. “That’s sometimes the way these deals go.”

Breakspear says she was informed of the decision at the end of last year.

“I don’t know what influenced the decision,” she replies when asked if public scrutiny of the proposal had influenced developers’ change of heart. ” [But] I was told they wanted to go in a different direction based on feedback they had received from the city,” she says.

Breakspear doesn’t believe the decision was a personal one against Qmunity, but rather an overhaul of the entire rezoning proposal.

City staff say the proposal for community space in the building simply wasn’t publicly endorsed. “My understanding was that there was some concern about the location of Qmunity at the site,” says Kevin McNaney, associate director of the city’s central area planning, which includes the West End. “It appears it wasn’t fully supported.”

It’s “now a 100-percent market rental project,” he confirms.

While developers revamp their plans to incorporate community input, one local ad hoc group says it will continue to oppose the plan. “It looks just as bad as the original proposal,” says Randy Helton of West End Neighbours, a group opposed to spot rezoning in the West End. “It’s essentially the same building,” he says, adding that the changes made have been cosmetic.

“And the small amount of community space has been cut out,” he continues. “It’s a bad project for the community. We deserve much better.”

McNaney says the rezoning application must now go through more community consultation and departmental discussions before a final decision can be made, a process that could last well into the year.

The rezoning application for 1401 Comox had been initially considered under the Short Term Incentives for Rental Program (STIR), approved by city council in 2009 as a way to increase the city’s urban market rental stock. STIR ended Dec 15, and while the city will not consider new projects under STIR, existing applications are still being considered. Councillor Tim Stevenson says he has not been informed about the revised rezoning application for 1401Comox St, saying it hasn’t come to council yet.

Stevenson says that he had hoped there would be some space allocated for Qmunity and that he wants an explanation for the queer centre’s exclusion from the plan.

Xtra‘s attempts to reach Gregory Henriquez, of Henriquez Partners Architects, were unsuccessful up to press time.

For now Qmunity will remain at its current location in the gay village. “It is functional space within its limitations,” Breakspear says, adding she’ll keep her eyes open for other potential locations.

A community open house to discuss the application revisions is scheduled for Feb 9, 5pm, at the Coast Plaza Hotel.