May 14 Council Summary & Observations

It was a pretty average Council meeting on Thursday (agenda here) and it was fairly well attended by folks speaking to a proposed 18 storey building on Yates St (#960-62) and a GPC decision for the city to regulate Medical Marihuana. The weekly proclamations were random as usual and made me think that I’ll have to send in a request for “City Council Live Tweeter Appreciation Week” one of these days.

So what happened?

Public Hearing 1: 960-62 Yates Street

This proposal to rezone a single-storey commercial building with  surface parking to an 18 storey building with 88 residential units and two ground-floor commercial units received unanimous support from Council. The necessary associated variance for reduced residential and commercial parking was also granted. Here is a powerpoint summary of the proposed building.

As per typical Council Public Hearing process it started with a brief presentation from a city planner, who isn’t necessarily the planner responsible for the project (but was this time) because the planners seem to take turns attending Council. In concluding her short presentation, the planner reminded Council what they are to consider when considering the merit of the proposed building:

960 Yates Matters for Consideration

And I mention this because as evidenced in direct questioning from Councillor Isitt on Thursday night as well as indirect comments from others, there seemed to be uncertainty and inconsistency on why and how to evaluate project proposals such as the 18 storey building at 960-62 Yates street that requires three variances for parking.

Which is lame because it shouldn’t be that hard.

Let me demonstrate.

Consideration #1 Official Community Plan

The staff report for this proposal talks of how 960-62 Yates Street is located within the Core Residential area as defined by page 41 of Section 6 Land Management and Development and also aligns with the specific Strategic Directions map for Downtown and Harris Green (see page 140 as shown below).

Map 20 OCP Downtown Strategic Directions

But what does this really mean?

What it really means is that you have to read through multiple pages, amass your assorted collection of disconnected bullet points and try and match them to various maps such as the one shown above. It’s quite the demented process because of how functionally limited the OCP is in its text and picture (instead of digital and visual) based form. In general this sucks and is a major cause of frustration and concern for Council and residents alike.

And I mention the functional inadequacies of such a document because the neighbours of 960-62 Yates who spoke at the Public Hearing on Thursday did so because they were concerned about how damn high (e.g., 18 storeys) the new building will be. If you look in the OCP however, it says that up to 20 storeys is A-OK. Even still Councillor Madoff spent a lot of time bemoaning how Council is building “a canyon of high rises” along Yates street.

Consideration # 2 Zoning

Prior to last night the property for 960-62 Yates was zoned S-1 Zone Limited Service District which allowed for development up to 1.5:1 FSR with a maximum height of 15m for restaurants, clubs, garages, automobile rental and or retail sales use.

It was then rezoned with the support of Council to a newly created zone R3-C-Y Central Area Residential Yates Street District which allows for development up to 3:1 FSR and a max height of 50m or for development up to 5.5:1 FSR so long as a bonus density amenity contribution is made in accordance with section 3.105.2 Community Amenities:

As a condition of additional density pursuant to Part 3.105.6.b, a monetary contribution of $261,750 allocated to the following funds, as adjusted pursuant to Part 3.105.2.b must be provided as a community amenity:

  • $100,000 to the Housing Reserve Fund, and
  • $96,312.50 to the Downtown Core Area Public Realm Improvement Fund, and
  • $65,437.50 to the Heritage Buildings Seismic Upgrade Fund

And in order to check the specific terms and formula for such a requirement we actually have to look to another document.

Consideration # 3 Downtown Core Area Plan (DCAP)

The staff report talks of how the proposed 18 storey building is in accordance with Residential Mixed Use Objectives outlined in Section 3 Districts (see pages 33-34) of DCAP. It also mentions how 960-62 Yates Street is located within the Density Bonus Framework identified in Section 4 Density Framework as shown on Map #15 (see page 39 below).

DCAP Density Bonus System

And because the property falls within the C-1 Orange Colour (as shown in the map above) it turns out that the staff took the base assumption of a permissible 3:1 FSR and then calculated the possible land lift value (e.g., the economic benefit the applicant gets from the rezoning) based on the difference in value from 3:1 FSR to 5.5:1 FSR (e.g., the ability to build to a max of 7,570 m2 instead of a max of 4,100m2) instead of calculating the difference from the base FSR for the current zone (1.5:1) to the maximum FSR (5.5:1) allowed when Amenity Contributions (as per the zoning bylaw) are made.

This was a question I asked last night during the Public Question Period because staff calculating Density Bonusing in the way they did seems to undercut maximum possible amenity contributions.

