At Victoria council, condos win over trees

137-unit Village Green housing project is to be built in James Bay at 110 Menzies St., 111 Croft St. and 450-458 Niagara St.

A stay of execution for seven mature plum trees along the 100 block of Menzies Street in James Bay did not come this week, as Victoria council unanimously approved the 137-unit Village Green project.

The purpose-built rental project that will go on the northwest corner of Menzies and Niagara streets was given the green light, though many on council said they regretted the fact the trees would be lost as construction on the project begins.

Approval is contingent on legal teams from the city and developer Primex working to include a clause in the housing agreement. That is expected to come in the next two weeks, and is not expected to affect the council’s decision.

Many in the immediate neighborhood had rallied to try and save the trees, and many called in or provided videos during Thursday night’s public hearing to urge council to err on the side of the environment.

Some said they were appalled that the trees would be lost to city-mandated wider sidewalks and the ravages of a two-year construction window. One caller implored council to do things differently, and find a work-around to help retain Victoria’s unique charm.

The concerns did not appear to fall on deaf ears, with many on council saying the tree issue weighed on them, even though city staff had confirmed many were diseased and would not do well during construction.

count. Geoff Young said while the trees may appear healthy, they do periodically need to be removed.

He suggested that people who expressed concerns about the flowering plums should take the issue up with their council members, to push for the city’s tree preservation policy to include preservation of traditional flowering tree landscapes through appropriate replacement of removed trees

The bottom line was council had to find a balance, and it decided to vote in favor of new homes.

“We need housing and we need rental housing. That’s very important. And we have been told this time and time again from the younger people who spoke today,” said Coun. Stephen Andrew, who noted the developer intends to plant more trees than will be removed. “That is a reasonable solution especially when some of them are suffering with disease.”

Mayor Lisa Helps said council often has to face the difficult balancing act of choosing whether to approve large buildings that may change the character of an area and affect parking, with the desperate need for housing.

She said the sense of loss, worry and change in those neighborhoods is very real and council hears it every time a new project is proposed. But she said that is weighed against the needs of a quickly growing city.

Helps said the developer in this case has gone beyond council’s expectations when it comes to tenant relocation.

The project, at 110 Menzies St., 111 Croft St. and 450-458 Niagara St., involves tearing down three older buildings with a combined total of 45 residential units and redeveloping the land with a four-storey and six-storey wing.

The tenant assistance program, which includes housing searches, financial assistance and moving expenses, has been working for months to help 33 affected tenants find new homes. To date, 23 tenants have received a total of $112,615 in aid and a relocation team is working with the remaining 10, which it expects will receive an average of $6,900 each.

There is also a clause, still to be included in the housing agreement, that will give former tenants the first right of refusal to return to the site and be able to pay 20 per cent below market rent for a suitable unit.

“There’s no getting away from disruption,” said Greg Mitchell, Primex’s development manager.

count. Ben Isitt voted to approve, but was concerned about the displacement.

“I think the city does need to move in the direction of a no-net-loss principle at existing levels of affordability,” he said. “I think if we’re serious about making the community more inclusive, it’s essential to make sure that each project doesn’t lose ground and doesn’t make us less inclusive.”

Isitt said once built, the units at the Village Green project will be less affordable than what’s currently there. “And that means this project won’t provide relief to many community members who need deeply affordable housing.”

Several members of the public were concerned about the project and not just because of the loss of trees. Some said it seemed too big for the area, would create a parking nightmare on surrounding streets and would forever change the character of the neighborhood.

One of the remaining tenants said he and his young family will be homeless as they can’t afford market rent in the area. “We don’t know what to do, we are terrified,” he said, noting it will likely mean moving out of Victoria. “A lot of people are feeling hopeless and they are scared.”

But there was also a lot of support for the project, with residents saying they liked its proximity to downtown, making it easier to get around without a car, and most of all created more housing.

One caller said he’d heard a lot of complaints about the loss of a bygone Victoria, but he suggested this was about building for the future.

“Cities change and evolve,” he said, noting the old Victoria has already left and developments like this could mean less clearcutting and urban sprawl spreading out into the West Shore and beyond.

Primex’s Mitchell said they were excited to get the approval and get started. He hopes construction will begin this year, and expects a 24-30 month build-out.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to welcome residents to the new building sometime in 2025,” he said.

Primex has about 2,300 rental units around the province, including five properties with 300 units in Victoria.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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