Friday, August 27, 2021

Available land and the city's process of consultation will remain a recurring question on affordable housing

One of planning maps related to the Prince Rupert 2030 Vision 
presentation from December of 2019

The currently suspended Public Hearing process for the 11th Avenue East apartment proposal,  is providing for a few hints for the Prince Rupert City Council members as to how the quest to create affordable housing in Prince Rupert seems destined to move forward into the future.

As we outlined on Wednesday, the current proposal for a six story apartment complex off of 11th Avenue East was suspended on Monday evening after two and a half hours of expansive discussion on a wide variety of narratives. 

The pause put in place after Mayor Lee Brain noted that Council would not be able to answer many of the questions that had been raised by the forum participants, mainly those questions from the residents of the immediate area.

From that, the City Councillors put the 11th Avenue East process on hold, set to return upon delivery of a report from the city's contract planner in the planning department which will be provided at an upcoming meeting, perhaps as soon as the September 20th session.

From Monday's hearing however, a few themes have certainly been now put on the radar, particularly when it comes to how the City will assist in the creation of more affordable housing space in the months and years to come. 

Questions on transparency and consultation were high among the concerns of a number of those who spoke on Monday, as well as a need for more information as to just what land the City has available for housing initiatives in the community.

Towards the theme of the process on the 11th Avenue East proposal, Mayor Brain on Monday stated that the City had followed the guidelines of the Local Government Act when it comes the current housing initiative. 

"I do want to speak briefly to the process just because I am hearing that some folks feel that there is a process issue here. But this process has been exactly to where the Local Government Act requires us under the law through the engagement process. So nothing around that is at all off, that's exactly where it's supposed to be" -- Mayor Lee Brain

That may be correct  civic procedure, but clearly from the questions and statements for Council at the hearing, many of which went unanswered on the night, the residents of the area it would seem were expecting much more in the way of engagement from their elected officials and city staff as that process moved forward in recent months.

Residents noted of their concerns and perceptions that the plan for the proposed housing complex was already a done deal before they had even learned of it and expressed frustration at the lack of information on the process from the City as it evolved over the last year or so.

The other question that was a recurring one was for the City to disclose what other sites had been offered up to the Lax Kw'alaams Housing Society.  

A question that the City Councillors or staff did not have opportunity to comment on as the proceedings were suspended before the topic would come up in their Regular Council session, though it isn't clear why the Mayor as the Chair for the night did not call on city staff to offer up some background on that element of the discussion for clarification during the Hearing.

As it was, the proponents of the 11th Avenue East housing proposal did offer up some notes, outlining how two other sites were offered by the City, both in the vicinity of 11th Avenue East or Hays Cove, neither of which offered the required footprint for their project.

In the closing to the Public hearing on Monday, the Mayor observed as to how he had viewed the night's progress on the issue.

"I'm hearing speakers talking about finding good compromise and I think that it's important that we make sure that everybody is feeling good about this, cause if this is something that ends up becoming successful it needs to be something that is successful that everybody  feels proud of. And you know we're  committed to making sure that we're hearing everybody's voices on that no matter what it is in this community" -- Mayor Lee Brain

Reading the tea leaves here, it would appear to indicate that the current site could likely be the final word for this proposal; perhaps with a range of traffic calming options to address some of the concerns from the area residents, with more notes on how the City may move forward to come in September. 

However, if this application for rezoning on 11th Avenue East is to be the template for how future housing proposals will roll out, there will be a need to take note of the way this project was introduced and the perceptions that came from the area residents from that process.

Council may want to review how they handled the file and if the need to go beyond the scope of the minimum requirements of the Local Government Act may be needed in the way of a wider overview of information for important topics such as where to locate housing of any kind.

A process that in this case has left some to think that the City had already made up its mind, is one that clearly is in need of a rethink towards better transparency and accountability.

A map from the City's recently adopted Official Community Plan

The question of available land is also an area where the City Council may wish to be more expansive, providing for a detailed and often updated map on the City Website as to where those properties that may be available for housing development may be located.

That additional information could be helpful for residents of those areas that may see such developments, which at least will ensure that they won't be surprised by proposed developments that suddenly arrive in their neighbourhood.

The other theme from Monday that at least found some common ground between the two sides of the debate was the need for land ready for development and which won't require extensive intrusion on the surrounding ecosystems, or the need for civic servicing.

Towards that many participants asked about the range of now vacant SD52 land in the city, that after a number of school closures over the last decade, and how those sites may make for ready to go sites for affordable housing.

Back in 2015 land that was once the home for Kanata School
was rezoned for plans for a housing development that never moved forward

Among those mentioned were Seal Cove and Westview School sites, though no one seemed to remember the Kanata School lands on Monday evening, which at one time was supposed to be the home for a rather large scale housing proposal. 

It remains to this day a ready to build on site, one that for instance might have been a good spot for the current 11th Avenue East proposal.

The School District at one time was hopeful of a land sale that would have brought in around one million dollars which they had hoped to make use of for other capital investments. 

The development proposal came to an end however when the developers of the day chose to abandon their investments in Prince Rupert that after a rather lengthy process of trying to move the proposed development forward.

An evolution of the plan in March of 2018 that left the School District somewhat disappointed and brought a quick response from the Council chamber.  

Council and the School District did eventually overcome that period of animosity,  having found some common ground on other land issues, with the City and SD52 working towards a land sale related to plans for Prince Rupert Middle School in March of this year.

Setting at least a precedent for other potential arrangements to provide benefit for both.

The use of the vacant school lands would likely be a tricky process, involving the Ministry of Education along the way, but a bit of creative thinking might help make those ready to build on locations attractive.

In 2020, the City conducted a land swap with the Jehovah Witnesses, offering the congregation land and some money for their First Avenue East location for use as a future RCMP detachment.

It would seem that the City is inclined towards those kinds of moves and a similar kind of swap with SD52, might help to move along the goals of creating more affordable housing while providing the School District with options for their needs.

Considering its close proximity to Charles Hays Secondary, the 11th Avenue East location might have been a good option for the long promised new middle school creating a natural corridor between the two schools. 

Something which could have offered the Lax Kw'alaams housing plans a ready to build site at one of the other SD52 properties.

Since residents continue to point towards those vacant School District properties as a potential solution, exploring the other sites that are available for future projects could provide for a result that satisfies all of the stakeholders in delivering on more housing in the community.

Perhaps working with the School District to further those goals isn't possible, but it can't hurt to explore that concept further and explain to the public all of the options that the city is pursuing  and some of the challenges that come along when it comes to housing.

Once they make their decision on the fate of the rezoning request for the 11th Avenue East land, Council should take some time to review how this current process evolved, how it was received and how they responded to the concerns that came along with it. 

As well as to look back at some of their past efforts, both successful and unsuccessful in moving housing forward, in order to determine what would be the most helpful way towards addressing the key civic issue.

With the current need for housing urgent and vision plans that suggest a fast growing population to arrive in the next few years; the call for more affordable housing should  be the dominant narrative for the rest of the current council's term and well beyond for whomever is elected to civic office in the next election cycle. 

Making sure that the residents of areas to be included in the housing plans are fully informed and don't feel as if they are not being heard on their concerns should be one of the guiding themes.

A wider review of Monday's Council session can be found from our Council Timeline feature.

You can review the Housing themes over the last number of years from our Housing archive page here.

1 comment:

  1. The city spent all this time on the OCP then throws out what the OCP envisioned. How is it the city forgets that the consensus of the document was the voice of all residents of Prince Rupert.

    The various developers had the chance to speak out at the first reading of these documents. Crickets from the developers now they want to change the whole thing. It's not right