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Westbank owners set fire in Comox St church

It was a Buddhist blessing ceremony: spokesperson

The Fire Department was called on Feb 9 after neighbours reported a fire in the abandoned church at 1401 Comox St, now the subject of a demolition request and, if developers get their way, the future site of a 22-storey high-rise. Credit: www.westendneighbours.ca

A community group opposing the development of a 22-storey tower in the West End alleges the small fire set on Feb 9 in the site’s abandoned church was ignited by the property owners. A spokesperson for the developers admits the owners were involved, but says the fire was part of a spiritual ceremony and not arson.

The Vancouver Fire Department reportedly arrived at 1401 Comox St at approximately 5pm yesterday after neighbours saw a fire burning inside the building and smoke escaping through its windows.

Randy Helten, president of West End Neighbours, the group opposing the high-rise development, didn’t see the fire himself but says residents of the neighbourhood told him they witnessed firefighters escorting men in crimson, Tibetan monk-style gowns from the building, while another civilian left the church carrying fire extinguishers.

According to Helten, witnesses allege they saw men in suits standing outside the building. He’s accusing the property owners and partners of lighting the fire.

“I just find it ironic that Westbank, Peterson and the architect, Henriquez, appear to have been involved in lighting a fire inside a building they say must be demolished because they are worried about a fire hazard,” Helten alleges.

“I hope they will issue a public explanation to the authorities and local community about exactly what went on here. I also hope that the authorities will investigate immediately to ensure that the developer’s activities complied with city bylaws, fire and safety regulations, that the safety of neighbouring buildings has not been compromised, and that the relevant laws are being applied.”

A spokesperson for Westbank says there was nothing criminal or suspicious about the fire. “There was a blessing ceremony on the property yesterday,” explains Jill Killeen.

“One of the partners in the project is a devout Buddhist, and as part of the blessing ceremony there are certain things that go on,” she says, explaining the fire is part of an elaborate ritual.

“After the smoke in the building, we left the windows open and we did have a security guard on site for 24 hours,” says Killeen, adding that owners have discussed plans for an ongoing 24-hour security guard to monitor the site until development begins.

Killeen says the Buddhist ceremony is a tradition among the partners and a way for them to show respect for the site. “Every project that we undertake, this is what we do because of the beliefs of the owner,” she explains.

Killeen says blessing ceremonies were also conducted prior to the development of the Woodward’s building and the Shangri-La condo tower.

Asked if the ceremony signifies a start to development on Comox St, Killeen pauses. The owners have not yet received approval from the city to demolish the church, she says.

Owners submitted the demolition request to the city in December.

Helten wonders if the owners violated city fire regulations by having their ceremony in the church. Killeen says the owners informed the Fire Department of the ceremony. Beyond that, she says, she has “no more details.”

Xtra‘s calls to the Fire Department and the Vancouver Police Department for additional information regarding the incident were not returned by posting time.