A proposal for a six-storey, 80-unit rental-only building on Fir Street is moving forward to the public hearing process after discussion at White Rock council’s Land Use and Planning Committee (LUPC) meeting, and a vote at the regular meeting, on Oct. 19.
Developer Mahdi Heidari said following the meeting that he is very happy that the White Birch project, turned down by council last year, received a 4-2 vote to move ahead to the next stage of public consultation in its revised form.
“I’m glad the majority of council gave this the green light to move forward,” he said, adding that the public hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 23.
“To this point, we haven’t had an official public hearing on the proposal. I believe the majority of people will be in favour, once they learn about the proposal and how it would add to the rental stock in the city.”
He noted that others in the development industry are watching the city’s reaction to his proposal, for 1485 Fir St. (at Russell Avenue), as a barometer of current council’s appetite for increasing rental stock and replacing aging rental buildings to provide more affordable housing options – as opposed to following the previous council’s lead in approving more condo towers in the town centre.
When last before council in July of 2019, the project was presented as an 84-unit building, replacing an existing three-storey 24-unit rental building built in 1965. The original version required an Official Community Plan amendment because of the proposed density, and also ran into opposition over the building height and design and other impacts on the neighbourhood.
In a report to the LUPC, however, planning and development services manager Carl Isaak said the project, revised in consultation with city staff, is now in keeping with the OCP ‘Town Centre Transition’ land use designation, and has been improved in both design and neighbourhood impact.
The proposal, he said, also features a tenant relocation plan that would provide additional compensation for tenants impacted by the redevelopment, and a formula for reduced rental rates for those who wish to move into the new building.
Parking provided (108 spaces) would be less than the 120 spaces called-for in the city’s zoning bylaw, but would still meet projections of peak average demand set at 105 spaces, Isaak said. Studies of rental developments have shown a lesser demand for vehicle parking than condos, he added, particularly when transit is nearby.
The redevelopment, geographically just east of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, will provide significant improvements in livability, energy performance and seismic safety over the existing building, Heidari said – but what he sees as the primary selling point for the city is his commitment to a 100 per cent rental policy for the life of the building.
Isaak said that this, and entering into a tenant relocation plan, would be considered trade-offs for exempting the project from Community Amenity Contribution payments.
At the LUPC meeting councillors Erika Johnson and Scott Kristjanson – who ultimately voted against moving the project forward in council’s regular meeting – said they still had concerns about the height and impact of the building.
Johnson said review of the OCP to this points has shown that 69 per cent of residents favoured low-rise (three- to four-storey) development or less in the Town Centre Transition area, while Kristjanson noted there would be an 86 per cent increase in rent over the current building.
He added that he also didn’t favour reducing requirements for parking for the building at the same time that a shortage of parking has become “the number one complaint we hear from people.”
And Coun. Anthony Manning noted that conversations still need to be held with tenants of the existing building to find out how many would want to return once a new building is completed.
But Mayor Darryl Walker, in comments supported by Coun. David Chesney, said increasing White Rock’s affordable rental stock was vital to the future of the city.
“We need to start moving on affordable housing – it’s not the first time I’ve said it and it will not be the last,” he said.
“I think this gives us a fairly good safeguard, to go to a public hearing and once again find out what people feel about this particular project. The proponents are starting, in a lot of ways, to change and come back to a direction that council has sought in terms of development in the community.
“At some point we have to start looking at (such development) and saying, ‘Yes, I think it’s a prime opportunity here.’”
LUPC chair Coun. Christopher Trevelyan, acknowledging the developers’ commitment to affordable rental housing and tenant relocation, said that mid-rise development seemed “not unreasonable” for an area so close to the town centre.
“At the very, very least, I want to hear public feedback on this,” he said.
Speaking with Peace Arch News, Heidari said he viewed the tenant relocation plan as fair.
“I believe that, working together with the planning department, we’ve managed to provide a very good package in terms of compensation and with a discount for returning tenants,” he said, adding that he hopes to consult with current tenants soon.
“There will always be one or two who may not be happy with all the headaches of moving, and I do understand that, but I believe the compensation offered will give them no problems in relocating and paying the rent for a year or so,” he added.
While Heidari has reaffirmed his desire to build affordable rental housing in White Rock, he also warns the economic window for the development industry to secure financing for such product in the city is closing – particularly in light of the kind of investment necessary (when acquired in November of 2018, the Fir Street property cost $7.12 million).
Operating costs to keep aging buildings running are increasing rapidly, Heidari said, while, at the same time, costs of new construction are continually rising.
“These kinds of projects are based on long-term returns on investment…returns are usually only around three to four per cent, which means a capitalization period of 25 to 30 years,” he said.
“This is partly why municipalities have struggled to get bigger developers like Bosa or Polygon to invest in building fully-rental buildings, as their overhead costs are much higher and rental housing is difficult to make profitable.”