A determined group of residents in Vancouver’s West End have taken to the streets in protest every Saturday since October. They are concerned that plans to address the city’s acute rental shortage in the area will undermine the neighbourhood’s character.
On one particular Saturday, members of the West End Neighbours marched across Vancouver’s Davie Street armed with signs that read “No Rezoning Without a Community Plan” and “West Enders Unite!”
Their petition has generated over 11,000 signatures.
Residents in the West End increased action after the city issued a permit allowing developers to start work on demolishing the St. John’s Church, a controversial rezoning site at 1401 Comox St.
“This is radical,” said Michelle Mathias, who organized the petition. “We’re going to lose the sunlight.”
The church was to be replaced by a 22-storey tower five times the density allowed by current zoning.
The proposed site was part of a city program to provide developers with incentives to build rental properties.
Henriques Partners Architects, however, withdrew initial plans and will bring a revised proposal after more community consultation, said Gregory Henrique, head architect on the project.
“The church will no longer exist,” said Henrique, “It has been leaking for quite a long time and has no heritage value other than the stained glassed windows.”
“Something will go in its place its just a matter of what.”
The plan to redevelop the St. John’s site falls under the city’s Short Term Incentive Rental Program (STIR). It is a 2.5-year plan that offers developer incentives to encourage new housing availability.
Over 50 per cent of Vancourites are renters and availability does not meet demand, said Councilor Raymond Louie.
“If we don’t replace it, our city will become an executive one in which only the rich can live in,” said Louie. “We want a diverse city in which people who work and study and aren’t ready to purchase can live.”
“I think change can be good and bad,” said Louie. “We are already working with members of the community to make sure this change will not be badly received.”
The West End is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, with an inhabitance of over 40,000. Eighty per cent of this population rents their home.
Developments over the past decades have been a mix of high-rise and low-rise buildings and most have been constructed under existing zoning laws.
West End residents said the recent development proposals are inconsistent with what characterizes the West End. The mix of people, buildings and open green space make the West end interesting and livable, residents said.
At the small park throughway facing the Gordon Neighborhood House, children play while their parents watch and enjoy the sunlight.
The building will cast a shadow over this distinctive area, said resident Mathias.
“Ten high-rises in a 10-block neighborhood,” she said. “Just imagine what that will do.”
“You won’t be able to grow a plant on your balcony. It won’t be a nice place to walk around in. Kids won’t have the same space to play.”
Residents are also worried about more people living in the West End.
Lord Robert Elementary School is already at capacity, said Mathias.
“We have achieved optimum density and now we are surpassing it,” she said.
Other members of the community are more positive about the project.
Qmunity, B.C.’s queer resource centre, could get some vital free space for new programming in the proposed 1401 Comox building that they would share with the Gordon Neighborhood House, said Executive Director Jennifer Breakspear.
“Delays mean that the Gordon Neighborhood House and Qmunity are waiting to get in and get using a space, which we need,” she said.
“But more importantly, delays mean that people who want to rent are unable to. There is no new space available for rent and it’s leaving things uncertain.”
Tiko Kerr, resident and activist, said the residents are not against development but oppose it if it does not contribute to the livability of the community.
“There is a good example of a successful nine-story rental building at 1175 Broughton, which I think works really well,” he said.
Related: Q&A on the STIR rental initiative