News from the pews

Churches and their wealth of land holding are cropping up in the news these days.
On March 10, 2019, the CBC website posted this story:
From Sacred to Secular: Canada set to lose 9,000 churches, warns national heritage group. This is summarized in the line: Shrinking congregations and rising maintenance costs force old churches to be closed, sold or repurposed.
This article warns that Canada is going to lose about 9,000 churches which underscores why the OBUC is fighting so hard to create an income stream from its parking lot and green zone.
The critical line is in the title: from sacred to secular. Once land and buildings change from their special status, shouldn’t they then be subject to the rules, zoning, bylaws, and taxes that attach to the rest of the community?
On March 23, 2019 the Vancouver Sun followed with:
Houses of Holy: In Vancouver a union of church and real estate. Real estate holdings by only some of Vancouver’s churches top over three billion dollars.
It further reports that B.C.’s housing minister wants the government to foster partnerships between religious groups and real estate developers. Did you notice the glaring admission from that sweeping statement? Nowhere does it suggest that those other critical stakeholders—existing residents in the communities—should be part of the aggressive development process.
That is entirely consistent with the CCN’s experience with BC Housing and the OBUC’s Development Team. For some reason both BC Housing and the OBUC-DT seem to have forgotten there is a significant group of third parties who will be adversely affected by their quick fix approach.
When you look at the architect’s drawings for the proposed development of the First Baptist Church land at 969 Burrard Street in Vancouver’s West End, it shows how developers put lipstick on their pigs.
Here is the proposed building on Burrard Street, a major north-south arterial route through the West End, on a fine day. There are only five cars on the street. Have you ever driven that route? A speed limit is almost unnecessary from the hours of about 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM because it is so choked with traffic.

A second photo of this project illustrates it with by exaggerating the small green zone across the street. It’s warm sunny day yet there are precious few pedestrians around.

First Baptist Church Vancouver.jpg


Photo from: https://vancouver.skyrisecities.com/database/projects/first-baptist-church-tower

We’ve seen these same distortions in the drawings submitted by the OBUC-DT. We can only hope our Mayor and Councillors are smart enough to see beyond the fancy wrapping.

Reader David Campbell summarized the unspoken truth of this campaign perfectly in response to the March 23 article: “Just imagine the good even mediocre governments could do with the taxes these folks should have paid on their prime properties. It is morally repugnant that these groups have been hoarding both land and money because governments have allowed them superior status to all other Canadians”

Not content with past hoarding that has created valuable assets, at least some of these churches are now demanding that community standards be ignored so they can reap even bigger profits.

No show on CFAX

This week the CCN was invited by Mathew Hylan of CFAX to speak on air with Mark Brennae, on his talkback radio show. We declined. This was our response:

February 26, 2019

Dear Mat,
Thank you for your inquiries yesterday and today. The CCN mail feed is monitored by volunteers and replies are often delayed.
The Concerned Citizens Network (CCN) of Oak Bay is an informal group of neighbours attempting to provide a platform to discuss the many issues around the OBUC housing project.
First of all: we are NOT against affordable housing, this is a land use debate. The proposed project is too big and too dense for this neighbourhood. This 4 storey building, towering over adjoining single family houses, will invade the privacy of the neighbours. The underground car parking will require blasting, possibly damaging adjoining properties. It may even damage the existing church. The Threshold House, which provides services to vulnerable youth, will be demolished and the already busy residential Granite Street will become busier.
We would like any development that fits the character of the neighbourhood and is in accordance with the housing strategy and Official Community Plan for Oak Bay.
As to your comments today, it is unlikely we will need to rebut anything Mayor Murdoch says. He is part of the process and will work with his strong team of councillors to make a fair decision.
We want to engage with the OBUC-Development Team to make this a win-win project for everyone. However, the OBUC-DT’s campaign to vilify their opponents as a vocal, reactionary few has incited intimidation tactics against the neighbours and their properties. Some have had bogus signs, smeared with derisive slogans, planted on their lawns. Existing protest signs are routinely vandalized. A few of our members have been shouted at and verbally abused in public, by complete strangers. Yesterday, as a consequence of the considerable hate mail addressed to our website and twitter account, the CCN twitter account was closed.
All of this merely because we disagree with some aspects of the OBUC housing project and seek to have our voices heard in a lawful manner in a democratic society.
As the CCN neighbours are interested in dispassionate discussion on the various aspects of the housing project, we believe the talkback format has the potential to create a hostile situation for anyone from our group.
Unlike the OBUC-Development Team, we have no paid professionals to deliver our message.
Consequently, we must respectfully decline your kind offer to participate on your program at this time.
Our website provides further significant details of our concerns about this project. 
Finally, because this project is under review by the District of Oak Bay, we are in limbo as we wait to see what recommendations the planning department will make to the mayor and councillors. We may re-consider your request once we know what has been recommended to the Council.
Concerned Citizens Network of Oak Bay

