Sunday, April 8, 2018

Once a Truth Centre, now a battleground in Rockland

More than two years in development, Abstract Development’s proposal for the former Truth Centre property at 1201 Fort St. and 1050 Pentrelew Place goes to public hearing on Thursday.

It’s going to be a long night.

The proposal calls for 83 units. There would be nine in two-storey townhouses along Pentrelew Place and the balance in two condominiums, one four storeys and one six storeys.

In the past 25 months, the project has been through six plan revisions, including a complete redesign, said Abstract president Mike Miller, who paid $7 million for the two-acre Rockland property.

Early opposition focused on what neighbours called “a wall of townhouses” along Pentrelew, Miller said, so their height was scaled back and the number of units was reduced to nine from 12.

Abstract also reduced the height of one of the condo buildings to four storeys and increased the setbacks. Overall, the number of units decreased to 83 from 94.

But opposition in Rockland continues to be strong, with some neighbours arguing the project is too dense and that a six-storey building along the Fort Street heritage corridor too high.

“Stop Over Development — Respect Neighbourhoods” signs dot most of the front lawns of houses along Pentrelew Place. Neighbours Don and Anna Cal say the scaling back of the townhouses is the only major concession that has been made to the project, which they say is simply too big.

“We are all for development. I understand that this property is very suited for development, but please go 25 or 30 per cent smaller, and then it’s going to be great,” Anna Cal said. “I think most of my neighbours think that it’s too high for a heritage designated corridor [along Fort Street].”

The Cals’ position is supported by council’s liaison to the neighbourhood, Coun. Pam Madoff, who argued against forwarding it to public hearing, believing it wasn’t ready. “It just seems to me that from the very beginning the concept for the site on the part of the applicant really has not changed,” Madoff said.

She said the large number of heritage buildings in the area along Fort signal the entranceway to a Rockland neighbourhood that is different from others. The development proposal for the Truth Centre site should reinforce that, she said.

“You’re not wanting to recreate heritage, but you’re wanting to do something that recreates the character of any neighbourhood,” she said. “You look at a site like this and say: ‘Could this be anywhere else and not be out of keeping?’ If the answer is yes, it basically tells you that there’s nothing special about it in terms of what makes Rockland special.”

Miller said that although the site is in Rockland, it is literally across the street from both the Fernwood and Fairfield neighbourhoods and only a block away from the Harris Green section of downtown.

“We’re within 400 metres of downtown. So we really are in the hub of everything,” he said.

While it might seem like a monster project to some, the density would be considered modest for a site only a block down the road, Miller said, pointing to the Black and White condominium he is building at Fort and Cook. If the Truth Centre at 1201 Fort were allowed the same number of units per acre, 340 units could be built.

It’s an argument that rings hollow for Don Cal.

“Mike Miller is right, it is close to downtown. If we were playing horseshoes, he would lose because he’s close but not there. If we were playing grenades, he would win, but sadly we don’t think our neighbourhood is worth blowing up,” he said.

Far from blowing up the neighbourhood, Miller said his proposal not only meets the aims expressed in the official community plan, it maintains existing mature trees along the south property line, includes a public walkway and includes a commitment to affordable housing in another project. Another 83 trees will also be planted.

“We have over an acre of green space — over 50 per cent [of the site] in green space,” Miller said.

Madoff said the green space is in bits and pieces, so the proposal doesn’t present as if there is 50 per cent.

While no affordable units are part of the Truth Centre development, Abstract has committed to include 10 affordable rental units down the road at 1010 Fort St. in a new six-storey, 62-unit rental building his sister company Nvision Properties is applying to build.

There’s no doubt the public hearing will be packed, said Coun. Chris Coleman.

“It’s change in an area that people love. … There are people who don’t want to see any change. There are people who recognize change will happen but think this is too much, and there are people who think that this is perfectly acceptable. So you’re going to get all three of those crowds and some others who will come out,” Coleman said.

“Some people are still asking questions, but most people are still committed to their side. Unfortunately, some people get so passionate about it that other people are scared to share their opinions. It’s just that people are passionate about where they live.”

Mayor Lisa Helps said the official community plan clearly calls for development along major transportation corridors such as Fort. And she’s happy to see an offer of affordable housing, noting that as the independent analysis found no increase in the land value associated with the rezoning, there is no requirement for the affordable units.

“I think the fact that he’s got a proposal that’s going to have those 10 units in it, that is different from: In theory 10 units might get built one day,” Helps said.

The project will be one of the last major development proposals this council will decide before facing re-election in fall — something councillors will undoubtedly be repeatedly reminded of during the hearing.

But the pending election shouldn’t have any bearing, say the council members.

“Whether it’s December 2016 or July 2018, the decisions I’m making are for the future of the city — not to get re-elected, but to make sure that 30 and 50 years down the road, the city is in good shape,” Helps said.

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