Letter to Mayor and Council re. Starlight Developments project
Updated: Feb 8
January 25, 2023
To Mayor Alto and Council:
Re: Starlight Developments’ application for amendment to the Official Community Plan and re-zoning of 1045 Yates Street and the 900 block Yates Street
The Victoria Downtown Residents Association (DRA) has a volunteer, member-elected Board and is a provincially registered society that supports and fosters a diverse, vibrant, and safe Downtown Neighbourhood for all our residents. In our capacity as the officially recognized community representative, we make the following submission on this application.
The DRA acknowledges the pressing need for additional rental housing in Victoria — especially affordable rentals — and supports and encourages development of additional and affordable rental housing within the Downtown Neighbourhood. The DRA also recognizes the critical need to develop all housing in a way that promotes and fosters the livability of the City, especially the neighbourhood in which the housing is located.
With both those goals in mind, this submission from the DRA Board identifies our concerns about the proposed developments at 1045 Yates Street (Phase 1) and the 900 block Yates Street (Phase 2 and 3). A separate letter from the CALUC will be sent separately.
Our concerns principally relate to the following:
The lack of respect for the City’s planning documents
The City’s Official Community Plan (OCP) sets the framework for how Victoria can and should physically accommodate development and growth. The OCP is the result of extensive public and industry consultation and reflects the shared vision for that development, agreed upon by the community, the City, and the development sector. The current OCP already provides flexibility to allow for variances, that is to be exercised on a judicious, evidence-supported basis. Re-occurring piecemeal and seemingly capricious granting of variances to the Official Community Plan without reliable, cogent evidentiary support can and does erodes the public trust and confidence in that document and flies in the face of good planning principles.
If Council believes that the OCP no longer meets current requirements, then Council should prioritize reconvening all stakeholders to conduct a thorough review and make updates that arise from that collaborative approach and based on reliable, cogent evidence. Until that is done, respect should and must be accorded to the current OCP.
This Developer has not provided any independently tested, reliable evidence to prove a hardship that would make the variances requested in this proposal a necessity. Variances should not be approved unless hardship can be proven.
Issues of affordability are not addressed in a meaningful way
Since 2016, the cost of renting in the Downtown Neighbourhood has skyrocketed. For example, from 2016-2021 landlords have increased the median monthly rental price of a 2-bedroom apartment in our neighbourhood by 79.5%.
While this project will add a significant number of new units of housing to the City’s stock, it will do very little to address the challenges of affordability. Currently, 80 units of below market rental housing are proposed for this development. With between 1500-1600 units proposed, that number represents 5% of the total number of units. In other municipalities like the City of North Vancouver, new market rental projects are required to provide 10% of units at 10% below average rents, as determined by CMHC, in perpetuity. https://www.cnv.org/Community-Environment/land-use/density-bonusing
Considering the scale of this project, all additional density granted, if any, should be entirely dedicated to affordable housing as defined by the City of Victoria Housing Strategy, recognizing that the additional density adds significant value over a very long term.
The lack of true public consultation about this project
The proposed development will bring the equivalent of a small town (1,500 units with an anticipated population 2,200) to a two-block area, changing the nature of the Harris Green Village forever. Unlike other proposed planning projects in Fernwood, North Park and Hillside-Quadra (Villages and Corridors) there has not been substantive conversation with this neighbourhood about the nature of the massive change being proposed. There has not been a fulsome in-person CALUC meeting since the initial meeting (December 2019) when over 100 people showed up to hear the developer state that the information provided was intended to “introduce a development concept” as opposed to representations of the specific development plans and commitments. At that meeting, the applicant publicly committed to comply with the OCP and that no OCP amendments would be requested. There have been significant changes to the proposal since that now require amendments to the OCP with no real opportunity for the public to hear a rationale for the amendments or to ask questions of the developer.
The second stage of consultation was on-line only by written submissions through the Development Tracker, and without the ability to hear and ask questions of the developer. The Development Tracker is not a tool most residents find easy to use. It is complicated to know what the proposal is and how it might have changed and limits the ability of those without a computer or with limited computer skills to get information. All of this severely limits public input into what is probably the largest residential development in our time.
