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West End town hall draws hundreds

Residents concerned about rezoning proposals

 Nearly 400 people gathered at a town hall meeting on April 22 to voice their anger about a series of redevelopment proposals they say threaten to destroy the West End’s unique character.

Of particular concern to many at the meeting is city council’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program, which offers developers subsidies to create rental units around town.

Panellist Ned Jacobs said STIR is setting “terrible precedents.”

The city’s new “top-down, centralized approach to planning [is] rendering community involvement in decision-making meaningless in Vancouver,” Jacobs alleged.

Since the STIR program came into effect in June 2009, West End residents have been urging city hall to draft a new neighbourhood plan in consultation with the community.

The last West End plan was drafted in the late 1980s.

Under STIR, developers can seek permission from city council to build high-rises that exceed the zoning bylaws put in place in the last plan.

Rusty Ker points to the proposed rezoning at 1401 Comox St. If that plan for a  “huge glass structure” goes ahead, it will be “completely out of character with the centre of our community,” he said.

On April 20, architects and developers for the Comox St site presented the city with a revised rezoning proposal. The revised proposal outlines the request for more density and height and offers six units of seniors’ housing and 3,500 square feet to share between Gordon Neighbourhood House and Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre.

While some gay community members applaud the space, others are cautious.

“I support programs for queer people in this neighbourhood and all neighbourhoods,” said lesbian Heidi McDonell. “But I don’t support the plan for the Qmunity centre to use the space at Comox St.”

McDonell says the queer centre shouldn’t be hasty in its desire to secure a space. “It’s really just short-term thinking,” she said, pointing to money she says the city is investing in the project that could have gone to other queer and community programs in the West End.

Calling the attendance at April 22’s town hall “impressive,” Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson applauded West Enders for their concern.

“Obviously, at times people think we [the city] are off track and that’s good. That’s what this [meeting] is all about,” he acknowledged.

Stevenson, who is gay, was the only councillor to attend the town hall.

He said he recently gathered more than a dozen West Enders to meet with the mayor and council to discuss the area’s needs.

He also said the city is aware that more community involvement and awareness of the STIR program is needed.

“The community needs to be much more involved in the process to understand what it’s about,” he said. “In hindsight, I wish it [STIR] would have been rolled out in a different way,” he acknowledged, adding that the city’s goal is only to provide needed rental housing in the West End.

A petition circulated by a new ad hoc group called West End Neighbours calling on city council to honour the area’s current plan, including its height limits, is now approaching 4,000 signatures. The group also organized April 22’s town hall.