A Deeper Look at St Andrews School Site

As your trusty municipal blogger, I naturally attended the August 27th Public Hearing (City agenda here) for the proposed Bosa Blue Sky redevelopment and rezoning of the long-since closed St Andrews School site on Pandora and Vancouver (also bordered by Mason Street). In total, apparently 48 people spoke and I was told by those who kept count that 26 were opposed to the development and 22 were in favour (video here and written minutes here).

Which is to say that there was representation from both sides but the process is not done yet and nobody seems too sure about whether this proposed project (latest staff report here) will be approved or not. At least 40 more folks are already signed up to speak at the continuation of the Public Hearing when it occurs on the evening of September 17 at Victoria City Hall (new agenda here). Other folks who have not yet signed up to speak are also free to make statements on  this proposal.

I will be one of them. I’m sure it will be another long night.

In an effort to promote more balanced discussion on this proposed project as we look to the 17th, I have created my first Topic Page specific to the proposal (please check it out) and I have also written this blog post as a way of outlining the questions I would be asking if I were a member of the Victoria City Council. As noted above, in addition to my many hours researching the history of the project (see web summaries) and attending the August 27th event, I also went for a walk on the day after the hearing to tour the site, chat with locals and also visit the Mason St Farm.

With respect to the restriction under which Council are currently being held (to not seek out or receive any new information regarding the site) I promise that nothing new is contained in this article – what was previously presented has simply been reorganized so as to promote better understanding of the proposed project, city land use and development procedures and requirements, as well as better understanding of the locals and their concerns.

So Where Are We Talking About?

When we’re thinking about this proposal, we’re thinking of the massive green space shown in the map below (left of Franklin Green) that is enclosed by Mason Street, Vancouver Street and Pandora Avenue (see Google Maps). The entire site is to be comprehensively redeveloped if the rezoning request is approved.

Site of 1012 Pandora

I got quite frustrated by the mess of attachments that were included in the relevant section of the August 27th Council agenda (scroll to find #2 under section F Combined Applications of the meeting Agenda) because it wasn’t necessarily clear what was up for debate. Looking at the agenda for that meeting, this is all we see:

Council is considering an application to permit construction of a mixed-use residential and commercial building of up to six-storeys on the former St. Andrews School site.

and

To rezone the land known as 1002-1008 and 1012 Pandora Avenue from the CA-1 Zone, Pandora Avenue Special Commercial District and the R-2 Zone, Two Family Dwelling District, to the CA-75 Zone, Pandora Vancouver Mixed Use District., to permit a mixed use commercial and residential building.

But what does this mean?

Well, for starters you can check back to my June 25 PLUC Early Thoughts article where I delve into the history of this file with City Hall. Then I suggest checking out my June 25 PLUC Summary and Observations where I reflect on committee discussion related to this proposal and solid opportunity to enliven a long time dead space.

The Space in Question

 

 

StAndrews

Please also find below a direct clip of the archived webcast for this very same meeting, where it should be noted that Councillors Young, Isitt, and Alto (the three most active & informed members of council) were absent from this meeting. Which means it wasn’t thoroughly discussed.

Then I also suggest you check out my July 23rd Council Summary where the occasionally practical (it does happen) Councillor Isitt tried to dissuade City Council from giving notice of the August 27 Public Hearing for this proposed rezoning. He was not successful.

Hence the high emotion on Thursday August 27th and the high emotion that’s now been put off to September 17th when the adjourned Public Hearing gets reconvened. So again, what is being debated?

At it’s core, what is up for debate is rezoning of the site from CA-1 (Pandora Avenue Special Commercial District) for the old school building site and R2 (Two Family Dwelling District) for the adjoining parking lot that faces Mason Street (the area of most concern). As for why the entire site wasn’t originally zoned the same (e.g, CA-1),  because, as far as I know, it has always been the property of the Catholic Diocese (who’d operated St. Andrews School).

How many other fallow properties are there like this in the city?

I do know though that lots of parks and community buildings across the City are also zoned as residential (primarily R1-B Single Family Dwelling) because the city does not have a Parks or Green space zone. And if Council is to learn anything from the continued North Park community backlash to this proposed rezoning of what had been a “place for kids to play” when the St. Andrews school was in session, it is that they, as Council, should be taking a proactive look at other similar spaces around the City. Because honestly, what weight should be given to a ‘what about the lost playground’ argument when an underused playground (Franklin Green) already sits to the right of the lot.

