A divided Victoria council has rejected a proposed 48-unit condo development in Cook Street Village for failing to include any affordable housing.
Aragon Properties wanted to demolish the former Pic-A-Flic Video store, two houses and a duplex at Cook and Pendergast Streets to build a four-storey condominium with businesses on the first floor and a range of one-, two- and three-bedroom suites. The project failed on a 4-4 tie, however, following a public hearing Thursday night and a prolonged debate about how best to resolve the city’s housing crisis.
Coun. Ben Isitt argued that the city has a serious poverty issue, limited space and can’t keep approving projects that fail to set aside a portion of their units for low-income people.
“In the context of the housing crisis and the direction that I think our community needs to go, I do think we have to pull the drawbridge up on exclusively expensive strata housing, if we’re going to turn the corner,” he said.
Mayor Lisa Helps countered that the city is making significant progress on that front and that there are currently more affordable rental units in development or underway than there are condos. And she argued that there is still a need for projects like Aragon’s to supply condominiums for people unable to afford a single-family home.
“So, no, it’s not affordable and no it’s not rental, but it is part of the housing ecosystem that I think is really important for us to support,” she said.
It’s not the first time council has turned the developer away. In December 2018, councillors declined to send the project to public hearing and directed staff to work with Aragon and B.C. Housing to look at setting aside up to 20 per cent of the units for affordable rental housing.
City staff told council in May that Aragon did approach B.C. Housing and the Capital Regional District about the possibility of including affordable rental housing. The developer ultimately rejected the idea, however, because the project didn’t fit with any current B.C. Housing program and integrating affordable housing would require a complete redesign, staff said.
Instead, Aragon was proposing to contribute $136,000 for community amenities and $160,000 to the city’s housing reserve fund, which provides grants for the development and retention of affordable rental and home ownership projects.
As well, the developer was prepared to give the city a deal on a commercial unit next door to the project at 380 Cook St. to allow for possible expansion of the Cook Street Village Activity Centre. Although nothing was finalized, city staff said there had been “promising” discussions about using the space for a wellness clinic with a nurse practitioner on site.
Even councillors who voted against the project noted its many positive attributes, saying it presented “beautifully” and would add to the vibrancy of the Cook Street Village. But the question of affordability and the displacement of tenants from the existing houses prevented them from supporting it.
“I don’t want to deny this project,” Coun. Jeremy Loveday said. “I don’t think I can feel right about myself, though, voting to eliminate affordable family housing and making a decision that will displace tenants during a pandemic for a project that isn’t offering rental or affordable units or attainable homeownership.”
Coun. Marianne Alto, by contrast, agreed with Helps on the city’s responsibility to provide a continuum of housing for people, including families that would be able to buy a two- or three-bedroom condo in Aragon’s project.
“Yes, they will be privileged families who understand that they have the ability to purchase something that requires a great deal of investment,” she said. “At the same time, they will be investing in their families, and I believe we have an obligation to ensure that those opportunities are there as well.”
In the end, the vote to approve the project split evenly with Helps, Alto, Coun. Geoff Young and Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe in favour, and Isitt, Loveday, Coun. Sarah Potts and Coun. Sharmarke Dubow opposed.
Luke Ramsay of Aragon Properties expressed disappointment with the result.
“We felt that the application provided significant community benefit, especially with the partnership between us and the Cook Street Activity Centre to help provide the space to bring a nurse practitioner while also providing 48 new family-sized homes in a lovely building which showcases local Indigenous artwork,” he said in a statement.
“Ultimately the council insisted on this project including affordable housing, a noble goal, despite not being a requirement when we made our application.”
Ramsay said that in order to include affordable housing in the project, the developers would have to provide more density and possibly lose some of the other amenities — “something we did not think the community would support.”