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Catherine Street rental-housing project gets green light despite concerns

Several councillors acknowledged they were undecided until the last moment. Developer was hoping for more enthusiastic response.

Victoria council’s approval of a 30-unit rental building in Vic West ought to have been a cause for celebration for the developer behind the project.

But instead, the approval, which came Thursday after a two-day public hearing, was met with mixed feelings by Aryze Development principal Luke Mari. “This one’s been bittersweet,” said Mari. “I always hope for a more enthusiastic response and this one barely kind of hobbled over.”

After hearing from residents of the area and housing advocates, council voted 8-1 to approve the project at the corner of Catherine Street and Langford Street, with only Coun. Geoff Young opposing it.

But the overwhelming win was tempered by the number of councillors who admitted they remained undecided until the final moment. Many conceded they were struggling to make a decision.

Ultimately, the fact the site would feature more than three times the existing rental units as currently exist, seemed to nudge councillors into the yes column.

Mari said their hesitation, and a lot of the concerns expressed by some residents, might have come down to information not being made available.

He said very little had been made of the fact that the existing building, which has nine rental units, is at the end of its life and a renovation to deal with required seismic upgrades, asbestos and lead would have meant displacing tenants for at least a year, with no tenant assistance policy to help them.

Mari also noted Aryze has gone above and beyond to help the three tenants who remain and will be affected by the demolition and rebuilding of the site.

He said one was given everything they asked for. A second was provided with everything they asked for plus was found accommodation in another Aryze building, where they will be subsidized for a year. After that, the tenant hopes to move back into the new building into one of the three affordable units.

The third tenant, a senior, was found housing in another Aryze building and the rent will be subsidized for 18 months. .

Mari said while tenant displacement was a concern raised by several councillors and residents, it was done “as light as possible.”

There were other concerns raised by the public at the hearing and in written submissions, including objections to the size of the four-storey project fitting in beside single-family homes, the impact on parking and transportation, and what the project would do to the feel of the neighbourhood.

Mayor Lisa Helps said the application was a difficult one to consider. “Usually, adding new rental housing isn’t a difficult decision, particularly when it fits with the official community plan,” she said. Helps said it was complicated by the fact the surrounding community seems split on how they interpret their own neighbourhood plan, with some residents saying the new project will fit in perfectly and bring life to their urban village, while others felt it just doesn’t fit.

“Our job is to be the government of the city and to address the concerns that exist now, and will continue to exist for the next decades, and a shortage of rental housing in neighbourhoods where people want to live is really one of the biggest situations we’re facing,” she said before voting to approve it.

Coun. Marianne Alto said the project, which has two-bedroom units in half of the suites, creates housing for young families in units that are walkable to downtown without necessarily having to be downtown.

Young said the neighbourhood needs a mixed-use project, but one that is a better fit.

“The building is too big and the setbacks are too tight,” he said. “It is just too big and close to neighbouring developments.”

Mari said he felt there was more support than opposition to the project, and the scale of the building is down to policy.

“If you want us to be rental housing, it has to be a certain amount of units,” he said.

Mari said they will be making changes to improve the transition from the building to neighbouring housing by stepping back some of the levels.

When the project starts will depend on government financing, as doing a rental project with a traditional lender is not feasible at current rates.

Aryze is expected to submit building permits within two months.

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