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:

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.

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.

Neighbourhoods being transformed for the worse - OBN April 6, 2018

“Gentle density, as I mean it, is a growth strategy where the growth doesn’t alter or reduce the physical character of the assets or character of a neighbourhood or community.  I think there are some highly controversial projects in Oak Bay and there will be more in the future it’s inevitable. The community needs tools to convince its politicians and to convince property owners and property developers that there is an option to multi-storey development.  I’m going to try to make the argument for gentle density as a growth strategy so nobody gets the idea that I’m anti growth or anti development.  I think our neighbourhoods are being transformed for the worse not for the better.”
Gene Miller
Oak Bay News April 6, 2018

Click on the image to read the entire article

Click on the image to read the entire article

What we had hoped for


Listen to the community.  We're here to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the neighbourhood.

This report from the CBC Ottawa is what we hoped would happen in Oak Bay.

Developer's approach a model for others, neighbours say

Chenier Group consulted the community, stuck to height limit laid out in design plan

Laurie Fagan · CBC News · Posted: Aug 25, 2018 5:00 AM ET [Link here]

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson and his comrades with the Lowertown Community Association have fought countless battles with developers over infill projects in their downtown neighbourhood. 

Sometimes they win, but often they lose. Whatever the outcome, the combatants always seem to emerge bloodied and battered.

Imagine Ferguson's relief when they came up against Chenier Group.

It’s a model for public consultation around the development process, and there’s no reason why others can’t be doing the same thing.
— Peter Ferguson, Lowertown  Community Association

The builder wants to construct a nine-storey apartment building at 541-545 Rideau St., a deep lot at the corner of Cobourg Street that's currently occupied by a 150-year-old red brick dwelling.

Chenier Group's proposal conforms to the Uptown Rideau community design plan (CDP), a council-approved document that's meant to guide growth, but which developers ignore more often than not.

The building would also add much-needed rental units at a time when the city — and this neighbourhood in particular — are grappling with record-low vacancy rates.

Collaborative approach

"The nine-storey ceiling was particularly important to us," Ferguson said. "[Company president] Gaetan [Chenier] was determined that he was going to stay within the limits of the [community] design plan, and good for him, he did." 

The Lowertown Community Association has opposed several developments along Rideau Street for exceeding height limits set out in the CDP. Those include The Charlotte, a condo tower proposed for a vacant lot across Rideau Street from Chenier's site.

Shortly after buying the property, Chenier, acting on the advice of Ottawa architect Barry Padolsk, approached the community association to discuss his plans and ask for feedback from residents.

"My approach has always been a collaborative one," Chenier said. "I recognize this is a community development process, so get the community involved so they can give input."

Praise from councillor

The community did offer its input, and compromises were made on both sides, Ferguson said.

"[Chenier] was very forthcoming," he said. "In our minds, it's a model for public consultation around the development process, and there's no reason why others can't be doing the same thing." 

Chenier's approach also won praise from Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who submitted comments to the planning committee. 

"There has been a conscious effort on the part of the applicant to engage the community in all aspects of this project," Fleury wrote. "This can be seen in the number of times the applicant has reached out to the community stakeholders to gain feedback since the initial submission of the project."

But it's what the developer has planned for the original building, constructed shortly after Confederation, that's winning him special praise for going above and beyond the city's requirements.

Brick by brick

Built in 1870 as a single-family home, the building that now occupies the property was converted to apartments after the First World War. Until a few years ago the ground floor served as a coffee house and catering business.  

The building, which has undergone extensive renovations and additions over the decades, doesn't have official heritage designation, but the city hoped to see some part of it preserved nonetheless.

Chenier first proposed incorporating the red brick facade into the new apartment building. When he discovered that plan wasn't viable, he hired engineers to determine whether the original building could be moved. That, too, was a no-go.

Instead, Chenier now plans to dismantle the dilapidated structure brick by brick, using the materials to construct a duplex that will replicate the French Second Empire architectural style of the original building, complete with a concave mansard roof and dormer windows.

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

Fits in 'beautifully'

The duplex is designed by Padolsk, who specializes in heritage projects, and will sit next to the apartment building, facing Cobourg Street.

Ferguson said the duplex will fit in "beautifully."

"We're happy with this," he said. "This is something that he did not have to do, and he's volunteered to preserve the building." 

Chenier, who moved to Ottawa from Cornwall, Ont., eight years ago, plans to move his office into one half of the newly built duplex. The other half will be rented out. 

"The house is a costly endeavour, and there may not be a lot of profit in that," Chenier said. "But overall in the long term, the house will be highlighted as a separate structure, and it will stand out on its own." 

Advice for developers

Chenier hopes the duplex will be finished by the end of 2019, and the apartment building ready for tenants by the following spring.

A rezoning application is scheduled to go before the city's planning committee Aug. 28. It's expected to pass.

Chenier's advice to other developers is simple: "Whatever the community had planned, just go for that," he said.

Ferguson believes other builders could learn a lot from Chenier's approach.

"Listen to the community." he advised developers. "We're not there to pick fights. We're there to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the community."