A matter of principle: As council quarrels, BCGEU rezoning advances
The BCGEU's proposed development, which would include about 150 'Burnaby affordable' rental units, will move to a third reading in council.
Burnaby council voted Monday night to forward to third reading a proposed mixed-use development in the Royal Oak neighbourhood proposed by the BC General Employees’ Union that would include just under 150 below-market rental units—far above what is required by the city’s rental use zoning policy.
The inclusionary rental policy stipulates that at least 20% of units in new developments must be below market. The BCGEU’s development, at 6877-6945 Palm Ave, sets aside at least 50% of units for that purpose.
All rental costs for affordable units in the development would be at least 20% below the CMHC market rate for the area, the BCGEU said.
The union also says many of the affordable units in the proposed development will be two- or three-bedroom units—a relative rarity for affordable housing units in the Lower Mainland.
It will also include an affordable childcare facility with 49 spaces, office buildings, and a cafe.
A public hearing late last month drew a long list of supporters to share their views with city council. Nevertheless, the project has also garnered loud opposition from a group of residents of the Royal Oak area because the neighbourhood’s current official community plan (OCP) doesn’t allow for the density that the development would require. As a result, the OCP will need to be amended to allow for the Palm Ave development to go ahead.
Opponents have characterized the project as an example of spot rezoning and say that any developments within the boundaries of the neighbourhood should follow the existing OCP.
Council ultimately voted 7-2 in favour of the project at Monday night’s meeting, after some lively discussion. The only councillors who voted against the motion were Colleen Jordan and Dan Johnston.
Jordan said while speakers are bound by a time limit of five minutes, she felt so strongly about the situation that she could talk for an hour and filibuster the motion. She did end up keeping her statement relatively short, saying she stood with those members of the community who say the OCP, established in 1999, shouldn’t be amended with “no consultation.”
Johnston agreed—saying he thinks the BCGEU’s proposal is a good one that addresses the need for affordable rental housing, but on principle he feels the city needs to follow community plans and follow a traditional process of amending them. He said it doesn’t feel right to “disregard” an OCP, and cautioned that amending the plan without adequate consultation is a “dangerous path to go down.”
Coun Alison Gu fired back at Johnston’s statement by saying she is also voting based on principles—those of supporting affordable housing, walkable communities, affordable childcare, and developments that don’t displace tenants.
“It’s a shame that process gets in the way of progress so often,” she said of criticisms around public consultation for the project.
She also noted that public hearings for new developments by nature exclude the voices of those who will benefit from the project when they move into new homes.
“We can never hear from those voices, because they will never have the opportunity to be consulted. But they’re homes,” Gu said.
“The necessity of a home, the necessity of affordable childcare, the necessity of being close to transit—that’s my principle. And something that’s an outdated and flawed process to begin with is not the hill that I’m going to die on.”
Coun Pietro Calendino likewise said he was supporting the project on humanitarian principles—and said that when the first highrises behind Metrotown were coming up, public consultation was done in the same manner as this project.
Coun Sav Dhaliwal, meanwhile, pointed out that the OCP amendment is being approached in accordance with the city’s bylaws and codes, and called the project an opportunity to secure additional rental housing in Burnaby.
Dhaliwal, along with Coun Joe Keithley and Coun James Wang, also touted the development’s proximity to public transportation (it would be built directly across the street from Royal Oak SkyTrain Station).
Mayor Mike Hurley said with the ongoing housing crisis in Burnaby, the city couldn’t turn its back on a partnership like this that pledges a significant number of affordable rental units.
“Nowhere have we had anyone come forward with this type of proposal. This is an opportunity that can’t be passed up, so I’m in full support of this,” he told councillors.
The BCGEU said in a statement that it was pleased with the vote, and said the development has the potential to “offer a new model for tackling housing affordability.”
“Our union outlined the case for building affordable housing adjacent to major transit hubs as far back as 2014, and we are pleased today to take a step forward to implement our vision to provide a new area office for our members, and affordable housing and childcare for the community,” said BCGEU treasurer and project lead Paul Finch.
“This project leverages the increase in land value from upzoning to deliver more affordable housing, a policy we hope will be emulated by other municipalities across BC. We believe this model can be replicated by other unions, non-profits, and faith groups to provide urgently needed housing starts amidst the current affordability crisis.”