University Heights redevelopment on the table again

If all goes smoothly, shovels could be in the ground next spring to begin the four-year, $230-million redevelopment of University Heights shopping centre, says the developer.

Wesbild Holdings has resubmitted plans it put on pause last year to replace the 1980s-era shopping centre at the corner of Shelbourne Street and McKenzie Avenue after it became bogged down in a dispute with its Home Depot tenant.

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The latest mixed-use proposal is similar to the previous one, but adds 10,000 square feet of retail space on the north side of Home Depot used for its garden store. Under the latest proposal, that covered space will be walled in and a new garden centre will be set up to the north.

Home Depot asked last year for another 10,000 square feet.

It also sought $5 million in compensation and other concessions. Wesbild and Home Depot will not be commenting on that issue, a developer spokesperson said.

Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes says he is “delighted” that the project is returning. It had been approved to go to public hearing in 2020, but that did not proceed because of the dispute with Home Depot.

“This is tremendously good news,” Haynes said Thursday. “It was never certain they would be able to come back because there was quite a bit of work to be done between Home Depot and Wesbild.”

Haynes points to Wesbild’s plans for 597 rental units, with 60 designated as affordable for 20 years, plus 11,000 square feet of daycare, cycling facilities, a public plaza, community space and electric-vehicle charging stations and more. It “ticks many boxes,” he said.

Wesbild will be holding a public-engagement process and staff will vet the new plan before it goes to council, which makes the decision whether to send it to public hearing. “I’m hoping it will come to council in the summer [or] in the fall and hopefully we can have shovels in the ground in spring 2022,” Haynes said.

The idea of constructing housing on top of commercial space probably wasn’t thought of when the existing mall was built, Haynes said. But today, “We see it in Europe where there’s density in what they call centres and corridors, and that’s part of the new model that we have here.”

Kevin Layden, Wesbild president and chief executive, said in a statement that the project previously received “widespread community support.” “We are hoping that will continue as we restart consultations with our neighbours.”

The project also includes a B.C. Transit hub, more than 121,000 square feet of new commercial space, featuring a grocery store, pharmacy and restaurant, plus infrastructure improvements such as wider sidewalks, $500,000 toward public art along Cedar Hill Road, and a landscaped courtyard with a dog park and children’s play structures.

Wesbild estimates the project will create 309 construction-related jobs and another 209 permanent jobs.

Chris Poirier-Skelton, chair of the Gordon Head Residents’ Association, is pleased that Wesbild and Home Depot reached an agreement allowing the project to move forward, noting the developer has not only consulted with the association but staged a public meeting.

Gordon Head residents have raised concerns that more parking could have been planned given the number of units, she said.

They fear parking could move to nearby streets already heavily used for parking and that traffic will increase in the area.

On the positive side, the planned density falls within the location set out in the Shelbourne Valley action plan, as opposed to other areas where it might not be suitable, she said.

Poirier-Skelton said the daycare is welcome, given that a local preschool will be lost.

“There is always a need for daycare.”

The Wesbild project, along with other planned developments in the area, will add to the rental housing stock needed by university students and others who could not afford to buy a home, she said.

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