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A Tale of Two OCP Amendment Proposals

New Westminster Council recently debated an Official Community Plan amendment to allow a six-storey affordable rental building to be built on land that had been designated to only allow townhouses. During the public engagement and feedback period, including the public hearing, people opposed to the project said that it did not respect the OCP, that only buildings that match the land use designation should be allowed to be built, and that allowing this proposal would encourage developers to push for further OCP amendments to allow larger buildings than are allowed through the land use designation.

Council disagreed, and the proposal was approved.

Just after that, a new proposal is starting to wind its way through the process which proposes a twelve-storey rental building, part of it affordable, to be built on land that has been designated to allow buildings up to six storeys high. It will be discussed at the Land Use and Planning Committee meeting on June 21.

Will council allow this OCP amendment, given their previous decision?

They won’t, and here’s why.

The Aboriginal Land Trust Proposal

First, we need to look at the proposal that passed, and for which Council agreed that the OCP could be amended to allow a larger building than what was designated on the land use map.

The Aboriginal Land Trust proposal was for a six-storey rental building on Sixth Street in New Westminster. The land is currently zoned residential single-family, and the land use designation allowed for townhouses. The proposal was for 96 affordable rental units composed of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for members of the Indigenous and Swahili-speaking communities. It was also being proposed by a non-profit society, and relied upon funding from senior governments.

The proposal received pushback from nearby homeowners who said that a six-storey residential building would not fit in a single-family residential neighbourhood, that the OCP was developed by the community and didn’t allow for a building of this size, and that if the OCP amendment were to go through that it would set a precedent and New West would see more proposals like this.

The project did in fact meet many of the policy goals of the OCP and the City’s Strategic Plan, and accordingly Council unanimously approved the OCP amendment.

The Queens Avenue United Church Proposal

The Queens United Church on Queens Avenue is proposing a twelve-storey rental building on the corner of Queens Avenue and Sixth Street in New Westminster. The land is currently zoned Commercial Low-Rise to allow pedestrian-oriented commercial businesses and two storeys of residential development above, and the land use designation is to allow townhouses, rowhouses, stacked townhouses and low rises, and if a compelling case can be made a five or six storey low rise building could be considered. The proposal is for 98 rental units, 30 of which would be non-market rental, along with a childcare facility with 79 spaces, and a small commercial space, along with retaining and preserving the existing Queens United Church.

So what’s the difference?

In both cases the developer is a non-profit. In both cases they’re providing secured rental homes. In both cases affordable housing would be provided. That’s really where the similarities end.

The ALT proposal was designated to provide homes for Indigenous and Swahili-speaking families, two target groups that have been disadvantaged and are overrepresented in statistics surrounding housing insecurity. Providing housing for groups like this was a policy goal of the OCP. The QUC proposal does not target any identified groups.

The ALT proposal ranged from below market rental to deeply subsidized, providing affordable housing to a large number of underadvantaged socioeconomic groups. The QUC proposal only provides 30% of the homes as affordable.

The ALT proposal needed to be six storeys because of the economics of the site. The land had to be purchased, which puts the developer at a disadvantage to start, and enough units needed to be built to be able to provide the housing without requiring massive and unrealistic funding from senior governments. For the QUC proposal, the United Church already owns the land, eliminating millions of dollars from their budget that can offset the extra units that would be needed to recoup development costs.

The ALT proposal met a large number of the policy goals of the OCP and Strategic Plan. The QUC proposal doesn’t. Here’s a quote from the staff report:

The Official Community Plan dates from 2017. While amendments may be considered, staff generally recommends those which are either: 1) minor and resulting in development that is relatively in alignment with the intent of the OCP; or, 2) providing benefits that are significantly over-and-above in relation to other Council priority areas. This application is considered to be a significant amendment, and it is not in close alignment with the intent of the current OCP. The application’s proposal of a 12-storey building form with 30% affordable units, secured for 20 years at below-market rates, offers unit amounts, subsidies and length of security that are slightly above or below City policy expectations. Staff advise that the proposal does not go significantly over-and-above in relation to meeting other Council priorities.

Loss of Childcare

Even though the QUC proposal includes a 79-space child care facility, it would replace the existing 79-space child care facility, so there’s no gain of child care spaces. Not only that, the existing spaces would likely disappear until the new ones are available, which doesn’t help anybody, especially the families of children who are already in those spaces.

What now for Queens United Church?

I strongly suspect that the Land Use & Planning Committee will discourage the applicant from submitting an OCP amendment application for this site, which is what staff have recommended.

And to answer my question, “Will council allow this OCP amendment, given their previous decision?”

The answer is no, because council won’t even be seeing this OCP amendment, because the applicant should pull it and strongly revise their project.

Opponents of the ALT proposal often said that amending the OCP would set a precedent, and other neighbourhoods in New West would see more buildings that are larger than what’s laid out in the land use designation.

The Queens United Church proposal shows that that is not the case, as projects that provide benefits that go over-and-above Council priority areas are a rarity.

As one person said at the Public Hearing for the ALT proposal:

The project is only under consideration because it is for affordable housing to provide homes for members of the Indigenous and Swahili communities. If this was a proposal for any other use, we would not be here discussing it tonight.

Indeed.