Castlegar city council is leaning toward approving a six-storey apartment complex, even though it doesn’t conform to the official community plan and would go against a recommendation from their planning staff.
The proposal calls for a 70-unit building at 502 11th Ave., behind Castle Wood Village, on the site of a development that stalled more than 20 years ago at the foundation stage. The developer says the building, to be known as The Highmark, is designed to serve a broad demographic and would include a combination of bachelor suites and one and two bedroom units.
To keep construction costs down, they are are asking to build six storeys, despite the fact that under the official community plan the maximum height allowed in that area is four storeys. The draft downtown area plan, yet to be formally endorsed by council, also calls for buildings in the area to be limited to that height.
Council would have to approve a variance for the taller building as well as another variance to reduce the number of required parking spaces.
Although city staff expressed concerns over the building’s size, during discussion Monday, every councillor present indicated they were inclined to support the variances to let the project proceed.
Councillor Maria McFaddin, who said she received messages from people upset that council might reject the project, said she trusted staff’s judgement but felt the location was suitable for such a project and only a handful of neighbouring homes would be directly affected.
“People are used to what they have and development is going to cause some unhappy people across the board,” she said. “I don’t see the reason to potentially lose [some] units.”
Councillor Sue Heaton-Sherestobitoff agreed. “Builders have to build bigger because it’s so expensive nowadays,” she said. “To get them down from six storeys becomes unprofitable. You have to go higher nowadays just to cover the costs.”
She said denying the application “because they’re a block from where they’re supposed to be is not in our best interest. Always with new development we will have NIMBYism but for our community to grow and thrive, we need housing.”
Councillor Brian Bogle said he wouldn’t want to tell downtown business owners that the city objected to a large apartment complex “when they are crying for people to come downtown. Vibrancy starts with foot traffic.”
Councillor Dan Rye pointed out that earlier in the same meeting, council adopted a housing strategy that called for taller buildings with less parking. “Both of these things are in this application, and it’s been recommended we deny it?”
Meeri Durand, the city’s planning manager, called the application “very challenging” for staff, who recognized the need for housing in the community and supported development of the site. However, she said the location, at the top of a hill, raised some red flags.
“Although we would like to support it as presented, the configuration is a bit of a concern,” she said.
While adjacent property owners had a variety of issues, Durand said the staff recommendation to council to reject the application is mainly because it doesn’t reflect principles laid out in city planning documents. In particular, the OCP calls for larger apartment buildings in the neighbourhood to be stepped down to meet the height of adjacent homes.
In a different area of town, she added, a six storey building could be built without issue.
She said most communities of Castlegar’s size have made similar projects work at four or five storeys and staff feel other options could bring the project into alignment with the city’s higher-level objectives.
Durand also said the city may be able to support the project in other ways without granting the height and parking variances. However, the developer argues six storeys is necessary to reduce building costs and stepping down the upper storeys would reduce the overall square footage.
In a memo to city council, project manager Deanne Collinson also suggested a smaller footprint is actually preferable, allowing for more green space.
“We know that a six storey building is a big step for Castlegar, but would like to point out that creating density in the downtown area could be very beneficial,” she wrote. Collinson added that because the first floor will be below street level, the building will actually be five storeys when viewed from 11th Avenue.
Mayor Kirk Duff said he was uncomfortable making a decision on the variances before some of council’s questions were addressed, including the cost of revising the plans to allow for a shorter building with a larger footprint and how many units might be sacrificed in a smaller development.
A decision was tabled until council’s next meeting on Sept. 7.