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UPDATE: Developer wants to demolish Comox St church

Turn church into community centre: NPA candidate

Randy Helten, of West End Neighbours, is still hoping the city will reject Westbank's development plans for the site and forgo its rezoning. Credit: Courtesy of West End Neighbours

Feb 7, 5:35pm

An NPA council candidate is asking the City of Vancouver to consider purchasing the St John church at 1401 Comox St and turning it into a community centre.

In a Feb 4 letter to council, Bill McCreery urges the city to consider lending the park board funds from its community amenity contributions or the city Endowment Fund to help transform the abandoned building into a space for West End community groups.

But Vision councillor Tim Stevenson says any requests for capital funds for community centres should come from the park board and not a “lone wolf” NPA candidate for council.

“Am I trying to be political here? Yeah,” says McCreery when asked if this is a strategy to secure a seat on council this fall.  “But the city would look good as well,” he contends.

Stevenson says the city would not look good introducing at least a one percent tax increase — which would be required, he says, if it were to help the park board purchase the property from Westbank.

The United Church of Canada sold the site to Westbank Corp and Peterson Investment group for $4.25 million. Stevenson says taxes rise by one percent with every $4 million the city spends. He suspects the tax hike would be higher if Westbank sold to make a profit.

Westbank did not respond to Xtra’s request for an interview by press time.

McCreery would like to see the church utilized by many West End community groups, including BC’s queer resource centre, Qmunity.

While he has discussed his idea with parks board commissioner and fellow NPA member Ian Robertson, McCreery says he has not formally approached the entire board with the plan. He says he wanted to put the idea to the city first.

“The first step was to get council on board,” he says, admitting the idea is in its initial stages and that the plan needs “a whole lot more fleshing out.”

Feb 1

A West End community group says a developer’s proposal to demolish the church at 1401 Comox St is an attempt to push through its proposal to build a 22-storey high-rise on the site.

The city tabled Westbank Corporation’s contentious high-rise proposal last summer, pending more community consultation.

Randy Helten, president of the West End Neighbours (WEN), says Westbank’s new proposal to tear down the site’s existing building undermines the community consultation promised by the city. “We don’t think it’s neighbourly or gentlemanly to go ahead with this [demolition] permit right now,” Helten says.

“I think they’re playing the game like a chess game. They’re not being very sincere to the community,” he alleges.

Westbank spokesperson Jill Killeen says the company applied for the demolition permit last December after becoming aware of potential hazards posed by the vacant church.

“We’re concerned about the state of the building,” she says. “We’re very aware of the sensitivity of the community and we respect that. But the building is a fire and safety risk.”

Killeen says the 30-year-old church was deemed by BC Hydro to be a potential fire hazard, and power to the building was turned off following the most recent break-in on Jan 30. Since its vacancy, Killeen says, the building has been a continuous hotbed of activity for vandals and squatters, and last year it was targeted by thieves who stripped its copper wire and destroyed its sprinkler system.  

Helten accuses Westbank of purposely turning off the power and sprinkler systems, making the site a prime location for a fire hazard. “It was almost like they were creating the conditions to make it appear that demolition was necessary,” he alleges.

The company denies the allegations. “No, we certainly did not do that,” says Killeen. “Westbank did not cut off power or turn off the sprinkler systems. It was vandalism.”

Killeen says the city has yet to decide on Westbank’s demolition request. 

In the meantime Helten says he sent a letter to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robinson and councillors on Jan 29 urging them to oppose the permit. He says he hasn’t received any reply.

Helten is still hoping the city will reject Westbank’s development plans for the site and forgo its rezoning.

Part of Westbank’s Comox St proposal includes setting aside space for Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre, which could share some of the new building with Gordon Neighbourhood House. Qmunity’s executive director, Jennifer Breakspear, remains hopeful. “Everything is still on track and we’re in regular consultation with Westbank,” she says.

Breakspear says she too has been informed of the safety risks associated with the abandoned church and says the application for a demolition permit is just standard practice.

“They’re moving forward with their business,” she says. “They are moving forward with development as best they can until there is approval for rezoning.”

“It’s well within the rights of the owner to move forward with a [demolition] permit,” agrees Cherie Payne, chair of the West End Mayor’s Advisory Committee.

Since forming in July 2010, the advisory committee has met with development companies in Vancouver to assess how developers reach out to members in the community. “We look at how the community can be consulted so they feel heard before development takes action,” she explains.

Payne says the committee is intended to facilitate consultation but has no veto over development decisions for specific sites like 1401 Comox.

Helten, who has gained thousands of signatures on a petition he has circulated throughout the community asking for a West End community plan, says his group will continue to oppose developments that don’t conform to current developing bylaws.

“We hope that the city and developers will act in good faith and not be imprudent and rash,” he says.