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St John’s demolished

Almost 12,000 sign petition against spot rezoning

"The community was not able to succeed in saving the church but there's still an open book about what happens next," says Randy Helten of West End Neighbours after the demolition of St John's Church to make way for a planned multi-storey development. Credit: James Loewen photo

Despite the demolition of a 30-year-old church at 1401 Comox St to make way for a proposed multi-storey development, several West End residents say the fight to save their community from spot rezoning is far from over.

The property’s owner and partners, Westbank Projects Corporation, Peterson Investment Group and Henriquez Partners Architects, plan to build a 22-storey residential tower on the site.

“This is not the end of the story,” said Randy Helten, president of West End Neighbours, a community group that opposes the development. “The community was not able to succeed in saving the church, but there’s still an open book about what happens next,” Helten said during a May 18 press conference held at the St John’s Church demolition site.

“This is not only a story about this street corner; it’s about the entire West End,” he added. “And it’s not only the West End but all over Vancouver.”

There are thousands of new housing units being proposed to the city by developers seeking to build larger structures than what current rezoning guidelines allow, Helten said. “City hall is failing to put public interest first, and things need to change.”

Helten is not the only one who holds that opinion. A petition with the signatures of 11,500 people who oppose area rezoning until an updated community plan is in place was presented to city council on May 17. Current West End rezoning guidelines allow for only six storeys. The building design will also challenge density limits as it will be five times that of the allowable floor space.

Under the city’s Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR) program, which aims to provide renters with more housing stock, some community members are worried the city is geared to accept the building and rezoning permit. But the mayor’s spokesperson, Kevin Quinlan, says that once a development proposal is submitted to the city, it is reviewed by staff and there will be an opportunity for public input, including a public hearing before council votes on it.

“They may have taken down the church,” West End resident Michelle Mathias said, “but we are going to get a say about what replaces it, and we would like a say about what goes into our community, and in that we need a comprehensive development plan.”

“For the amount of subsidy that was given to this project, we could’ve built three community centres over 25 years for queer people,” added lesbian Heidi McDonell.

Last week the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee (WEMAC), tasked with determining the needs of the community, announced it has posted an online survey for residents to outline their priorities and livability needs.

WEMAC spokesperson Michelle Fortin told Xtra the information gathered will be an “incredibly important” factor in the city’s ability to identify future planning decisions for the West End. But Helten said the city has already received significant feedback from residents. “We are watching very carefully to see how this survey is implemented and how it is interpreted.”

Meanwhile, Westbank spokesperson Jill Killeen says development of the site has not been scheduled. That’s subject to the city’s public approval process once appropriate development approvals are granted, she added. Killeen said the company is aware of the WEMAC consultation process and is eager to hear the results of the community priorities survey.

Westbank has offered to set aside space in the planned development for Qmunity, BC’s Queer Resource Centre.