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Building height still main concern at Harrow Road public hearing

Pemberton council to consider adoption of controversial housing project next month
Harrow road rendering
Artist rendering showing what the Harrow Road apartment complex will look like after completion.

Approximately 15 community members crowded into the small Pemberton council chambers—with a handful of others joining via Zoom—on Tuesday, Sept. 27 to share their thoughts on an affordable housing project proposed for the corner of Harrow Road and Highway 99.

The project, as proposed, will be a five-storey, 63-unit apartment complex with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, 30 per cent of which will be allocated for market rentals, 50 per cent for “rent geared to income” and the final 20 per cent saved for low-income households.

The 9,000 square feet on the bottom floor will be used mostly to hold the proponent’s—Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS)—new offices, with the remaining space delegated for other commercial uses.

The purpose of Tuesday’s public hearing was for council to get the last bit of public input before they make the final decision on whether or not to approve the zoning bylaw necessary for the project to go through.

Currently, the plot of land designated for the proposal is zoned for commercial tourism (C-2), which only permits tourist and tourism-accommodation-related uses including things related to arts and culture, child-care, convenience stores, gas stations, hostels, hotels, office buildings and restaurants, among others—but not permanent housing.

The sought-after zoning amendment would change the lot to a comprehensive development zone (CD-6), which would allow for the eventual building to be used for housing as well as community services. The only other change that would come with the amendment would be increasing the max height of any building from 10.5 metres to 19m.

However, that new 19-m height allowance is the main concern among people who voiced their opposition to the project.

“I’d first like to say that I feel a little bit personally attacked by comments referring that because we live near a potential development site, we should be discounted because it’s assumed we’re only thinking of ourselves,” said one member of the public, who currently lives on Balsam Street, directly north of the project’s proposed location.

“I do think that in terms of the rezoning, doubling the height allowance is inappropriate, and basing it off feasibility when we haven’t had full visibility from the potential developer on why it’s the only option.”

She wasn’t the only one from the adjacent neighbourhoods who was on hand to voice their opposition due to the height of the building, whether because of the aesthetic of adding a large-scale building to the village’s small-town look, or the fact the building might block some people’s views of the surrounding scenery.

However, in a May 19 article in Pique, Casey Clerkson, a consultant working with SSCS, explained the project needs four storeys worth of units to be financially viable, meaning a four-storey building would not work due to the area’s floodplain rendering the ground floor not suitable for housing without first adding 2.75m of fill.

“So the ultimate height difference between a four-storey building and the proposed five-storey building is actually less than five feet,” he told Pemberton’s Committee of the Whole (COW) on May 17.

Throughout the meeting, the public feedback leaned heavily towards opposition, with approximately 10 different community members expressing their disapproval versus just five people in favour of the project. But when the written submissions are accounted for, those numbers flip, with 26 of a total 44 respondents in favour of the project.

“It’s a reoccurring theme for people to say that they support affordable housing until it is proposed in their neighborhood. And it’s very hard to get people to consider other people’s needs instead of the imposition on their own property and their own lives. But I hope that we are the type of community that cares about others,” said former Village of Pemberton staffer Lisa Pedrini, who shared her approval of the project via Zoom.

“We have a critical lack of rental housing in our community. And while this site is not perfect, and the concerns from nearby residents have been heard, we have to acknowledge that there is a lack of vacant land within the village that was large enough, affordable enough and central enough to suit a project like this.”

Another question brought up by multiple community members in opposition to the project, including mayoral candidate Chadi Abouhalka, was why not just find another location for the same housing project?

“The thing is, if there is that much funding coming in, there’s always ways of logistics and being able to switch or even find zoning in a separate space,” said Abouhalka. “Why hasn’t anyone even decided to consult with the First Nations? There is an empty lot sitting there that can fit five buildings there perfectly. The logistics are not that hard to switch around.”

But as was mentioned earlier in Tuesday’s meeting by SSCS executive director Jaye Russell—and reported in that same May 19 article in Pique—after an extensive search, the Harrow Road site was the only suitable location found that would work for a project of this size.

“There are few parcels of land available. Following a detailed review of the limited potential options, we have selected the proposed site,” said Russell via Zoom at the Sept. 27 public hearing. “We believe this location works because it is a large enough site to accommodate a building of this size. It is close to the village and amenities and importantly it is for sale and available.

“I can tell you this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity for a community the size of Pemberton to receive funding for not only the construction of the building, but also the capital to secure the land.”

Unfortunately, that “unprecedented opportunity” is also what has given council such a short timeframe to approve the zoning amendment, as the purchase of the land is linked to the amendment being approved and the funding for the entire project hinges on that land purchase, according to Peter Gordon’s presentation to COW on May 17.

With the final public opinions now on record, the next step is for council to make a final decision on the zoning amendment at the next regular council meeting in October.