The response I got from staff was that the original zone  (S-1) max FSR of 1.5:1 was not used because the S-1 zone is “old” and because common practice (for fairness) since DCAP was introduced is to calculate Density bonusing based on the DCAP framework discussed above.

My thoughts on such a response, is that a quick look at VicMap will show you that though it may be an old zone  S-1 Zone Limited Service District is actually quite a common zone for properties in the immediate vicinity of 960-62 Yates (shown below). Which really makes me wonder what owners of the other S-1 properties will be thinking now that they’ve seen one of their S-1 brethren be so generously rezoned?

960-62 Zoning

Long story short is that the Density Bonus Amenity contribution for an 18 storey 88 Residential Unit building was not calculated based on the increase in land value for 960-62 Yates Street from the original max of 2,205 m2 to a max of 7,570m2 but instead from a max of 4,110m2 to the max of 7,570m2. Which is to suggest that such a reduced FSR differential may have restricted City access to the level of bonus amenity contribution typically expected when such a large increase in density is provided (e.g., 7,570 – 2,055               = 5,515m2).

In sum, the increase in density approved by Council on Thursday night may not have actually been ‘appropriate’ for the site because the city may not have  received “appropriate” compensation for allowing such an increase.

Consideration #4 Design Guidelines

Ok, so Design considerations are a factor of Development Permit Areas (DPAs) in the City of Victoria, and the idea is generally that a proposed development should be in accordance with DPA standards where established. And where variances are required from the site zoning requirements the city will call the DP either a DP with Variances (as in this case) or a Development Variance Permit (DVP).

Why one is one and not the other, I honestly do not know.

As noted in the variance request report the proposed building for 960-62 Yates street generally complies with the requirements of Development permit area 3(HC see pages 184-186), is generally consistent with the Design Guidelines of the OCP and Downtown Core Area Plan (DCAP) as well as some other minor design requirements. Additionally, it was reviewed by the Advisory design panel as well as challenged to meet requirements of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

As for what any of these many pages of text actually say, I’m honestly not too sure because just like with the text and picture based OCP all these design guidelines are standalone text and picture based documents. There is absolutely nothing functional about them, which is why staff are able to communicate to Council that something “generally complies” without really saying what that actually means in reality. And without knowing what the means in reality, how can you honestly evaluate whether the proposed form and character of the new building is actually appropriate for the site?

A leap of faith perhaps?

On other thing associated with this proposal were the parking variance being requested for residential, commercial, and visitor parking – but this just wasn’t an issue on Thursday and this was probably because there is already one stall being provided for each unit at 960-62 Yates Street and this is far and above the level of parking being provided by most of the other projects approved by Council recently.

Other Considerations for 960-62 Yates Street

One other legal requirement put forward by staff for the proposed 18 storey residential building to replace what currently exists was

960 yatesthe need for an encroachment agreement (use of city right of way) during the construction phase which made sense given the new building footprint.  Council didn’t get into specifics on it.

960 Yates Foot Print

Other considerations that were brought up by members of the public on Thursday were of water table impact and traffic impact. Where the water table issue was addressed by the applicant who said that the site has a high level of bedrock with not much water flow and so there will not be an impact or issue with water at this site (really this was his answer), no question was raised or response was given to the legitimate concern raised about an additional 95 new vehicles wanting to access Yates Street from three layers of underground parking at this site.

Nor were any questions raised about the state of existing infrastructure at this site. I checked the Infrastructure chapter of the OCP earlier today and saw that a major water and sewer mains run down Yates Street in front of the main building. Which is to suggest that the developer can just tie in, and I mention this only because the larger question of change in use and density should be considered within the context of what the site can take.

Or so one would think.

So What Does This All Mean?

As noted at the start of my post, Council are supposed to consider the merits of any given proposal across multiple criteria such as the ones discussed in this post. And based on my review of relevant criteria, it would seem like this very large building got passed through by Council with not much consideration given by Council to the many technical specifics of its considerable size, density, and massing.

  • Mayor Helps voted for the proposed building because she needs to plan for the future and it will be a high quality building.
  • Councillor Lucas voted for the proposed building because downtown vitality requires people living downtown and this increase in vitality outweighs any negative impact of building height and massing for neighbours.
  • Councillor Alto voted for the proposed building and also spoke about vitality and the need for new people living downtown.
  • Councillor Thornton-Joe was sorry that views cannot be protected and felt that on balance the proposed building met all policy requirements and so voted to support it.
  • Councillor Loveday made a number of high level comments and voted for the proposed building.
  • Councillor Isitt said he’d “hold his nose” and vote for the proposed building even though it was a high rise that was not supported by locals yet supported by folks from elsewhere.
  • Councillor Madoff sounded like she wasn’t going to support the building as she spoke against high-rises and the need for diversity in building form. She ended up voting for it though because she said “it gets the FSR of 5.5:1 accomplished at a lower height” than she has seen elsewhere.
  • Councillor Coleman voted for the building because he sees it as a “graceful solution” for establishing density on the land available.

