Flashpoint at Christie Point: Residents, developer clash over $200M plan

Tranquil Christie Point, the Portage Inlet peninsula home to early-1960s affordable apartments and a federal bird sanctuary, has become a $200-million flashpoint over conflicting land use on the View Royal waterfront.

View Royal council is expected to decide on Tuesday whether to allow the proposal to advance to a public hearing. Toronto’s Realstar Group is seeking to rezone the site of the two-storey Christie Point Apartments so that it can construct, over several years, seven buildings up to six storeys high, almost tripling the number of rental units to 473 from 161.

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Should a hearing take place, as View Royal Mayor David Screech expects it will, it would likely happen by the end of the month.

Screech ranks the issue as the most complex he has faced in 15 years on council, generating hundreds of pages of documents making the case for and against a development that would cause hardship for longtime tenants, but add more than 300 rental units.

It is the largest housing proposal the town has seen, for rental or purchase.

The plight of the current tenants is “the hardest part of the proposal,” Screech said.

“My heart goes out to the existing tenants.”

But, he noted, “the need for purpose-built rental housing in the region has never been higher.”

“If passed, council would insist that the units stay as rental in perpetuity,” he said. In any event, it’s clear that the municipality must be “smarter and smarter about how we use land,” with higher density closer to the capital core and the military base.

The proposal is not a done deal, Screech said.

Three environmental groups have told a View Royal advisory committee they do not support the rezoning bid. Some opponents have asked why Realstar can’t just double the height to four storeys, given the scenic viewscapes for everyone from kayakers to nearby Saanich homeowners.

Nine two-storey buildings currently occupy the narrow, kilometre-long peninsula that juts into Portage Inlet, north of Shoreline school.

The apartments are modest, but large and low-density in one of the hottest and tightest rental markets in Canada.

Before the Christie Point Apartments were built, many opponents decried such a large development adjoining Craigflower Manor, now a National Historic Site.

“View Royal was not incorporated at the time, and residents were told the buildings were ‘temporary structures’ and could be revisited when View Royal incorporated,” said Vicki Blogg, of the Portage Inlet Sanctuary Colquitz Estuary Society.

“Well, 57 years later, redevelopment is here — not a park.”

The federally designated migratory-bird sanctuary, in place since 1923, reflects the area’s location on the Pacific Flyway. Nature Canada recognizes the “exceptional opportunities to experience nature in an urban setting,” Blogg said. The loss and damage of trees due to construction are among the reasons the organization does not support the six-storey proposal.

Michelle Wright, who has lived in a three-bedroom townhouse at Christie Point for five years, paying about $1,550 monthly rent, which includes heat, is apprehensive. “I will never be able to find a similarly priced rental in Victoria, especially one that allows pets,” she said. “While there is no doubt Victoria needs more rental housing, what we really need is more affordable rental housing.”

The developer is counting on the lure of 300-plus more rental units, said tenant Judith Newnham, spokeswoman for the Christie Point Advocates Group. If the proposal passes, she fears the units will end up at the high end of the market years down the road — “not helping the vacancy rate, making it worse.”

View Royal’s mayor and council have “the power and the obligation” to stipulate the number of affordable units that should be included and the more the better, she said.

“A lot of the people who live here are seniors and any move for them is going to be traumatic,” Newnham said, adding about a quarter of residents have lived there more than 11 years.

Six storeys for several of the proposed seven new buildings might not sound high, but it will look “monstrous” in such a bucolic setting,” said Susan Lees, whose house overlooks Christie Point from Saanich.

“The other analogy floating around is that it will look like a cruise ship sitting out there 24/7.”

But Screech said: “I think that’s a huge overstatement.” He said there were developments of similar height along the Gorge and Selkirk waterways.

Project architect Franc D’Ambrosio of Victoria said the proposal is at a scale and density appropriate for the next 50-plus years. “This is what the community’s long-range plan called for in the official community plan and with the existing buildings at the end of their life,” he wrote in an email.

People are continuing to move to southern Vancouver Island and View Royal’s community plan reflects a mandate to do more with less land, he said.

Heather Grey-Wolf, Realstar vice-president, wrote in an email that the 312 additional units would be concentrated on the areas already built upon.

“By re-using these building footprints and paved areas, we can minimize the environmental impacts … to protect rare or sensitive species, ecosystems or habitat,” she said.

Kathi Springer, a spokeswoman for Realstar, said Realstar’s original proposal was for a smaller footprint and nine-storey buildings.

“We heard from the community that this was too high — too much of a contrast,” Springer said. “We responded and our application has changed in response to the community’s input.”

If the proposal is reduced to four storeys from six, rents would be far more expensive, she said.

“They will be luxury. Realstar is not in the luxury rental business. Realstar builds purpose-built rentals that are market rentals for perpetuity.”

Containing the redevelopment to four storeys would require much more pavement, which is currently allowed, but is “the wrong thing to do on this beautiful piece of land,” Springer said.

D’Ambrosio said in many areas of the site mature trees would provide screening for the proposed new buildings.

“However, in some areas, the buildings will be generally more visible for a number of years, as new trees and plantings grow, and as people become accustomed to the new townscape.”

Doug Critchley, research director of the Portage Inlet Protection Society, a property owners group with a stewardship role, said: “It’s just far too large a project for a sensitive area.” The organization has hoisted helium balloons to 26 metres, the height of several buildings on Realstar’s website, and taken photos from across the inlet that, he said, demonstrate that no trees on the site are that high.

“The existing skyline is tree-tops, but the replacement skyline will be nothing but buildings built in a row, so that they extend for 370 metres in a single line with hardly a gap between them,” he said. “This applies to the five structures built on the flat central flood plain, resulting in one wide visual mass.”

Realstar said only a few native trees would be removed within the 15-metre development permit area and 546 trees would be planted.

Opponents also fear increased traffic from additional units.

Screech said View Royal has “very stringent” environmental regulations that all developers have to follow. “It’s nonsense in my view that this is going to be an environmental disaster,” he said.

Screech pointed out that stormwater from Christie Point currently goes directly into the inlet, and stopping that would be “a massive step forward.” As for traffic tie-ups, Screech said as development keeps going to the West Shore, hundreds of extra cars would still be in the area, while Realstar’s proposal would make major contributions to the intersections.

Screech said he would like to see one year’s notice for tenants should the proposal go ahead, not the six months currently offered by Realstar. The legal requirement is two months.

Realstar has committed $1 million to the region’s housing trust fund if the proposal passes, but Screech acknowledged that won’t help current Christie Point tenants. He wants them to be offered a discount if they opt to re-rent there, should the project go ahead.

The stress of redevelopment has exacerbated the health problems of many Christie Point tenants, Newnham said.

Tenants are hopeful that Realstar will appoint a third-party “tenant relations officer” and consider financial compensation based on length of tenancy, she said.

Opponents of the proposal have gathered about 600 names on a change.org petition. Apart from the developer, Screech said, “not many” have spoken in its favour.

Nothing is a done deal until the bylaws are adopted, Screech said.

“We have a really good, thoughtful council that will weigh the pros and cons — I have full confidence with that playing out.”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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