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Heritage New West urging council to reconsider freeze on applications

A Closer Look: To freeze or unfreeze heritage revitalization agreement applications in the Queen’s Park heritage conservation area?
Some residents are calling on city council to reconsider its decision to lift the freeze on HRA applications in Queen's Park - while others have been calling on the city to "unfreeze the freeze" on applications.

Heritage New West is urging community members to contact city council about its “premature” decision to lift the freeze on heritage revitalization agreement applications in the Queen’s Park heritage conservation area.

In a letter sent out to members of the heritage community, Heritage New West president Dean Gurney has expressed concern about council’s “surprise move” on Sept. 11 to lift the freeze on HRA applications in Queen’s Park.

“This decision was made without notice to the public or any of the much-promised consultation with the Queen’s Park Residents’ Association or Heritage New West,” he said. “For everyone concerned with the conservation of our built heritage and the development of our neighbourhoods in general, this is an alarm bell ringing loudly.”

Gurney said council cited the lack of resources to complete the HRA policy review as its reason for lifting the freeze. He questioned the city’s plan to secure the necessary resources to address the complexities of HRA applications and their “real and permanent impacts” on the community.

“History shows us that when there are no clear policies in place, Queen’s Park becomes a prime target for unsympathetic development,” he wrote.

The society is urging people who oppose the lifting of the freeze on HRA applications in the city’s only protected heritage area – or want council to rescind their motion to lift the freeze on HRAs and address the concerns that prompted the HRA application pause in the first place –  to contact city council.

What’s the issue?

In June 2017, council supported an amendment to the official community plan that paved the way for the creation of a heritage conservation area (HCA) in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood. At a lengthy public hearing, 47 people supported the creation of the HCA and 26 opposed the plan.

In the lead-up to the approval of the Queen’s Park HCA, staff stated a heritage conservation area “would essentially place a layer of heritage protection” over all properties within the area, impose minimum maintenance standards to the properties, and require all building permit applications (including new builds, renovations and demolitions) and subdivision applications to have a heritage alteration permit.

Later, in July 2021, council voted 5-2 in favour of a motion from then-mayor Jonathan Cote to pause the acceptance of new HRA applications in Queen's Park. Cote said it had proven to be challenging for council to evaluate the benefits the city is receiving for approving HRAs in Queen’s Park compared to other neighbourhoods that don't have a conservation area.

A heritage revitalization agreement is a type of long-term, legal protection on a home that's been negotiated between a property owner and the city. In exchange for retention of a heritage building and some restoration work, an HRA allows the city to supersede local zoning regulations and provide nonfinancial incentives that would make it viable for the applicant to conserve the property.

Lifting the freeze

At its Sept. 11 meeting, council received a staff report that included a recommendation directing staff to remove the suspension of HRA applications in the Queen’s Park heritage conservation area. The report stated staff had expected to conclude a “HRA policy refresh” in 2022 but that work hadn’t happened because of staff shortages and resulting capacity issues.

Instead, staff recommended the goals of the HRA refresh be incorporated into the city’s infill housing program and other policy work, rather than being done as a standalone project.

Queen’s Park resident Caroline Roussy urged council to reinstate the heritage revitalization agreement program in her neighbourhood. She said she had been discussing a proposed HRA with city staff, and was days away from making a submission when the city froze new applications. 

“To date, we have spent $14,000 and nothing has proceeded,” she told council at its Sept. 11 meeting.

Heritage consultant Elana Zysblat, who is also the president of BC Association of Heritage Professionals, also supported reinstatement of HRAs in Queen’s Park. She said HRAs are very thorough, thoughtful and careful processes that take a long time to be approved and require final approval by city council.

“Cities were designed to change, and always have. We just need to be more thoughtful when we are proposing change in a historic district,” she said. “The HRA tool is the right one to use.”

A lengthy debate

At the Sept. 11 meeting, council discussed the issue for nearly an hour. During those discussions, council considered several motions and amendments related to the freeze on heritage revitalization agreement applications in the Queens’ Park neighbourhood, including:

  • Lifting the freeze on applications for the one or two HRA applications where applicants had already had significant discussions with city staff prior to the freeze. (Council unanimously approved this amendment put forward by Coun. Daniel Fontaine.)
  • Referring the matter to the community heritage commission. (This amendment, put forward by Coun. Jaimie McEvoy, was defeated. Councillors Fontaine, Tasha Henderson, Paul Minhas and Nadine Nakagawa opposed referral, while McEvoy, Mayor Patrick Johnstone and Coun. Ruby Campbell voted in support of referral.)
  • Directing staff to continue the suspension of new HRA applications in the Queen’s Park heritage conservation area until the infill housing program is complete (This option, one of the options put forward by staff, was defeated with Campbell, Johnstone, Henderson, Nakagawa opposed.)
  • Removing the suspension of new heritage revitalization agreement applications in the Queen’s Park heritage conservation area. (This option to unfreeze all HRA applications, which was recommended by staff, was approved 4-3, with the mayor and councillors Campbell, Henderson and Nakagawa supporting and Fontaine, McEvoy and Paul opposing)

Council weighs in

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said she supports doing policy work first, but is also concerned about the freeze on HRA applications from a fairness perspective. She said the original plan was to freeze applications for a year, while staff did a policy review.

