Major Seniors' Residential Complex Approved
by Robert Hawkes
Victoria City Council recently approved revised plans submitted by Concert Properties for redevelopment of the former Crystal Court Motel property at 701 Belleville St. The project will include a 15-storey residential tower and an attached four-storey podium that will have retail space on the ground level (facing Belleville and Douglas Streets), and residential housing on the upper three floors.
In the combined complex there will be 131 rental units and 42 condominium units, and all are designated as senior housing (the agreement with the city specifically defines senior as those 65 years of age or more). To allay fears of some that in the future the housing might migrate from providing senior housing, the agreement also specifically mentions "perpetual availability of rental units for seniors."
I contacted Concert Properties staff in their Vancouver office to get details on the project. The condominium units are on levels 10 through 15 of the tower, and include one and two bedroom options varying from about 800 to 1050 square feet. The rental units have studio, one and two bedroom designs, ranging from 400 to just over 800 square feet. It is expected that construction will start later this year, and will take slightly over two years to complete. The podium will be topped with a rooftop garden area that is open to residents only.
Jonathan Meed, Development and Sustainability Manager at Concert, commented "This is a great opportunity for Concert to bring Tapestry to the Victoria Harbour. We are very proud of the service levels and quality we offer in Tapestry." Concert Properties stressed the easy access for residents in the complex to downtown businesses, green spaces, recreational and cultural facilities. The plan generally got high marks from city staff for attention to sustainability features.
The Concert Properties Tapestry program offers senior housing options with all-inclusive services and activities to support healthy retirement living. Concert Properties already operates three Tapestry complexes, two in Vancouver and one in Toronto. While all rental and condominium units contain kitchens, a monthly meal credit included in the rental fee can be used in the restaurant or pub, or for room service. The monthly rental in Tapestry also typically includes weekly housekeeping, 24 hour safety support, a range of recreational facilities, a health and wellness consultation, and special events. A fitness facility is included in the building plan, as is bicycle (or adult tricycle) sharing for residents. Within Tapestry those who rent and condominium owners have equal access to these services, so there will not be two classes of residents.
Adena Waffle, Vice President of Seniors Housing at Concert, enthusiastically looked forward to Tapestry coming to Victoria and James Bay this way: "Whether through inter-generational programs or volunteerism, Tapestry is about keeping people connected to their communities. From James Bay to the museum, this location is truly the heart of an engaged neighbourhood – and we’re excited for Tapestry to be a part of it.”
Not surprisingly, a proposed development of this magnitude was not universally embraced. In preparing this article I carefully read all input received by Victoria City Council. Those favouring the proposal cited the urgent need for senior housing in Victoria, replacement of an unsightly premise with an architecturally pleasing building, job creation both during construction and when operational, and environmental features of the development. Those opposed had concerns regarding changes to the Victoria skyline, the lack of provision of affordable housing, loss of parking spaces, potential traffic and pedestrian congestion, and design aspects.
Victoria Adams, who has been an active advocate for affordable rental housing in James Bay, summarized her concern about the project this way in her written submission to Victoria City Council: "The construction of this new upscale seniors’ retirement residence will do little to address the critical shortage of accessible and affordable housing for seniors."
James Bay Neighbourhood Association (JBNA) was active in providing feedback on the proposals. In a Sept. 26, 2016 letter JBNA wondered if the bike lane could be reduced in width to make the walkway promenade on Belleville St. better for pedestrians and mobility scooters, and also if any barriers between the plaza on Douglas and the sidewalk could be removed. In addition, they expressed concern that the overall design "has become more of an apartment building, than the signature building anticipated by the original concepts."
In a later letter (Nov. 23, 2016) to Victoria City Council, JBNA added concerns about intersections and balance. They stressed the few options to enter and exit James Bay, and the need to not further restrict traffic flow. They also expressed the opinion that "James Bay, the most densely populated neighborhood in Victoria, should not be asked to bear more density beyond what is detailed within the JB Neighbourhood Plan." That being said, the JBNA overall recommendation was "neither in support of or an objection to the Concert proposal for 701 Belleville."
Prior to development of the full proposal, Concert Properties met with JBNA at an open meeting held June 10, 2015. A total of 86 people participated in that meeting, primarily from James Bay but including those from the Fairfield and downtown areas as well. The President of Concert Properties and various staff experts were on hand to provide background and to answer questions. Nine questions were recorded in the minutes from that meeting, only one of which dealt with affordability.
As a response to feedback from the city and various groups on the initial proposal, alterations were made in the development plan recently approved. The side facing St. Ann's Academy will now better match the historical buildings in the area. The tower will have differentiated colours to better blend with the Victoria skyline. The ground level patio seating along Douglas St. is now a bit larger, and integrates more smoothly with the sidewalk, as recommended by JBNA.
The question of affordability was probably the most important remaining concern as Victoria City Council made the final decision. In 2016 the developers had been asked to seek ways to provide affordable units, either within the development or nearby. The developers responded that this was not possible within the economics of the development, and that while they had considered the possibility of making affordable units in The Q Apartments, unspecified legal restrictions made this impossible.
In response to the affordability concerns, Concert Properties did offer an additional $118,642 voluntary contribution to the Victoria Housing Reserve Fund (in addition to $237,285 previously committed). The Victoria Housing Reserve Fund provides partnership funding to non-profit organizations that develop affordable (or no-cost) housing. During the May Victoria Council meeting an amendment was made that would have required that the Concert Properties donation to the fund go to James Bay projects only, but that was defeated.
While some councillors continued to have affordability concerns, the majority saw the urgent need for additional rental housing, particularly for seniors, as persuasive arguments to support the project. According to The Victoria Housing Strategy 2016-2025 "An aging population, in combination with population growth will account for much of the growth in rental housing demand in the region." That report, estimates that by 2026 Victoria will need an additional 2,300 market rental units and 800 affordable rental units. A major new senior oriented rental complex has not been built in Victoria for a number of years.
Concert Properties, totally owned by Canadian pension funds, has been active in the Victoria area for a number of years. Here in James Bay, Concert is co-developer (with Jawl Properties Ltd.) of the Capital Park Project, and they operate The Q Apartments adjacent to the new Belleville St. development. Construction on the James Bay Tapestry project is expected to begin later this year, and to take just over two years to complete. Concert Properties have won numerous awards, including Sustainable and Innovative Community award for Tapestry at Westbrook Village in Vancouver.
While community leaders will need to continue to work toward additional affordable rental options in James Bay, this development will provide about eight per cent of the market rental units needed in Victoria over the next decade. Tapestry will represent an innovative James Bay housing option for many seniors. I have tried to fairly balance competing views in this article, but as always the James Bay Beacon looks forward to hearing your opinion through the letters section.