3 min

West End neighbours disagree on revised Comox St rezoning

Affordability vs more rental stock, city council hears

"The prime concern of residents in the West End is affordability," West End Residents Association president Christine Ackermann told city council, as she objected to the 1401 Comox St rezoning application. Credit: Jess Munitz photo

The City of Vancouver began public hearings June 11 on a contentious proposal to rezone 1401 Comox St to allow construction of a 200-foot rental tower. While some West End residents support the project, others maintain it overlooks the need for affordability and liveability.

“On behalf of the West End Neighbours (WEN), we oppose this rezoning and we request that city council not approve it and send it back to the applicant to come back with something more acceptable to the community,” Randy Helten told Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council.

“How many petitions do you need to start listening to what the people want?” asked Helten, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year.

Helten says that, since 2009, WEN has collected thousands of signatures from community members demanding no spot-rezoning until they are meaningfully consulted in a comprehensive community planning process.

City planners launched the consultation phase of their new West End plan in May, but Helten maintains the process has yet to be fully accountable to the community on issues such as spot-rezoning.

Calling the public consultation process a “humbling and meaningful experience,” 1401 Comox St developer Ian Gillespie and architect Gregory Henriquez attended the hearing to defend the third draft of their rezoning application.

Gillespie told council he is frustrated by the public’s disbelief that the tower will remain rental, as opposed to sold off as condos. If approved, the 22-storey tower would provide 186 rental units, including some townhouses, at market prices.

City staff support the project and told council the building plan would fit into the West End despite its large scale.

“It’s greater than that which would be considered for rezoning, but it’s not out of context with surrounding buildings,” says planner Anita Molaro.

Henriquez Partners Architects submitted a revised rezoning application last November that reduced the originally proposed height from 216.5 feet to 200 feet and adjusted the building plans to reduce its shadow impact on neighbours. Currently, the spot is zoned for a lower-density building no taller than 190 feet.

In decreasing its proposed height, the plan also dropped the amenity space it previously planned to offer Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre. However, it still includes six subsidized units for seniors for five years. It also promises space for a children’s play area, community park and green walkways.

Critics of the rezoning application say those incentives won’t make the rental units more affordable, and affordable rental stock is what’s needed in the West End.

Christine Ackermann, president of the West End Residents Association and long-term renter in the West End, says affordability is her biggest concern regarding the plan.

“We’re seeing that families can’t afford to live here anymore,” she says.

The proposed tower would give the West End its “first purposeful rental in 40 or 50 years,” she says, “but it doesn’t adequately address affordability.”

Ackermann wants council and the developers to consider reducing the suite rental costs by reducing the more than 70 parking spots allocated in the building application. That could save developers and the city as much as $75,000 per parking space, she suggests.

Ackermann says the median household income in the West End is $38,500, which translates to $950 per month. She wants the city and the developers to find ways to make a third of the proposed rental units affordable to the average-income resident.

But city staff say the proposed rents, though higher than rents in older buildings in the area, will buy “above modest” unit space that’s more affordable than owning a home in the West End.

Resident Terry Martin doesn’t buy it. “You create inaffordability; you don’t create affordability this way,” he told council.

But Gillan Jackson, who has rented in the West End for more than 20 years, supports the rezoning application. “I support it because it will introduce new, up-to-date, secure rental accommodation in the West End,” he told council.

Jackson predicts that any new rental stock in the area will put downward pressure on existing older stock and will “create movement in the market.”

Jackson says he has participated in all the open houses and discussion regarding the proposed site since the initial rezoning application was presented to the city in 2009, and he maintains that there are only two options for the site: condominiums or rental. “We have a lack of supply; we have aging buildings in the West End, and I hope that you will confirm the addition of new stock,” he told council.

The hearing will continue on June 13 to ensure that all 65 speakers who signed up to discuss the application get a chance to address council.