Tower would need to provide amenities: council

A 23-storey proposal for uptown White Rock could include new city hall facilities

A proposal for a new 23-storey tower in White Rock’s Town Centre was before council’s Land Use and Planning Committee (LUPC) on Oct. 26.

But judging from councillors’ questions in preliminary discussion, it seems likely the project, proposed by developer Michael Habibi, will be subjected to close scrutiny before a development permit would be granted.

According to a corporate report to the LUPC from planning and development services director Carl Isaak, what makes the proposal stand apart from other similar projects is that it could potentially include a new city hall/civic centre to replace White Rock’s aging city hall on Buena Vista Avenue.

Suggested is that – as in Surrey’s city hall – the new council chambers could also serve the community as a theatre/performance auditorium.

In the mixed retail/residential building – proposed for 1513 Johnston Rd. (at Russell Avenue) – the civic centre would occupy part of the ground floor, including a lobby/galleria area that could “potentially host events outside of office hours.”

There would also be city offices on both the ground and second floors of the development, Isaak said.

The proposal is within current zoning and height guidelines for the property – site of the strip mall that houses 3 Dogs Brewing, White Rock Beach Beer and The Wooden Spoon restaurant – but would still require council to approve a development permit on the basis of the building “form and character,” and a variance to a set-back requirement for a building of that height, Isaak said.

While most councillors agreed on the necessity of replacing city hall, and a willingness to explore options for doing that, they voiced caution in pursuing such a proposition.

Strongest objections to the project, however, were expressed by LUPC chair Coun. Christopher Trevelyan.

“In my personal opinion, the timing of this is terrible,” he said.

“We’re facing possible the worst economic catastrophe to our country in generations. Talking about a new city hall right now is not good timing in my opinion… we don’t even have $10 million or $15 million to invest if we wanted to,” he added.

“If we want to put away $4 million for affordable housing… we’re even further away from that total. And selling off this piece of land (city hall) for a corner of a building, to me, is not great real estate advice in a city that is short on space.

“I would love to see the numbers work out, I’d keep an open mind then, but as it stands right now, I can’t support it at this time.”

Coun. David Chesney reminded council members of their commitment to bring affordable housing into the city, and said his support for such a proposal would hinge on that.

“There has to be some component of affordable housing, (even if) it’s on this site (the current city hall site), if we were to build a new city hall,” he said.

“It would be a folly to build an edifice, (a) beautiful city hall and not do what we told the people of White Rock we were going to do.”

Coun. Scott Kristjanson raised the spectre of the first phase of the Bosa Miramar Village project, which, when originally presented to council in the early 2000s had an arts centre component and a campus for Kwantlen Polytechnic University – neither of which ultimately materialized.

“We’ve heard these promises before,” he said. “If this were to go forward, how would we ensure that we got what we were promised?”

Isaak, while noting that, in Miramar Village, the developer did provide a community centre space, said that an agreement on the proposed building could be structured “in a way that secures the city’s space.”

But Coun. Erika Johanson said that, while she accepted the need for a replacement for city hall, the current OCP review has shown that “77 per cent of respondents want 12 storeys or less in that site.”

If the developer wanted to consider a 12-storey building that incorporated a new city hall, she said, she would be in favour of looking at the proposal.

A height of 23 storeys, she said, is something “only 11 per cent of the respondents want.”

“I’m not interested in repeating the mistakes of the Miramar towers.”

But Mayor Darryl Walker said the proposed project is something to consider seriously, given the potential for using current civic centre land for affordable housing projects and as long as the community got what it needs in terms of creating space for events.

“When we talk about revitalizing, we have to be willing to step out of the box, we have to be willing to try different things, not without the community, not without the people of the city involved, but we are certainly the ones who have to lead it, to find out whether there’s that interest in it, ” he said.

Habibi told council he has been working on the proposal with city staff for the last two years.

“Given the prime location of this project, we wanted to work with the city and with the community to see what are the requirements, what people wanted in that location,” he said.

“Because this is the heart of the town centre, originally this site was supposed to host the tallest building, the most density, but without the relaxation given to other projects around, that’s not going to happen. But we always wanted some sort of landmark built there to be part of the character of the city of White Rock.

“We will definitely take this to the people of White Rock and we will definitely want to hear what they say,” he added.

Current site plans show a brewery, plus two unspecified retail spaces, as part of the ground-floor layout. The development would be across the street from a future park-plaza next to the White Rock Playhouse theatre; while another park is planned just north of the proposed development, on the west side of Johnston Road.

Isaak said staff approached the developer to consider including the civic centre component, in keeping with the current Official Community Plan, and a current planning policy which suggests exploring whether city hall can relocate to the Town Centre.

According to Isaak’s report, part of the suggested civic centre space would be considered a community amenity contribution (CAC) from the developer – estimated at some $5.5 million – in return for a density bonus under existing Town Centre zoning. By piggybacking on such a development, Isaak suggested, the city would avoid land acquisition costs.

A 2019 corporate report estimated the cost of constructing a new free-standing city hall at between $16 million and $20 million; while full costs to the city of a civic centre in the proposed building are still to be determined, Isaak said he believed that this price range would hold true.

Some of the costs, the report suggests, could be recouped from “cash-in-lieu CACs from other projects, the sale to the developers of the city lane adjacent to the parcel (if considered surplus to the city’s needs), or the sale of other surplus city properties.”

At present, the city has earmarked $3 million in the current financial plan for renovations to the existing city hall.

Noting that even with a CAC contribution the city would be looking at a $15 million shortfall for a facility as part of the development, Coun. Anthony Manning wanted to know what the valuation of the current civic precinct is.

Isaak said the BC Assessment figure from last year was $12 million – $10.9 million for the land and $1.1 million for the buildings.

Manning subsequently said that he would hope for more amenities as part of the project – such as a recreation centre or daycare facility, “besides just a meeting space that doubles as a council chamber.” He also noted that, in the current OCP review, barely half of the respondents favoured moving the civic centre to the uptown area.

“I’m not sure that there’s a lot of traction within the community for this,” he said, adding that if the project were to move forward he would like it to be ‘cost neutral’ for the city.

Among other questions directed at Isaak, Walker wanted to know what the character of a theatre-auditorium space included in the proposal would be.

“Would that theatre space be something that would compete with the little theatre, which is really just across the road from it, or would it be more like an orchestral type of situation?” he asked.

Isaak said one of the models for planning such a space would be the City of Port Moody, where the council chamber space doubles as a theatre available for the public for booking events such as graduations and other performances.

Isaak added that early discussions with the White Rock Players Club have shown that members are happy with the current space, which has undergone numerous upgrades.

“But if they were looking to have a second production, potentially, running at the same time – get a bit of an Arts Club-Granville Island-type precinct happening, there is some interest in that.”

But Chesney commented that having another small civic theatre space – Isaak estimated it would be just under 200 seats – might not serve any practical purpose.

“Having seen most of the civic theatres in the Lower Mainland, anything less than a 500-seat theatre is really not of any use to us,” he said.

“If we want to start to have a real performance centre we would have to have a theatre that has at least 500 seats.”

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