My one other thing about last night is that the majority of speakers were not local residents and I mention this because the typical land development process is one which requires notification of local residents – with the idea being that local residents are the ones most impacted by development so their thoughts, concerns and questions should take precedent. But this doesn’t always seem to be the case here in Victoria because the more of these public hearings I watch the more I notice how developers seem to stack the deck (e.g., the public hearing speaker line up) with an eclectic assortment of folks who claim support for any given development, despite an ambiguous or non existent connection to the area.

Which is why Council are given specific criteria to follow.

They just don’t seem to use them very well, for many reasons.

And not to be a devils advocate or anything, but I would suggest that if Council were to do a better job of following their various design requirements and planning guidelines then developers wouldn’t feel the need to try and game the system.

What do you think?

What Else Happened Last Night?

There were two other public hearings that also occurred on Thursday: One for a Development Permit with Variances so that a family could legally park their car in their driveway in their front yard and; one for a Development Variance Permit for the City Centre Hotel on Douglas street to marginally change their building footprint and convert the use of one room within their building.

There were no public speakers and no Council discussion or questions for either development proposal. Which led me to ask another question during the Public Question period last night on whether the City is keeping data on development proposals such as the two from Thursday that were subjected to the full development rigamarole when they are actually super minor things.

Mayor Helps said she was looking into it.

Council also heard from a number of people about medical marihuana dispensaries including one very posh lady who offered her company‘s expertise while the City works on crafting possible regulations. Here is a picture from the company’s Facebook page:

Trees Medical Dispensary

Council also spent a lot of time on the Douglas Street improvements proposed by the DVBA, debating various things again. I must admit I stopped listening because I was busy researching so I could ask my question on density bonusing. I also didn’t bother watching the meeting video for this section because, well, I’d rather do anything else than have to listen to Council debate that issue again.

One other thing of note that occurred on Thursday was that a fellow named John Breen, who is in a wheelchair spoke about the state of accessible (e.g., handicap) parking across the city. He is a new Victoria resident and a very reasonable man. He made it very clear that the City’s accessible parking is inadequate and I observed the Director of Public Works and Engineering taking very detailed notes while Mr. Breen spoke.

Mr. Breen was then invited by Mayor Helps to contact Councillor Loveday to be part of the Accessibility Working Group that is apparently part of the City’s new Strategic Plan.


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2 thoughts on “May 14 Council Summary & Observations”

  1. “Even still Councillor Madoff spent a lot of time bemoaning how Council is building “a canyon of high rises” along Yates street.”
    Then she said that people in Japan and Hong Kong wouldn’t see these bldgs as very high – so we shouldn’t either. An extremely ridiculous argument. Finally, beyond her concerns of the bldg setting a precedent to go higher and higher, she didn’t it was a problem in this case. I don’t get these people.

    Mayor Helps voted for it out of concern for her future, but whose future, the best for Victoria or her political future?

    Isitt was most on the ball, I think, but voted for it because it’s within the OCP. I’m glad he was unabashed about calling people out about whether their comments and decisions are what they really think or simply political (yes, they are politicians, but he meant political in the sense of contributing to their own careers rather than to the people – the ‘pol’ – they represent).

    So the main problem is the OCP. These bldgs are way too high, and I really wonder what Council thinks the area will look like in 30 years. Do they care? I do. A s I mentioned while addressing Council, it is becoming less appealing for me to hang out downtown. I used to wander around out of interest in the buildings, the views, and the open-air streets with lots of light; moreover, in that environment people seem genuinely happier and more content.
    Mayor Helps pointed to my comment that we need to keep the big picture in mind, by saying that the OCP is the big picture. I just wonder if it’s the right one.
    During her intro to the public comment part of the evening she asked that speakers say where they live so that we could see how relevant 960 Yates is to them. This suggests that only direct neighbours should have anything useful to say. This is wrong: I live in Fairfield but would like to have a pleasant downtown to go to.

    I’ll be writing to Ben Isitt to support his idea of amending the OCP .

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