This proposal should go to a properly facilitated public meeting where the developer is present to answer questions from the public and to explain the proposal in detail, prior to going to Public Hearing where the public’s opportunity to ask any such questions is non-existent.
The tying of the three phases of this project into one application
Given the lack of meaningful public consultation on this project to date, approving this project in one application is unwise. It should be split into two or even three separate applications, especially given the length of time before Phases 2 and 3 are to be constructed. Further, Phases 2 and 3 may not happen if the market changes, which is very possible, and Phases 2 and 3 as proposed may no longer meet the then-current needs or wants of the city or its citizens.
And as almost all the public amenities to be provided will not be provided until Phases 2 and 3, the amenities may never be provided. Meanwhile Phase 1 will have been approved based on the provision of those amenities. If approved, a significant financial bond is needed to ensure the amenities will be provided in the future.
And while the Developer may say Phases 2 and 3 will require a Development Permit before shovels are in the ground, that will give Council only a very limited opportunity to reconsider the proposal at that later stage as the rights for the development will have already been granted if this application is approved as proposed.
Given the lack of meaningful public consultation and the overwhelming impact of this development on the neighbourhood this project should not be approved as one application.
The lack of public amenities in this project and in the Downtown generally
Council must address the on-going and continuing failure to commit to providing real public amenities in our Neighbourhood, despite the significant recent and on-going increases in population.
The Harris Green District continues to absorb a disproportionate majority of new housing density for the City of Victoria, indeed the Capital Regional District, without any real steps taken to ensure that public amenities are provided and livability is protected, despite adding billions of dollars worth of development to the city. In the past five years, 3,000 new units of housing have been added to our neighbourhood and an additional 3,800 units are under construction or in the development process.
The proposed development will bring the equivalent of a small town (1,500 units with an anticipated population 2,200) to a two-block area, with very little and insufficient public amenities being offered – no public green spaces or playgrounds, no public libraries, no schools, no recreation facilities, no medical facilities. In addition, during construction, this proposal will displace our entire village centre, which serves our community as its sole meeting/shopping place, much like Cook Street Village, Fernwood Centre, and the Hillside/Quadra shopping district serves those communities. No other community would be asked to do without a community gathering/shopping centre for so long.
What is being proposed as public amenities in this application is very limited and, in any event, will be privately owned and controlled, not public. Covid-19 has shown how important it is to have publicly accessible amenities: a place to sit outside and read a book (without having to buy a coffee), a place to get some fresh air, to meet your neighbours, to share ideas and build community. To bring in these many units into a neighbourhood demands a much more significant contribution to green space and other public amenities than what is being offered. Without more, this application will further erode downtown livability and increase the inequalities.
If additional density is to be allowed, the amenity contribution must:
benefit all Harris Green residents and add to the Downtown’s livability and not just the buildings’ tenants as Starlight Developments will already get a return on the value of these through rents.
be adequate or better, given the number of new residents being added – current levels of required contribution are too low.
the amenity contribution should be in cash, so the City can decide what amenities are needed.
be “real” amenities and not controlled by Starlight (the “green space” and the “community space” both have issues re. on-going operations), and clarity on the below market housing and how that will be established and monitored.
be guaranteed by a significant financial bond – all the amenities (except the affordable housing) are coming with Phases 2 and 3, which will not be built for a number of years.
When assessing and evaluating this application we ask Council to give serious consideration to these concerns, and to the very important characteristics of our neighbourhood which are described in the Downtown Neighbourhood Profile, attached as Appendix A.
Our Recommendations to Council:
The DRA submits that this proposal is simply too important to be approved under one application while questions remain unanswered. For the reasons set out, the DRA recommends:
Council should send the application to a full in-person facilitated public meeting where the developer must present up-to-date, accurate and comprehensible information in a manner accessible to the community and to answer the community’s questions without any time limits imposed on them. Only after that is done should the application move to the much more limited public hearing held by Council.
Council should give strong consideration to requiring the developer split the application into two or three separate applications that reflect the building phases and the lack of proximity of the property parcels, and only consider that part of the development that is to be built within the reasonably foreseeable future, thereby reserving to Council the opportunity to ensure that when built, the development then to be built will meet the current needs of the community.
In considering each Phase, Council should honour the terms of the OCP and demand strong, cogent, and reliable evidence be presented to support the need for any variance. Given that significant variances in density are being requested, the developer should be required to produce evidence of hardship.