Which is to say, actual city park space should be zoned as actual park space and empty one-time former park like space (such as the former playground of the St. Andrews school site on Mason St) should be zoned in accordance with the Official Community Plan to allow for development and to also avoid unnecessary community upset as a result of false expectations stemming from the loss of R1 & R2 Zones when developers want to take empty space & turn it into something.

Given the recent strategic focus of Mayor Helps and Council on City green space, urban agriculture, etc etc, I know that I would be personally demanding, if I were on council, for a new strategic action be included in the city’s operational plan that explored how to best involve local neighbourhoods in pursuit of such a coordinated zoning.

But perhaps this may be coming. Eventually.

So What is the Proposed New Zone?

From a rezoning perspective (e.g., reason for public hearing) the zone that is necessary to enable the proposed Bosa Blue Sky Properties redevelopment of a former Catholic School and its school yard, is to be a newly created: 6.87 CA-75 Pandora Vancouver Mixed Use District. So what does it mean, what provisions does this zone contain and on what basis should the appropriateness of this new zone be being evaluated by Council?

To begin this discussion, I want to bring your attention to how the scene was set at the Public Hearing on the 27th. Please check out this super brief staff presentation from August 27th meeting so you can observe the context provided to a crowded hall at the start of the event:

Actually scratch that. Just watched the video myself and noted that, contrary to past practice, the staffer (assistant planning director) failed to specify the terms on which Council are to consider the appropriateness of the requested rezoning. All she did instead was say that the project is a proposal for ground floor commercial with residential on top, to a density of 2.35:1 FSR and that the built form will be 4 stories along Mason Street and 6 stories along Pandora.

But what does this mean and why do I mention it?

I mention this because the purpose of staff presentations, a new transparency & public engagement effort of Mayor Helps, is to set the stage for Council consideration and to also make clear for members of the public in attendance to these meetings, what variables are actually up for consideration and how should they be considered. This wasn’t done.

And that it wasn’t done is a shame because doing it properly (e.g., setting the stage) and doing it impactfully (e.g., not just a lone staffer who you can’t really see that well because they’re on the side of the room, reading from a sheet) can provide folks in the audience an opportunity to be informed of what to expect from Council proceedings. Related to this are some concluding comments in a recent Council meeting summary of mine where I suggested that, with a few simple procedural changes, the city could make it a lot easier for members of the public to know what to expect with these frequent public hearings, and to also minimize the frequency with which the circuitous ‘he said-she said’ that so often prevails at these events because of the emotionally based miscommunication that so often occurs between stakeholders as a result of poor process.

So anyhow, what was up for debate on August 27th and will be again on September 17th? This was actually a question I chatted briefly with the City’s new planning director about last week. Where he agreed with me that, theoretically, all Council is supposed to be considering is the appropriateness of suggested new uses and the appropriateness of the increase in density presented by the Bosa proposal, he also reminded me about Council’s right to “unfettered discretion” with rezonings, which means, that if they really want they are always free to throw city planning documents and investor good will out the window if they want in order to please the locals.

Change in Use & Change in Density

Unfettered discretion aside (kinda like how Esquimalt said no to the sewage treatment plant) let us now look at “Use” and “Density”:

Use – New Uses proposed for 1002-1012 Pandora Ave
  • Multiple Dwelling
  • Bakeries used predominantly for the retail sale of bakery products sold from the premises
  • Offices
  • Financial services
  • Retail
  • Restaurants
  • Personal services including, but not limited, to barbering, hairdressing, tailoring, shoemaking and shoe repair, optical, watch and jewellery repair and veterinary care for small animals by a registered veterinarian without overnight boarding
  • Cultural facilities
  • Launderettes
  • Artisan studio
  • High Tech
  • Public Building
  • Accessory Buildings subject to the regulations in Schedule “F”
  • Home Occupation subject to the regulations in Schedule “D”
  • Athletic instruction

*Interestingly enough, only the underlined bullets are defined by  Schedule A Definitions of the City Zoning bylaw. 

So what is the logic behind these uses and what was the most common complaint and concern raised against the proposed change in use? Biggest thing that I’ve heard is concern for a big box retailer (e.g., big grocery store that would put Wellburns and Market on Yates out of business) but what does that mean from a city zoning perspective?

Specific to the grocery issue, a quick look at the associated zones for other grocery stores across the city didn’t turn up much other than a zillion different ways of dealing with baked goods. As noted above, this new zone proposes its own requirements for baked goods but does nothing in regards to larger grocery operations. Just the simple open category of “retail” for commercial use is provided

Related to this, I’ve also found a zillion different ways of defining offices and personal services in other zones and I mention this because, if you check out the original submission from North Park back in 2012 they expressed a preference for a medical clinic at the site if and when redeveloped. Such a request was also mentioned on the 27th.

