A rendering of the proposed BCGEU-owned mixed-use development on Palm Ave, with the SkyTrain line to Royal Oak Station visible on the left. City of Burnaby

‘Best rezoning proposal I’ve ever seen’: Burnaby residents sound off on proposed BCGEU towers

The development has drawn opposition from some in the Royal Oak community, who say it's not in line with the area's official community plan.

By Srushti Gangdev | April 1, 2022 |5:00 am

Burnaby’s city council heard a great deal of support along with some opposition to a mixed-use development proposed by the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU) in the Royal Oak area at a public hearing earlier this week—including one advocate for low-income community members who called it the “best rezoning proposal” he had ever seen.

If the Palm Ave development (located just across the street from Royal Oak SkyTrain Station) goes ahead, it would include two residential towers providing 292 market and non-market (considered “Burnaby affordable”) rentals along with an affordable childcare facility, office space, and a cafe.

It would, however, also require the city amend the Royal Oak official community plan (OCP). The current OCP, established in 1999, doesn’t allow for the density the project would require.

The project has garnered opposition from some in the Royal Oak community, who say that the development should either follow the guidelines of the existing OCP, or move north of Imperial St where there are already provisions for increased density.

Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing expressed those views—including Katy Alkins-Jang, a Royal Oak resident who was involved in the creation of the original OCP, and who also created a petition opposing the project that garnered 466 signatures.

Others who agreed with Alkins-Jang’s views told council that infrastructure in Burnaby hasn’t kept up with the pace of new residential developments, leading schools, libraries, and community facilities to be over capacity and traffic to get worse.

But most of those who spoke at the public hearing were there in support of the project, touting its proximity to transit and the focus on below-market rental housing.

Supporter Richard Stanley called the proposed development a “wonderful addition” to the city’s housing stock, and described the affordable childcare facility as a “feminist project” meeting the needs of working class families and mothers in particular.

He also gave his staunch support for the affordability and density of the proposed project.

“The best time to plant a tree was 50 year ago, and the second-best time is now,” he told councillors.

“The best time to invest in below-market housing and daycare spaces in Burnaby was 20 years ago, and the second-best time is right now.”

Some opposed to the project noted that the term “Burnaby affordable” refers only to a rate 20% below the median neighborhood rental rates as found by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Proponents, however, noted that the BCGEU plans to rent out half of all the units in the proposed development at that rate—the city’s inclusionary rental policy requires that only 20% of units be below market.

And one of the most vocal voices in support of the project came from an unusual source—the chair of Burnaby Acorn.

Acorn is an organization that describes itself as a community union of low- and moderate-income people, and its members have previously spoken out in opposition of dozens of rezoning applications in Burnaby.

But Burnaby branch chair Murray Martin described the BCGEU development as “the best rezoning proposal he had ever seen,” with by far the most affordable units.

Martin told councillors this was the first time Acorn had ever supported a rezoning project.

Importantly, he said, the affordable below-market rental units being proposed aren’t limited to 1-bedroom units, as is the case with many new developments. That makes it exceedingly difficult for low-income families to find affordable housing.

The proposed development includes many affordable 2- and 3-bedroom units as well.

City council heard speakers on the topic for nearly three hours Tuesday night–with the very last speaker pointing out that the development, unlike many other projects in Burnaby, wouldn’t remove people from their current housing.

The parcel of land on Palm Ave currently hosts semi-industrial businesses.

The final speaker at the hearing noted that the development wouldn’t displace anyone in its bid to create housing, and said he hoped that other developers in the city get the message that they should be creating more affordable housing.

In an emailed statement to the Beacon, the BCGEU said it was pleased with the “overwhelming public support” for the project at the hearing.

“After an almost two year process working with the city planning department, it was gratifying to see an almost 10-to-1 ratio of supporters to opponents and to see that those speaking in support were a truly diverse range of Burnaby residents, including students, seniors, renters, homeowners, working moms, and academics,” the union said.

“Despite coming from such diverse backgrounds, supporters of our project shared a strong commitment to the city of Burnaby and a clear understanding of our proposal as something their city desperately needs. Unfortunately, most of the opposition expressed in the hearing was based on misinformation or fundamental misunderstandings of our proposal.”

The BCGEU plans to wait for its rezoning application to be included on the agenda in upcoming city council meetings.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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