Oak Bay church’s plan for housing development is just too big, critics say

Neighbourhood opponents of the Oak Bay United Church and its renovation plans say they aren’t opposed to affordable housing, only the size of the proposed buildings. “The massing of it is really quite overwhelming to the neighbourhood,” said Susan MacRae, a neighbour of the church who lives on Granite Street. “It’s bigger than anything in our area.”

She and other residents surrounding Oak Bay United Church at 1355 Mitchell St. have found themselves locked in a battle of pointed fingers, suspicions and accusations over the church’s proposal to build affordable housing.

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The church wants to renovate its 1.3-acre site by building 100 to 160 units of affordable housing. Plans also call for a daycare centre and community gardens. The 1914 heritage church, seismically retrofitted in 2010, would be maintained.

The property is zoned institutional and Oak Bay’s official community plan calls for more density in the area.

But at meetings convened by the church late last year, neighbouring residents, such as MacRae, were upset to see architectural drawings envisioning buildings of four or five storeys.

Many residents resorted to lawn signs declaring “STOP Over Development by the Oak Bay United Church.”

Last week, residents sporting those signs woke up to find their lawns newly planted with hand-painted signs declaring “We support class-based segregation” and “I fear poor people.”

Michelle Slater, lead minister of Oak Bay United Church, was adamant in her condemnation of the hand-painted signs.

But Slater admitted to feeling personally attacked by the signs that named Oak Bay United Church. She voiced surprise at how mean-spirited and polarized the issue has become.

Neighbours such as Curtis Hobson, also of Granite Street, said he and others have been feeling a little overpowered by the church, even if they can support its objectives. “The neighbourhood supports affordable housing,” said Hobson. “But what they [the church and its planners] have shown us so far is too big, too dense and it doesn’t fit in with the neighbourhood.”

The church is in the process of arranging more meetings with the community in the latter half of next month.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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