A speech delivered May 6 by UNITI CEO Doug Tennant did not pull any punches about the disappointment and ‘devastation’ felt last year as a result of Surrey council’s rejection of the planned Harmony Apartments development in South Surrey.
Tennant was speaking after accepting the award for non-profit organization of the year at the South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce’s A Celebration of Resilience Business Excellence Awards at Hazelmere Golf and Tennis Club.
And while he did not mention any members of council by name, the import of his words was not missed by some 230 business leaders and community movers and shakers who packed the room – including Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Coun. Allison Patton.
His remarks were received with a standing ovation, involving some 90 per cent of the audience, by Tennant’s own reckoning.
“People have been posting online that I took down the mayor,” Tennant told Peace Arch News Friday. “I didn’t do that. But the truth needs to be told.”
On July 27 of last year, Surrey council, by a five to three vote, rejected the six-storey, 91-unit Harmony Apartments proposal for property owned by UNITI in the 15100-block of 20 Avenue.
The project would have combined inclusive, affordable and close-to-market-rate units, and more than 200 people had expressed an interest in living there.
Tennant said there was not then, or since, any formal statement or reason given for why those who voted against it (McCallum, Patton, and Couns. Laurie Guerra, Doug Elford and Mandeep Nagra) gave it the thumbs down.
He said he had since read comments from Guerra, in media reports that suggested the sticking point was neighbour concerns about the six-storey height.
“If the issue really was the (height), that’s a pretty easy thing to say,” he said.
In his speech, Tennant noted that the Harmony proposal had gone before council after three years of working closely with city staff and “extensive” consultations with the community.
The aim was to provide housing for people with disabilities, along with others who are being priced out of the neighbourhood they grew up in, and contributed to, he added.
He said the project was within present density zoning and was “strongly supported by staff” and even more strongly supported by the community, including the Chamber and all of the neighbouring businesses.
Support expressed through correspondence, petitions and called in comments to the city had been in a ratio of nine to one in favour, Tennant told PAN.
“Yet, despite this, it was rejected with no reason being given,” he noted in his speech.
“The rejection was devastating to UNITI and even more devastating to the long-term residents of South Surrey who finally had hope that they might have a home they could call their own,” he said.
But noting the Chamber awards celebrated resilience, he said UNITI would stick to its core values and principles of “integrity, accountability, and a community where all people are valued and belong.”
He recalled that the seeds of what has become UNITI were planted some 65 years ago when a group of parents, mostly mothers, “gathered together around kitchen tables to fight for the right of their disabled children to be part of the community they grew up in.”
“While it is disappointing that there are still forces that stand in the way of inclusion and belonging, this is not a battle we will shy away from,” he vowed.
In thanking the Chamber for the recognition of UNITI, Tennant extended congratulations to category finalists the White Rock Rotary Club and Soroptimist International, expressing appreciation for their positive impact on the community and their past support for UNITI.
“We look forward to working with both of you in the future,” he said.