vandalismpexels-photo-1148999.jpeg

Postscript: A few of our members listened to Cheryl Thomas from the OBUC-Development Team speak on this show. Apparently, the host didn’t have the facts at hand when she was speaking.

At least twice he asked her if this project started August, 2018. Both times she said yes. It a sense that is correct. That is the month the application was submitted to the District of Oak Bay. She didn’t feel it necessary to mention an application for $500,000 was submitted to BC Housing in March 2017, which included a proposal for a 6 storey building in that tiny space. Nor did she mention that none of those plans were shared with the community until months later, after a couple of secret meetings with then Mayor Nils Jensen and at least two councilors.

“We went to the public with nothing designed,” she said.
Excuse me? The OBUC-DT didn’t advise the community that anything was happening until July 2017 - four months AFTER they’d presented an in-depth proposal to BC Housing, including a building plan. Had Ms Thomas truly forgotten that sequence of events? Or was her memory particularly selective that day?

Ms Thomas also said the whole project was being done entirely with the church’s money. Then she quickly clarified that by saying BC Housing would providing the building loans at preferential rate. That’s not church money any way you look at it. Those are taxpayers’ funds.

Communities in action - TC October 3, 2018

Gonzales neighbourhood plan put on hold due to community resistance

While this news article from the Times Colonist today isn’t about the Oak Bay, it illustrates how important effective consultation is in any community process. Early and meaningful discussion can save everyone a lot of time and grief. If the Oak Bay United Church had made an effort, the local community might not be so divided today.
The last two paragraphs summarize what should be taken away from the experience of the Gonzales community:

…[…] “the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”

Victoria’s plan to fast-track 10 new neighbourhood plans has hit a roadblock in Gonzales where city planners have met pushback over proposals to shape how the area will grow.
After two years of community meetings, workshops, surveys, draft plans, revisions, more drafts and more meetings, councillors have agreed to throw in the towel on the Gonzales neighbourhood plan, putting it indefinitely on hold.
Instead, the city will tackle such other neighbourhoods as Fernwood, North Park, Rockland, and North and South Jubilee.
“I think the neighbourhood is relieved and celebrating,” said Gonzales resident Michael Bloomfield, who has been opposed to the planning process from the outset.
“They tried to impose something on us through rather a devious process and people found time in their busy lives to rise up and say: ‘No, we just don’t want you to do this to our neighbourhood,’ ” Bloomfield said.
The process dates to 2015, when city council decided on a $700,000 “accelerated” program to, in the span of 3 1/2 years, update 10 neighbourhood plans bringing them in line with Victoria’s Official Community Plan. It’s a process that would normally take about 25 years.
Things started off well for city planners and two of the 10 updates, in Vic West and Burnside, were completed in quick order.
But that changed when they began working on the Fairfield/Gonzales update.
Coun. Chris Coleman, council liaison to the neighbourhood, said many of the objections were simply about accepting change. “People say they’re OK with density, but it’s change that they may have some difficulty with. When you boil it all down, we know we need more housing and a range of housing options but [the question is] how do you manage that?”
He notes the city’s Official Community Plan says Victoria will absorb 20,000 new residents over 25 years. Half are to be downtown, 8,000 in “villages,” and the balance via densification of residential neighbourhoods.
Bloomfield said Gonzales neighbourhood objections weren’t just about density but included aspects of proposals dealing with green space and tree canopy preservation, village areas and transportation routes.
Most frustrating, he said, was that for all the city “consultation,” it seemed no one was listening. “We would be promised modifications that were respectful to the community, and the next draft would come out and none of them would be in there and some new ones that set your hair on fire would have been added.”
Coun. Pam Madoff, for whom updated neighbourhood plans have long been a priority, said it is vital that city planners not only hear from residents but also listen to what they are saying.
Madoff said local area plans have to be about more than population numbers. “I think you have to understand the DNA of the neighbourhood and really listen to what people have to say as well.
“One of the things I’ve heard from a number of quarters is that the Official Community Plan, rather than being seen as a tool, is really being seen as a weapon,” she said, citing the northwest quadrant of Fairfield (between Cook and Vancouver streets up to Fort Street) as an example where zoning changes to allow greater height could tear apart a neighbourhood.
“And when you actually do an analysis of the number of units created in Fairfield, they’re exceeding the projections in the Official Community Plan on a yearly basis. So as they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? If you’re already getting these numbers without significant rezonings, why should we change to another model?” Madoff said.
Originally tackled as one large neighbourhood, Fairfield and Gonzales are now being treated separately with a newly formed Gonzales neighbourhood group.
Mayor Lisa Helps said there have been key lessons learned. “One is you can’t rush a neighbourhood plan and, two, neighbourhood plans are more than just about land use. They’re about public space. They’re about transportation.”
She points to “groundbreaking” work being done in Fairfield. “Fairfield is open to density and the best way to densify Fairfield … is to look at how can we use single-family lots better than we are right now, to put in triplexes and four-plexes and five-plexes that look and feel like single family homes but that can accommodate many more people.”
While Gonzales slips to the back of the queue, there’s now a neighbourhood group trying to find a consensus.
“They’re not throwing up their hands and saying we don’t want a plan. They’re saying move on and let us really dig into the issues here as a community,” Helps said.
Bloomfield, meanwhile, said the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. “I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”

