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Historic strata conversion project gets support from New West council

New West approves decade-long strata conversion project on Columbia Street – but councillors question the “smallness” of the units
Strata conversion supported: Council has approved the strata conversion of the commercial building at 716 Columbia St. (centre) - more than a decade after the project began. photo Theresa McManus

A strata conversion project on Columbia Street has received council’s support – more than a decade after the project got underway.

On Monday, council approved the proposed strata conversion of the existing commercial building at 716 Columbia St. It allows for the creation of eight strata units – seven residential and one commercial – in the four-storey building that was constructed in 1898.

“The building has undergone a complete interior retrofit down to the superstructure,” said a report to council. “The façade was retained as part of a special development permit (SDP) issued in 2010.”

In May 2010, the building’s owner applied to the city for a special development permit to allow the revitalization of the Occidental Hotel building. The plan involved converting the top three floors into seven loft-style residential units and a façade improvement.

Before supporting the strata conversion, council members had a few questions about the project for staff – including some related to the size of the units.

“I think there’s some good things about this, including having some housing right on Columbia Street as part of the overall idea of population can lead to rejuvenation,” said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy. “And I think it’s a good use of the building, I just have one concern that I do want to flag, which is a smallness of the suites.”

With one of the smallest units in the building being around 300 square feet, he questioned if it conforms to the city’s bylaws.

“It’s just to make sure that we have humane accommodation,” he said.

Jackie Teed, the city’s acting director of climate action, planning and development, said the city’s bylaws have a 350-square-foot minimum size for studio units, but they don’t have a limitation on other sizes of units.

“The application was given the development permit in 2010, and the building permits were also issued in 2011 and 2012 to complete the work,” she said. “We would need to go back and confirm when it was put into our zoning bylaw that the units could be minimum of 350 square feet. But it is possible, I would hope likely, that that came post the issuance of these permits.”

Lisa Leblanc, the city’s director of engineering, said this is a longstanding development dating back to 2010.

“My understanding is that the units are constructed,” she said. “So this is a procedural step in order to convert to strata.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said the formerly “decrepit” looking building now looks much improved and has resulted in the retention of a heritage building on Columbia Street.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said the units in the building have been listed on rental sites in recent weeks.

“These units have been listed for rent, and they were not affordable,” she said. “I’ll just say that they were not affordable by any definition of the term, despite being like sort of unusual layouts … and small units.”

Teed said the property owner may wish to rent out the units to begin with, but the ultimate intention is to sell them as condo units. She said it’s her understanding that no one is living in the units at this time.

“I wouldn’t vote for it if it resulted in evictions,” McEvoy said. “It’s interesting to take a commercial space, stratify it, and then start out renting it. The whole thing could be condo rental apartments, theoretically.”

Given that it’s a “fairly historic” project, Nakagawa said she suspects council may be missing some backstory. She said she was willing to support the application for strata conversion, but would like staff to provide council with some additional details, via email, about the process that’s been followed.

“We want more housing,” she said. “We want more housing in this type of building, and also it matters that we’re building livable housing as well.”

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