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.