Selling density as a means to affordability is Vancouver's myth

“…let's not bite when reports to council dangle vague references to affordability in front of us.”

This discussion is about density and home ownership. As density and rental accommodation trends parallel those in the home ownership world, this article is relevant to the OBUC development.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published April 17, 2015 Updated May 13, 2018

Remember EcoDensity™? I do.
It was June, 2006, when Vancouver mayor – now (seldom seen) B.C. Liberal MLA – Sam Sullivan introduced the brand to Vancouver and the entire planet as the city played host to the World Urban Forum.
Despite the gloss of the hot-off-the-press brochure, critics accused him of rebranding an idea already in practice: Increasing density would reduce the city's environmental footprint with the secondary benefit of making housing more affordable.
At the time, I questioned Mr. Sullivan on the second point. Density in the downtown core had virtually doubled over the previous two decades and condos were not getting any cheaper. In fact, each new development represented a significant jump in price.
"Don't you know anything about economics?" I recall him asking me rhetorically.
"Supply and demand, m'boy, supply and demand. We build more supply and the prices come down," he said, stretching out his suspenders with his thumbs and chomping on a cigar. Okay, there were no suspenders or cigar, but his answer did conjure up grainy black-and-white images of W.C. Fields, sans top hat. Also, I'm pretty sure he didn't call me "m'boy."
The point is that selling density as a means to affordability in this city is nothing new.
But it's a myth, and an especially cruel one to wave in front of well-educated young people hopeful that one day they'll be able to afford the sort of housing in which they might be able to raise a family in Vancouver.
And yet, it persists.
This week, council approved the third phase of the Cambie Corridor Planning Program.
This phase will see the city rezone the areas between the new developments currently under construction and the lower-density single-family homes in the neighbourhood – think townhouses and row houses in a sort of transition zone between the buildings on main arteries and single-family homes.
Once again, the foggy mirage of affordability appears in the latest report: "Phase 3 provides an opportunity to increase housing options and improve affordability by broadening the range of housing choices that will help young families put down roots and stay in Vancouver."
Susan Haid, the city's assistant director of housing for Vancouver South, also talked about affordability when I spoke with her about the plan this week. "Affordability is something that we're really going to explore; a range of options through the planning process," she said.
That's where the townhouses and row houses and other options come in.
Yes, there are opportunities for "lock off suites" that would allow an owner to rent a portion of their townhouse, and opportunities for low and mid-rise apartments.
But as for the definition of affordable, Ms. Haid conceded the city was talking about what she called "relative affordability."
"Affordable compared to a single family house in the area may be a desirable option for some families," she said.
We've seen block after block of townhouses and row houses spring up along Oak Street and Granville Street in the past few years as a result of rezoning along those busy roads. A quick scan of listings shows a 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom townhouse in the 6,100 block of Oak going for $870,000. That's not in a quieter "transition zone" – it's on six lanes of rush-hour traffic. Two blocks up the street is a similar but slightly larger two-bedroom row house listed for $1.18-million.