But if you check the proposed new zone I don’t believe a doctors office would be allowed based on how “office” use is defined. Nor do I think that a cafe would be permitted. But cultural facilities and public building are just fine. However, what does that even mean from a practical perspective?  Are those two uses (e.g., cultural facilities & public buildings) in there as part of a neighbourhood request? Does the neighbourhood really need a vet? What about the potential laundrette? Will that serve a community need? And not to be a devils advocate or anything, but I’m pretty sure the “financial services” use category identified in the new zone means a payday lender could join the new commercial space once & if built.

Are any or all of those uses really desired? How were they chosen?

Continuing on the theme of “Big Box retail is bad” I have to ask why didn’t the North Park Association request that retail specific floor space restrictions be required? From what I’ve seen in my hundreds of hours working with city zones, it is common practice to use zones to restrict maximum floor space of a particular use. But they didn’t.

Related to this, I did note how Mr. Kopinya (Bosa Development Manager) made sure to mention in his opening remarks on the 27th, how they, as project proponents heard and respect community concern about a big box store, and that as a result they actually aren’t going to have one. Yet, this continued to be common complaint throughout the public hearing.

So why did this happen? Part of the reason for why this happens, I assume, is that as I’ve said many times before city staff reports are terrible to read (poorly structured & unclear) and hard to understand with respect to trying to understand what is being proposed. Things can also get more complicated when pertinent details are split across rezoning & development permit reports. Staff presentations are also not very clear (as noted above) and finally, agenda attachments are poorly organized and hard to navigate through. Things were then complicated further with this proposed St Andrews redevelopment after the proponents took the project away for a year and staff then suddenly brought it back.

People were caught off guard.

Looking at it from the outside, most folks, providing that they actually make their way to the council agenda, are then stuck with trying to decipher photocopied versions of the developer plans upon which City authorization to build will be granted. On that note, I offer eternal gratitude to whoever shows me how to read the June 2015 Plans for 1002-1012 Pandora Avenue because I’m pretty much lost.

Which is to say, how is Council, let alone the public, supposed to know where and how proposed use is appropriate via rezoning if and when, what these new uses are and how they’ll occur doesn’t get clearly discussed & subsequently remains unclear? One thing I will point out though, specific to the proposed redevelopment of the St Andrews site, is that in response to the local concern for noise from parking and loading, proponents of the proposed development have required that all loading occur underground so as to minimize noise. And because the development will be downtown and because no parking variance is being required, won’t most residents be getting around by foot or bike?

Which is ultimately to suggest that based on the restricted discussion & public narrative to date regarding use change, the requested use change (e.g., multiple family & retail) seems to have been appropriately accommodated. Where more could probably be done from a purely legal perspective to control use, if need be, it should be noted that such administrative processes are completely separate from the physical design of any building.

Density – Increase in Density from Current

The question of appropriate density at this site is a hard one. Both for how the city defines density (Floor Space Ratio) and also for the continued opposition from locals with respect to the developers request for a maximum FSR of 2.35:1 which as most folks seem to acknowledge, is far below maximums permitted by the Official Community Plan, Downtown Core Area Plan and North Park local area plan.

That Council has also recently provided approval and support  for two separate 17 storey residential towers just a few blocks down Vancouver St should render the Bosa request of 2.35:1 a none issue in my opinion. Related to this, I also encourage you to review Council deliberations related to a September 10th Public hearing for redevelopment of the old Customs house on Government Street because concer for height and appropriateness of the building in question were common themes.

Ultimately, however, this project was approved and Councillor Young seemed to sum up the general reasons for why it was approved by saying (paraphrase): Will a better project come along? Most definitely. But we’ll be taking a big risk by waiting for this project, both a result of the property itself being run down but also for the risk of nearby properties also becoming run down. So the new project should be approved  

And I mention this because I heard a lot of people opposed to the proposed redevelopment of the St Andrews site say back on August 27th – that there is a better project out there. But if we take Council logic from this past Thursday, can the city afford to wait for this new & greater project come along, providing of course it does actually come along? It doesn’t seem like they can. Related to this argument, I suggest you check out the correspondence attachments on my Topic Page for this project, because, by doing so, you will see that all major service providers and businesses located on Pandora are all firm supporters of the proposed project.

They support it because they know Pandora needs new life and they believe the Bosa proposal will provide this new life in as sensitive of form as possible it seems. If we are to borrow the words of Mayor Helps used to justify a different project from last Thursday, I can say for myself that “it looks as though the proposed redevelopment of St. Andrews will bring more to the city than it will take away“. With respect to the ‘he said-she said” nature of community consultation that apparently lead up to the current iteration of this project plan, I would simply suggest that the City look to changing its community consultation practices going forward.