“We haven’t had a chance to do that review, so people are very much left in limbo while we are waiting to have staff and the capacity and the priority to do this,” she said.

Nakagawa said the type of infill housing that can be created through HRAs is valuable, but it’s not her top priority for housing. Instead of referring the issue to the community heritage commission for input, she believes the conversation about HRAs should be discussed within the context of the city’s other policy work on housing.

“We have so many other housing issues, and very limited staffing resources; I think that it has to be part of a larger conversation. I think that’s council’s job to do that,” she said. “I would rather see us develop a (housing) priority list and decide where this fits and where we want our staff resources to go in moving these applications forward.”

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy urged council to refer the issue to the city’s community heritage commission, saying there may be options other than freezing or unfreezing HRA applications. He expressed concern council was considering lifting of the freeze without giving community members notice of the issue and receiving their input.

“My plea is to let it go to the commission. Council will be better informed. The commission can play its role as an advisory body,” he said. “A wider range of options can be considered, and this can be done with community trust.”

McEvoy expressed concern the city could be creating a problem for applicants who spend time and money on HRA proposals in Queen’s Park – at a time when it may not be deemed to be a priority for staffing priority. He also worries the city doesn’t “really know what we’re getting” by lifting the freeze and it needs to figure that out before taking action.

“We have already heard we don’t have the staff resources, so maybe it would effectively leave the freeze in place anyways,” he said.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine supported the continued freeze on new HRA applications in Queen’s Park until the city completes its infill housing program. But he also supported unfreezing applications from the one or two residents who had already had significant interactions with the city prior to the freeze.

“I want to see that infill housing program work done,” he said. “I don’t want to burden staff with 100 HRA applications right now when we have a whole bunch of other work.”

Fontaine also expressed concern about potential impacts on homeowners that could result from lifting the HRA freeze at a time when HRA applications aren’t considered a housing priority.

“This is going to open up a whole Pandora’s box and create extra work for staff where they don’t have time for that,” he said.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone – one of the council members who oppose the freeze on HRA applications in 2021 – said infill density was a priority for council when it approved the official community plan in 2017, but it’s not a high priority at this time. He said the housing situation has changed in such a way that there’s a “desperate need” for housing on the more affordable end of the spectrum.

“I don’t want to see staff’s work prioritized on this right now,” he said. “I am very much stuck in the middle. I would like to lift the freeze, but I am concerned that we didn’t have a conversation with the CHC (community heritage commission) before we did it. It would have been a good idea to have a conversation with the CHC to sort of guide council through how they see the best way to balance these two … needs.”

What staff say

Jackie Teed, the city’s acting director of climate action, planning and development, said “homes for everybody” is currently the focus of staff’s housing work, in an effort to taking advantage of funding that’s becoming available from the province.

She said a refresh of the heritage revitalization agreement policy would be considered as part of work that staff will be doing about infill housing.

“If we didn’t have all that change happening at the same time, we could probably do an HRA refresh separately. But we really need to reallocate our staff and we need to integrate the HRA refresh into all the work that we are doing to change how we are doing housing approvals,” she said. “So, we just simply can’t separate them out right now.”

Teed said “there is a real strength” in weaving the HRA policy refresh into the overall work being done by the city on housing.

“The infill housing work is planned to go ahead next year,” she told council. “That is what we are aiming for in our larger housing policy work. So that’s our goal: next year.”

Council members questioned staff what would happen if the HRA application freeze was lifted and numerous applications came into city hall.

Teed said HRA applications, proportionally to the number of units created, are “definitely intense projects” for staff time.

“Because they are complex and because they can often get pushback from neighbourhoods and because there’s the added layer of needing to consider and understand the heritage asset, and the best way to restore and protect that asset, there are additional layers that make it a complex project, even though it’s small and it sounds like it should be easy,” she said. “That being said, prior to the freeze we were only getting about three applications a year, so there’s not been historically a ton of these applications. There could be a pent-up demand from the freeze on the applications; that’s possible.”