From there the prices only go up. (And don't forget the strata fees.)
As for low-rise apartments, I found a lovely, 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom suite in a new building on Cambie going for $780,000.
By whose definition are those affordable to a young family putting down roots?
Before you venture an answer, remember that we're talking about "relative affordability."
So with the law of supply and demand apparently suspended, and with so many market drivers beyond the city's control, let's just admit that the myth of affordable housing in the Cambie corridor is exactly that – a myth. We can talk about "providing opportunities" and "broadening the range of housing choices," but in the end, the real estate market in Vancouver is what it is.
Let's stop pretending the city can do anything to make housing more affordable for anyone. And let's not bite when reports to council dangle vague references to affordability in front of us.
Here's what it has done to us: when I told a young colleague this week about the 1,100-square-foot apartment on Cambie listed for $780,000, her response said it all.
"$780,000? For a two-bedroom?" she said. "That's a deal!"
Relatively speaking, I guess it is.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

OBUC Submits Development Application - OBN Aug 31, 2018

The rezoning application for Oak Bay United Church’s proposed affordable housing project on Granite Street has been submitted to the District of Oak Bay, though the mayor says it will be the next council who decides its fate.


“We are really happy with the design we’ve ended up with,” said Cheryl Thomas, property development committee chair for the project. “We have listened and tried to accommodate everything we possibly could from the community’s suggestions.”
At open houses in November, the church showed residents scenarios that ranged from 80 to 150 units in a four- to five-storey building. With feedback from the community and near neighbours, the church settled on a design that has 96 units: 55 to 57 of which are designed to meet government criteria for affordable housing; 35 that are market – affordable units aimed to support those who don’t meet standard government criteria but still need help with affordable homes; and 4 to 6 larger units with up to three bedrooms aimed to support families.
In January, the church had asked for their application to be fast-tracked, but the committee of the whole instead suggested that the best way to save money is to get to a design that will receive the acceptance of council and the community, which would be aided by listening carefully to the community.
For some, the project presented in the rezoning application submitted Aug.13, didn’t go far enough to address neighbours concerns. Of note, was the amount of parking spots included in the project (53 for the residential units, 50 for the church, and 12 for visitors), the size of the building, and the number of units.
The church conducted a survey during their open house and contracted an independent public opinion polling contractor to conduct an opinion poll by telephone.
The results of the survey, provided by the church, state that 44 per cent of the neighbours to the project were neutral or agreed the project fit the neighbourhood, while 67 per cent of those in Oak Bay who do not neighbour the project were neutral or said it fit. For traffic and parking, the survey shows 50 per cent of neighbours say they are neutral or agree that the design addresses parking and congestion issues, as opposed to 73 per cent of non neighbours.
The public will have an opportunity to speak to this project when it comes before committee of the whole. Mayor Nils Jensen says it is currently with staff and will go to the new council who will be sworn in in early November.

Problems with densification - TC June 30, 2018

The following article from the Times-Colonist points out many of the problems caused by densification:

Victoria’s aggressive densification plan is unnecessary and unfair, causing people to ask: “Is accelerated densification being pursued for the right reasons, in appropriate locations, following an honest public process that puts people who live here first?”

In Fairfield-Gonzales alone, at least 10 groups have arisen from these concerns, people willing to consider sensible proposals, but fed up with what they have experienced as an unfair process. This phenomenon is happening across the city.
Unfairness has occurred in numerous ways:
• A questionnaire asks leading and misleading questions.
• Meetings are poorly publicized and held at inconvenient times, such as during summer.
• Anyone from anywhere is allowed to participate, diluting input from people living here.
• City consultations have been far more sales job than sincere collaboration
• Developers are involved in what should be public decision-making.
• Community associations and land-use committees are used to promote approval.