To the extent any bonus density is allowed above the already generous OCP maximums, Council should require that that highly valuable density be fully allocated to truly affordable housing.
The public amenities to be provided either by the developer or by the City need to address and eliminate the substantial existing deficit in the Downtown Neighbourhood and accommodate the anticipated significant population growth in the Harris Green district. We need public, not private, green space and other amenities that are accessible and usable by all our residents, so that our community will thrive and flourish. The City should commit to acquiring land for additional green space in our neighbourhood.
We look forward to speaking directly to Council on these very important issues.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Victoria Downtown Residents Association
Downtown Neighbourhood Profile
Our Geographical Area
The Downtown Neighbourhood comprises, in general, the area bounded by the Inner Harbor to the west, Chatham Street and Pandora Avenue to the north, Cook and Blanshard Streets to the east, and Fort Street and Belleville to the south, an area of approximately 1.0 km2. These boundaries are set by Council and reflect Council’s recent consolidation of the former Harris Green Neighbourhood with the Downtown Neighbourhood, with Harris Green now being considered a district within the Downtown, like Chinatown and Old Town.
As of the 2021 census, 8,945 people live in our Neighbourhood, 3,025 more than lived here in 2016 and reflecting an increase of 51% in the number of residents in just five years. For comparison, in that same time period the City’s population grew by only 7.1%.
Not surprisingly, our Neighbourhood also has the City’s highest population density — the equivalent of 9,000 people per square kilometer. Again, by comparison, that is slightly more than double the City as a whole (which includes the Downtown Neighbourhood) shows a density of 4,722 people per square kilometer. If compared just to the other Victoria neigbourhoods, the density comparison would be much higher.
With an average household size of 1.5 persons, our residents occupy 5,655 private dwellings - including purpose-built market rental apartments, conversions and strata units. Our Neighbourhood does not contain single family dwellings or traditional townhouses. This means that most people have limited access to private personal outdoor spaces like front or backyards.
Recent New Construction
Of those residential dwellings, 3,000 were constructed since 2016, with another 3,800 currently in the development application process or under construction. With at an average household size of 1.5 persons, this will mean an additional 5,700 persons moving into our Neighbourhood in the near future.
Our Neighbourhood contributes a very significant amount of assessed value — in the billions of dollars — to the City’s assessment base and our residents, either directly or through their landlords, contribute a very significant amount of tax dollars to support the City’s annual budgetary needs. And each year, with the construction of new buildings, the Downtown Neighbourhood contributes substantial new additional assessed value to the City’s tax base.
The Public Amenity Deficit
In terms of public amenities, the Downtown Neighbourhood is in a significant deficit position. We have only three small community parks:
Reeson, on the western boundary at the foot of the Johnson Street Bridge
Cridge, on the southern boundary behind the Crystal Gardens
Harris Green Park, on the northern boundary just east of the 900 Pandora block.
Together those parks would not likely comprise one city block. None of these parks have any playground equipment or washrooms.
Other public spaces, referenced as parks, include Bastion Square and Centennial Square, both paved, the David Foster Walkway along the Inner Harbour, and Government Street when closed to traffic — but none of these are dedicated in any real way to Downtown residential users.
In addition, Yates Street Community Garden is located in the 1000 block of Yates Street, and the Central Library is located within the Downtown Neighbourhood on Broughton Street. A small community space on Pandora is fully utilized by the Cool Aid Society for its clients and a small surplus City-owned space in the old Crystal Garden building on Douglas Street has just recently been made available to individuals and groups for meetings or other uses.
We have no schoolyards, community centre or publicly supported space dedicated to residents meeting and socializing. The closest dog park is Dallas Road, not easily accessible for elderly dog owners or some young families without a vehicle. In a time where the significance of climate change is becoming more and more apparent, our canopy cover is less than half the City average.
Other than a parklet (three parking spaces adjacent to the bike lane) on Fort Street and some seating at the foot of the Johnson Street Bridge, virtually no new public amenities have been located within the Downtown Neighbourhood within the last 20 or more years, nor have the existing parks been expanded or upgraded, despite the very substantial additional new population and the significant additional contribution to the City’s assessment base.