Taller, denser housing projects face pushback in Saanich's Royal Oak

A battle is shaping up in ­Saanich’s Royal Oak neighbourhood, where residents are pushing back against a series of proposed multi-storey ­developments.

Opponents are accusing council of ignoring the advice of its own planning officials, deferring to developers and moving applications ahead without an over-arching plan.

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In some cases, residents say, the proposed projects exceed the size and density allowed under existing rules.

“What we’re seeing now is efforts by developers to really go to the max in terms of density and building heights that were never contemplated for these areas,” said Roger Graham, president of the Royal Oak Community Association.

“It’s happening without public input except on a project-by- project basis. It’s death by a thousand cuts, in a sense, if these kinds of projects actually are going to ultimately be approved by Saanich.”

Mayor Fred Haynes countered that none of the projects have received final approval and that council has a responsibility to consider all proposals and points of view.

He acknowledged that some of the projects conflict with existing plans and policies. But he said parts of those documents are out of date and fail to take into account the climate crisis and the district’s pressing need for more affordable homes. “We just recently had a provincially mandated housing needs study that shows we are not meeting the housing needs of our residents.”

At the same time, Haynes said, Saanich council is ­committed to preventing urban sprawl, “which means we have to go up.”

“Villages, centres and corridors is where the larger density is going to happen, and needs to happen for climate change, active transportation, vibrancy — so people can live, work and play within an area.”

Residents, however, say some of the proposed developments fall outside the “centres” and “villages” envisioned by planning documents, and that if those documents are too old, they should be updated before forging ahead with “one-off ­projects.”

“It feels like there’s an agenda just to get high-density housing in, and the only way they’re going to do that is by working outside of the Official Community Plan,” said Greg van der Krogt, a Royal Oak resident. “It’s sort of a random approach to things and maybe we’ll deal with the outfall afterwards.”

Saanich Coun. Zac de Vries, who heads the district’s housing strategy task force, disagreed.

He said council considers a wide range of factors when ­making decisions, including staff advice, local area and ­official community plans and many other documents — ­including the climate action, active ­transportation and strategic plans. “So nothing is being done in ­isolation. We’re trying to deal with things ­comprehensively.”

No one project is going to fit every aspect of every planning document, de Vries said. “These are guides that are meant to help us make good choices.”

He added that council relies on public hearings to make sure it’s listening to everyone, “because we don’t want to leave any stone unturned and we want to consider all points of view and ideas.”

Council has already signalled willingness to consider projects that are taller and denser than permitted by current policies — a trade-off that developers argue is necessary for them to include affordable housing.

In December, a proposal by Mike Geric Construction Ltd. to erect 11-storey and five-storey condo buildings on Elk Lake Drive next to Elk/Beaver Lake Regional Park advanced to a public hearing on a 7-2 vote.

The Doral Forest Park project features 242 condos, including 43 that would be sold at 15 per cent below appraised value.

A number of council members noted the need for more “affordable” housing options in moving the project forward, despite opposition from residents and a staff report highlighting “a height, scale and massing that is out of context with surrounding development.”

Further south on Elk Drive, residents have mobilized against Aryze Developments’ proposal for eight townhouses and a six-storey building with 65 rental units at 520 Normandy Rd., beside Saanich Commonwealth Place.

“It’s too tall and too dense and it doesn’t fit with the ­character of the neighbourhood,” said Heather Banister, who lives in a single-family home near the proposed ­development site. “It’s going to be a wall against one-storey homes.”

But Luke Mari of Aryze said the development was scaled to deliver the type of housing desperately needed in Saanich. Fifteen of the units would be designated as affordable — seven in perpetuity and eight for 10 years.

“The status quo is not working,” he said.

As well, he said, the building would be near the second- largest transit exchange in ­Saanich and beside the largest recreation centre.

“We’re next to a library, schools, two town centres. So when we talk about being a progressive society in terms of climate-change mitigation, that means putting housing near amenities and jobs and transit.”

Nevertheless, Mari said, Aryze is listening to community concerns and will likely come back with a four-storey proposal instead. Unfortunately, he said, the project will lose a lot of the family-friendly units and some of its affordability as a result.

Geric Construction, meanwhile, is proposing another large mixed-use development called Mateah with 250 market and affordable homes at the intersection of Glanford Avenue and Enterprise Crescent. The project is working its way through the planning process and has yet to reach the council table.

Greg Gillespie, development manager, said Geric is trying to build “complete communities” and that Royal Oak is a desired location because it’s a major centre with access to transit and other services.

“We’re really looking at not only the current needs, but what is housing going to look like, what is transportation going to look like, what’s climate change going to look like 10, 20, 50 years years down the road,” he said. “So these are really buildings that will be enduring projects.”

Haynes said council is doing its best to weigh the proposals against the wishes of current Royal Oak residents and the needs of future generations. It is not, he said, an easy task. On the one hand, people want change only on their terms, he said. On the other, the inability of families to find affordable housing in Saanich is a looming economic crisis, he said.

“If we do not have housing such that people who are working in retail, people who are working in the hospitals — our nurses, our firemen, our police — can actually live in the municipality, how are the residents of Saanich going to have the services and supplies that they need?” he said.

“We need to have a diversity of housing within the municipality that is suitable to all employment categories. And whether people like it or not, density and ‘going up’ is the answer.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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