Many criticize the process as undemocratic and question the role of developers. Some seek provincial review. Others are organizing for November’s election, seeking to ensure mayor and council put community interests first. Community associations and land-use committees are being challenged to restore independence and public representation.
And questions abound about the need for expensive new plans. Significant growth has occurred over the past 15 years under existing plans. During the same time, the city failed to expand services or facilities to accommodate growth. What will be the cost for additional police, fire, roadwork, etc., and who pays? Will accelerated growth worsen existing problems such as the shortage of family doctors?

My Gonzales neighbourhood exemplifies why accelerated densification is not needed.
• Between 1991 and 2011, our population increased by 27 per cent, more than twice Victoria’s overall rate of 12.5 per cent. Single-family homes decreased from 74 to 54 per cent, duplexes and secondary suites increased from 18 to 27 per cent, and apartment buildings from seven per cent to 18 per cent.
• At the same time, no appreciable improvements were made to meagre infrastructure or services, nor did the city deal with increased traffic and parking problem.
• Heritage homes were permitted to be destroyed and replaced by oversized out-of-character houses
Gonzales residents have done more than their share and overwhelmingly reject accelerated densification. Most oppose proposals that will dramatically change the neighbourhood, including a multistorey Fairfield Plaza and redirecting traffic from Richardson Street to busier Fairfield Road. Urban villages are regarded as Trojan horses for more development.
Is it reasonable for everyone who wants to live in Victoria to do so? That’s not possible, unless the rest of us are willing to accept increased traffic and pollution, reduced greenspace, more pressure on already insufficient schools, health services, roads, parks and recreation and the increased costs to maintain and expand them.
Finally, let’s stop the accusations levelled against residents, who have a different vision for Victoria than canyons of high-rises, more traffic and pollution and greater pressure on our limited amenities.
This fight is not about privilege or an intergenerational conflict. Victorians are supportive of help to people confronted with soaring housing costs, but accelerated densification raises serious questions that are not being answered about where, how much and for whose benefit.
It’s time for mayor, council and city staff to work with neighbourhood groups in good faith.
The most reasonable option is to update the existing 2002 plans, which are doing their job. At the same time, let’s fix other problems.
• The official community plan is easily exploited for its loopholes.
• Spot re-zoning is too easy and lacks meaningful community oversight.
• Neighbours have too little input during approval of developments directly affecting them.
• Developer involvement in local politics and planning contradicts transparency and fairness.
And while we are making our civic process more democratic, the mayor and councillors should live in Victoria. Otherwise, are they truly accountable to their neighbours and fairly sharing the burdens of the decisions they seek to impose on others?
How many more people does the city plan to shoehorn in, for whose benefit and at what cost? It should be up to the people who live here to decide Victoria’s future not developers and politicians pushing accelerated development for their own reasons.
Michael Bloomfield is a sustainability advocate and a resident of Gonzales.

counter-protest - Oak Bay News March 14, 2018

Neighbours wake to shocking signs on their lawns


Densification debate heats up in Oak Bay
Oak Bay discussions around infill housing, affordable housing, and the legalization of secondary suites has created a divide in the community. Many residents have attended council meetings and written letters to the editor to voice their support or concerns around the densification of Oak Bay.
The situation got more heated on Sunday morning when a few residents woke up to find signs on their lawns that they describe as “offensive and obnoxious.” The signs read: “We support class-based segregation” and “I fear poor people.” The Oak Bay Police were notified.
The signs that appeared overnight were staked in next to lawn signs that the homeowners had previously put on their lawns that read “Stop Over Development. Respect Neighbourhoods.”
The homeowners’ signs are part of a campaign by local residents concerned about how a redevelopment of the Oak Bay United Church site would affect their neighbourhood. As part of their “Neighbourhood Outreach Initiatives,” the Concerned Citizen Network has distributed lawn signs “showing support for neighbourhood respect.”
The citizen group says it is not opposed to affordable housing.
Read the online article here.
Comment: No one stepped forward to claim responsibility for these signs but given the lack of transparency through the entire proposal, that was unsurprising.