Onni towers project is finally a go in North Vancouver
After two and a half years of meetings, models and two highly polarizing public hearings on their 13th and Lonsdale plans, the Onni group was handed a narrow win by North Vancouver city council Tuesday to build two condo towers and an office building on the Central Lonsdale Safeway site.
Onni will break ground in 2014 on a sprawling two-storey retail platform sprouting one 80-foot office building and two condo towers measuring 240 feet and 180 feet. The controversial complex will include a grocery store, daycare space, a dozen units of social housing and approximately 344 condos.
Onni had come to city council on Monday with a third major round of changes to the project in almost as many years. What began in 2010 as a mixed-use three-tower development proposal with no council support, was by late last year a two-tower and office building plan that included a slew of community amenities designed to offset the building’s unprecedented height and considerable density.
By Tuesday’s vote of council, the project had been tweaked to shift the vast majority of its anticipated car and truck traffic off of 14th Street to a new mid-block signalled intersection with pedestrian crossings a block south on 13th Street. That change, plus the “greening” of one of the building’s concrete faces and some increased sidewalk setbacks to allow for better light penetration, were enough to sway Coun. Don Bell, whose vote in favour of the amended project helped to win a 4-3 victory for Onni.
“I can safely say I’ve never been involved in a project where we’ve engaged the public and responded to concerns more than we have with this project,” Onni vice-president of development Beau Jarvis said at the opening of Monday’s public hearing on the new plans.
Still opposed to the project at Tuesday’s vote were Couns. Rod Clark and Pam Bookham, who chastised Onni for not engaging more fully with city staff and council in the early days of the company’s 1308 Lonsdale proposals. Coun. Clark also said he was worried that developers had wrested control of the city’s growth from council, and the Onni vote was “a chance for us to take it back.”
Joining Clark and Bookham in opposition to Onni was Coun. Guy Heywood, who lamented asking city taxpayers to spend money on things like social housing and daycare, which he said should be the responsibility of the province to provide.
“At the end of the day, we are spending money that is the city’s on things that are not the city’s responsibility,” he said. “And I think we’ve made a mistake.”
Responding to conflict-of-interest allegations hurled at council throughout the public hearing process, both Mayor Darrell Mussatto and Coun. Linda Buchanan were forced to address the nagging complaint that they had each taken money from Onni’s parent company RPMG Holdings during their 2011 election campaigns.
“For the record, I did receive a $1,500 contribution from Onni during my election and, as required, I declared and followed the rules and regulations and laws in the Province of British Columbia,” Buchanan said, before giving her support for the development.
Mussatto too acknowledged a larger gift of $5,000 for his own re-election campaign, but declared no conflict of interest in voting for the project, saying, “I have complied with all provincial municipal laws and regulations, as well as the Election Act.”
Joining them and Coun. Bell in supporting the project was Coun. Craig Keating who rebuffed Heywood’s statement that social services weren’t the city’s responsibility by saying, “we have a collective responsibility as all three levels of government... to deal with affordable housing and childcare.”
Tuesday’s council discussion was preceded the night before by a lengthy public hearing — the second such all-night hearing on the project in just four months — at which an estimated 55 attendees spoke, most in favour of the development.
The five-hour meeting left little time for city staff to put questions to Onni about the development, and Bookham made an 11th-hour motion to hold over the meeting until Tuesday night. But when that motion was defeated, the three-term councillor stood and marched out of council chambers before a stunned audience, leaving the mayor to plead unsuccessfully for her return before calling the meeting adjourned.
Much of the public input at the hearing was concerned not with the specific pros and cons of the project, but rather with the more meta-level questions about density, development, character and population growth in the city.
A common refrain among the 20 or so opposed to the project was that tall towers don’t belong in North Van; that they’re better suited over town in Vancouver or even overseas in Hong Kong, as one speaker suggested.
Still another man waxed nostalgic for the bygone days of his youth when he said he could fire a gun on Lonsdale without hitting anything. “Now,” he warned, “you’d kill a hundred people.”
But it was that kind of talk that raised hackles in the pro-development camp, who accused the naysayers of NIMBYism and naivety in thinking the city could — or even should — revert to its bucolic past by freezing out future development.
One elderly speaker poignantly decried such anti-growth sensibilities as trying to “pull up a drawbridge” on newcomers, preventing them from enjoying what North Vancouver has to offer in terms of healthcare, schools, recreation and living space.
Many of the more than 30 residents who spoke in favour of the Onni project identified themselves as part of a North Shore social service or community resource society and lauded the development for its promise of space for services.
The 4-3 council vote ultimately approved two bylaws that will first rezone the 1308 Lonsdale site to allow for comprehensive mixed-use development; and second, amend the city’s official community plan to allow for a tower over 180 feet, the current limit.
Under the community plan’s guidelines, Onni will give the city more than $15 million in community amenities — including $4.14 million cash — in exchange for greater-than-otherwise-allowable height and density on the property.
The city’s relatively recent practice of trading development density for community amenities and cash — or what Heywood once referred to as trying to “buy virtue” from density-driven developers — was called into question last month when council voted to spend $45,000 for an outside review of the policy.
That study is expected to take another two to three months to complete.