Providing clear documentation of interactions shouldn’t be hard.

Where locals are concerned about increased traffic on Mason street as a result of the legal requirement for all traffic having to access the site from Mason street, I don’t really know what to say other than to recommend that you check out my topic page to review reports from the proponents traffic consultant and to also check out the recent staff report. It all seems silly to me that three years have been spent fretting about the same damn issue and it still isn’t resolved.

So What About the Farm?

I actually got a tour of the Mason Street farm. It’s a pretty neat place and if I say anything wrong about it, please contact me and let me know right away. After coming home from this tour, I decided to look at how the site of the farm is zoned, which is easier said than done because the farm itself seems to spread organically in many different directions. If you look at this comparison of the google maps (for depiction of green space indicating farm) and Vic Maps you will see that three different zones seem to apply to the farm as well.

VicMap Mason ST

So what are these zones? (city info here)

The first zone is:

PART 3.3 – R3-1 and R3-2 ZONE, MULTIPLE DWELLING DISTRICT

The second zone is:

PART 2.78 – RK-10 ZONE, BALMORAL STUDIO DISTRICT which in turn enables all uses listed in the R-K ZONE, MEDIUM DENSITY ATTACHED DWELLING DISTRICT which then enables a whole host of other uses as listed in other zones.

The third zone appears to be:

PART 2.1 – R-2 ZONE, TWO FAMILY DWELLING DISTRICT

And I mention these zones because zones define how a property is to be used – hence Bosa Blue Sky Properties seeking to rezone the entirety of the St Andrews site to a consistent zone to allow for mixed residential and commercial use instead of institution (the old school).  What we find when looking at permitted uses on the Mason St Farm site is that two zones are generic zones (e.g., they are not specific to farm use as one might expect from a thriving urban farm) and the 3rd zone (RK-10) seems to be a specialized zone for another piece of property.

In fact, the only commonalty between the three zones is that Home Occupations are allowed – for more on the zoning specific requirements of home occupations see Schedule D of the City’s zoning bylaw. In doing so, you will see that Permitted Uses do indeed identify (see section 5):

  1. (h)  Urban agriculture, defined as the cultivation of a portion of a parcel for the production of fruits and vegetables.

However, Section 4 of the same Schedule also states:

  1. The sale of goods to customers attending on the lot on which the dwelling unit is located is prohibited.

Which seems to conflict with this picture of mine from August 28th:

Farm1

Related to this, I also discovered that the farm doesn’t seem to have a business license and I found this by pulling the city’s recent list:

Mason St Business Licenses

Why do I mention this? I mention this because these farm folks seem to be leading the charge against the proposed redevelopment of the St Andrews site, primarily for how the height of buildings proposed along Mason St (4 storeys) will cast extra shade (mostly winter) onto the farm property. But then why is an improperly zoned, unlicensed establishment allowed to hold all the cards while trying to force the city’s hand by getting them to deny the requested rezoning? A decision that would lose the city many millions in investment, lose local residents many jobs as well as lose the city a large annual injection to the city property tax base?

It seems wrong doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, the farm is a pretty neat place. Apparently their main business is selling salad greens to the various high end organic food places in town. They don’t make the rules though, despite how impressive their petitions might seem. This is supposed to  be the job of the city & the job of council to uphold. On a related note, I’d also just like to emphasize that the actual owner of the lands for upon which the Mason Street Farm is operating, supports the Bosa Blue Sky Properties proposal for redeveloping the St Andrews site.

Owner of Mason St Farm

As for the coffee place on Mason St that is also opposed to the project, shouldn’t they be excited about the new business that should coming to them once the new buildings are complete and the new tenants are in? Also, I noticed in Vic Map that they too are not zoned correctly to permit their business, even though unlike the farm they actually have a business license. Nonetheless, zoning law dictates that cCommercial enterprise should not be allowed to be occurring in the R2-Zone Two Family Dwelling District.

Mason St Coffee

Why must proposal opponents break the rules they want followed?

In Sum

From what I’ve read, seen and observed it looks as though the proponent for the proposed redevelopment of the St. Andrews School site has put forward a proposal that responds to local need (rental) and that also meets city design requirements as well as falls well within permitted density for the area. Which is to say, the proponents shouldn’t be vilified or rejected for putting forward a proposal that meets all city requirements as they are currently defined. If anyone should be rejected or vilified, it should be our mayor and council because they are the ones in charge and they are the ones responsible for land use and development in the city.

 

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