Workforce housing project proposed for downtown Sidney

The GVRDS is asking for some big concessions from the municipality in order to make their project work.

Workforce housing may soon come to Sidney if a proposal by the Greater Victoria Rental Development Society (GVRDS) gets off the ground.

The GVRDS  presented their plans to council and to the public for the first time on Monday, June 1. The Society is considering buying the Town-owned parking lot on Third Street next to the fire hall. On that site they are proposing a six-storey building consisting of commercial space on the ground and first floors and 52 one-or two-bedroom residential units on the remaining four floors.

The Society met initially with the municipality at an in-camera session at the end of April to discuss their idea.

“In this case, this proposal has come into the public view very quickly,” says Councillor Peter Wainwright.

He noted that some of the negotiations, specifically a land value appraisal and sales price discussions between the two parties, will remain out of the public eye but the rest should be discussed openly.

The GVRDS is asking for some big concessions from the municipality in order to make their project work. To be able to keep unit costs down and ensure people who qualify for workforce or affordable housing can actually afford it, the Society is asking Sidney to drop its property tax levy on the site for 10 years. They are also asking the Town to waive zoning, development and building permit fees, as well as development cost charge fees.

On Monday night, council voted to have Town staff begin negotiations with the Society.

During their discussion on the proposal, a majority of council indicated they like the plan, yet all had some concerns with various aspects of it.

Parking, especially, was at the top of that list.

Under the GVRDS plan, the 50-stall parking lot would be replaced by the building, and 40-stall underground lot.

This would require the Town to waive its parking requirements. A staff report noted this decline in the amount of parking spaces in that area might be supplemented by a proposed car sharing program by the GVRDS.

“I hope that we can look at options to increase walking in Sidney,” said Coun. Barbara Fallot, who wondered if the municipality might be able to piggyback on the proposed underground parking area.

“If a hole is being dug already (for underground parking), is it possible to go deeper?”

Town Chief Administrative Officer Randy Humble said its might be hard to justify the cost to the municipality to add another level of parking.

He added that in his view, underground parking for the public is a last resort.

Coun. Tim Chad said he’s fine with fewer parking spaces downtown and that was echoed by Mayor Steve Price.

“We need to wean people off of parking downtown,” Price said, indicating the Town is currently exploring the creation of a large lot south of the Mary Winspear Centre and encouraging employees to use it.

“The Town will have parking options,” Price continued, “just not in the downtown core. That’s the way it’s going to be … you don’t necessarily get to park where you want to.”

Wainwright expects this proposal will generate a lot of discussion in the community.

“It is a six-storey building,” he noted, “plus (the GVRDS) is looking for a lot of breaks. We have to look at its overall merits.

“I don’t know that we have any of this kind of housing in Sidney,” Wainwright continued.

The 52 units in the proposal would always remain affordable, say the proponents.

With four other workforce or affordable housing projects either built or in stream, the GVRDS bases their prices on the current Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) affordability standard. The maximum household annual income that might quality for one of the units would be $65,000.

Rental unit prices would be based on 30 per cent of a person’s income and the GVRDS would enter into agreements that would see this affordability be maintained in perpetuity.

GVRDS spokesperson Alanna Holroyd said they are working to keep costs down to maintain the low cost to their customers.

She added the Society feels that without the tax break and lifting of fees, they would not be able to afford to buy the land from the municipality at a fair market value, or even build the project.

Council unanimously voted to have Town staff start the land appraisal process and negotiations for the sale of the parking lot. Before further decisions are made, council will receive a staff report on those talks, as well as information on the scope of tax and other cost breaks being afforded the project.