Saanich affordable housing development runs into stiff opposition

Greater Victoria Housing Society uncertain of future of $18 million project at Townley Lodge

Saanich council postponed a public hearing on the proposed $18 million redevelopment of Townley Lodge.

Plans for a proposed housing development that promised to increase the affordable housing stock in Saanich face an uncertain future after council unanimously voted to postpone a public hearing on the proposal following public input.

“We are obviously disappointed,” said Raymond Moss, director of property management for the Greater Victoria Housing Society (GVHS), of the decision, in an interview Tuesday morning.

Moss, who was still processing the decision, said the non-profit society would now review all of its available options. They include abandoning the project in light of financial pressures. “We have to look at everything,” he said.

Moss made those comments mere hours after the well-known non-profit society had officially presented its $18-million plans for the redevelopment of Townley Lodge, a single-storey building almost half a century old that consists of 39 low-income rental units for seniors located south of Lansdowne middle school between Shelbourne and Richmond streets.

The GVHS – which owns both the building and 5,328-square-metre property on which it stands along with other properties in the Victoria area – was planning to replace these old units with 67 affordable housing units for seniors, families and the disabled spread across four housing types.

They include a four-storey apartment building that drew much of the ire from opposed citizens.

While most stressed their general support for affordable housing and the work of the GVHS in principle, they said that its proposed four-storey apartment building would undermine the character of their largely single-residential neighbourhood and diminish property values.

“The only problem with this project is the height of the four-storey building,” said Meralin Young, one of more than a dozen speakers who questioned the density and massing of the proposed complex, which also includes a three-storey townhouse and two two-storey townhouses.

Council also received a formal presentation from the Camosun Community Association opposing the project, and several petitions to the same effect from residents of nearby streets, who say the proposed apartment building would block out their views and impact their quality of life by reducing green space and increasing traffic. Several speakers also questioned the process in accusing the GVHS of not listening to their concerns.

While most of the speakers opposed the proposal, it received support from the nearby Alliance Church, Morgan Henderson of the University of Victoria Urban Development Club and affordable housing advocate Kathy Stinson of the Victoria Cool Aid Society. This trio of speakers praised this development as a solution towards dealing with what Stinson called Victoria’s “affordable housing crisis.”

As for Saanich staff, it recommended that council move the project towards public hearing. In the end, council disagreed with staff and postponed the public hearing, the better of the two bad prospects that confronted the project.

If council had rejected the proposal outright – a short-lived but distinct possibility at the start of council’s deliberations – the GVHS could not have submitted a revised proposal for another six months. Postponement, however, grants the society an unlimited window of time to submit a revised proposal, if it so chooses.

While Moss did not discount that possibility in expressing hope that something could happen on the site, he also noted that the project faces certain realities. They include the possibility of losing financial assistance from senior funding partners, including the federal government.

Moss says the GVHS runs the risk of losing a $6 million grant from the federal government if left unspent by March 2017.

Coun. Vic Derman noted the opposition to the project was not a “question of suppressing affordable housing.” They clearly support affordable housing, as Townley Lodge has been a part of their neighbourhood for decades, he said.

Rather it is a question of whether this proposal fits the neighbourhood.

“It’s just too much and not in scale with the neighbourhood,” he said.

But if the votes of Derman’s colleagues echoed his concern, some offered a more qualified interpretation of the proposal and public opposition to it.

Coun. Fred Haynes described the proposal as a “fabulous development” that would be highly desirable in Japan and Europe. In fact, he seemed to gently wag his finger at opponents of the project when he noted the implicit trade-off between density and affordable housing in council’s decision to ask for revisions. “And that is the price Saanich will have to pay to satisfy the neighbourhood,” he said, words that drew audible murmurs from audience members.

Coun. Colin Plant said the proposal would enjoy broad support if placed before the voters of Greater Victoria rather than just the surrounding neighbourhood. Yet he aimed for conciliatory ending to a long evening when he issued the following appeal to GVHS.

“Please, don’t give up on affordable housing in Saanich,” he said. “We want you to be here.”

That appears less likely after Monday.

 

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