On Monday, Sept. 12, the community could know whether the proposed Sidney Gateway commercial development across the highway from the Mary Winspear Centre will move on to the full control of the Victoria Airport Authority.
A public hearing that evening — and possible final approval of Sidney town council— could change the zoning of 10 acres of land to allow commercial development. In this case, the Airport Authority (VAA) gave Omicron Developments the chance to pitch a 100,000 square foot shopping centre to the community.
The larger debate that has raged in Sidney since the VAA and Omicron announced in 2014 they were working together to develop the site, is whether Gateway will benefit or harm the existing business district along Sidney’s Beacon Avenue.
And in some ways, the issue has become about the conflicting personalities of the Mayor of Sidney, Steve Price, and Richard Talbot, head of council watchdog group Support Our Sidney (SOS).
The pair have been at odds ever since the Gateway concept was first revealed nearly two years ago.
Talbot, a retail consultant by trade, went on the offensive against Gateway immediately. He gave presentations at the Mary Winspear Centre, detailing how such retail proposals as Gateway would harm existing businesses. He went as far as offering the Town a checklist of things to do to not only improve the downtown, but to temper enthusiasm for Gateway. He has been critical of council ever since and has found many arguments to level at council, Omicron, the VAA and Urbanics, the consulting firm hired by VAA and Omicron to review the potential impact of Gateway.
His basic premise since day one has been that Gateway — and other proposed shopping centres in North and Central Saanich — will hurt local business and not become the boon to Sidney that Omicron or others say it will.
Talbot and other opponents of the Gateway plan have been trying to convince Sidney town councillors to put the brakes on. The Mayor has shot back time and again, saying the tactics of the SOS and others leave much to be desired and have been spreading misinformation about not only the project, but about how council operates as well.
“I have to give the SOS their due,” Price said, “as a poisonous, vicious (group) directing those comments to town council, the VAA and Omicron.”
One piece of misinformation Price said keeps coming up from Talbot and the SOS, is the idea that Gateway would ‘hollow out’ the downtown. Price pointed to projects like the Mariner Mall, Safeway building and others, which might have faced similar critiques years ago, but are now benefitting Sidney.
“To say that (Gateway) would hollow out the downtown … it’s far-fetched at its worst.”
Yet, there are plenty of people who fear Gateway would do just that.
Petition names mounting
More than 1,600 people have signed a petition, indicating they do not want Gateway.
Organized by a group called Keep Sidney Strong — which is loosely made up of people also affiliated with SOS — the petition frames the opposition by stating Gateway would drain 25 per cent of Beacon Avenue’s “consumer base.”
“A large number of our great stores will be shuttered and become run down, far fewer people will be walking on Beacon, and tourist visits will plummet,” the online petition states. “If you don’t want that to happen please sign the petition below.”
Bruce McLarty who, along with Adrian Kershaw, organized the petition, says he was surprised at the response.
“We are hoping this petition will get council to not go ahead with the rezoning and back off,” he said. “There are lots of alternatives out there. The point is, we can do a lot better on the other side of the highway.”
A separate petition among 87 retail store owners, he said, has 98 per cent of respondents against Gateway.
Other polls have been taking place on Gateway, notably within the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and the Sidney Business Improvement Association (SBIA). In an email, SBIA President Susan Simosko said they’ve encouraged their member businesses to ask questions and express their opinions to the municipality, VAA and Omicron.
“Most recently, we invited members to write to us directly with their ideas, concerns and questions,” Simosko wrote. “Through our executive director, we have agreed to forward these letters and e-mails to the VAA, the Town of Sidney, and Omicron. We know from these letters that there is no single view about the proposed development among SBIA members.”
The SBIA has not officially taken a stance either way on Gateway.
The Chamber, according to a source, polled its members leading up to Monday’s public hearing. Emails to Chamber President Craig Norris were not returned as of press time.
Price said he takes information from petitions at face value, but it’s no different from any of the information council sees in the lead up to its decision.
He said council has to weigh the petition — including how it was worded — as they would with any letters or comments they receive on the issue.
“You can’t just accept blindly anything that walks through the door,” he said.
For Talbot and others, however, that is exactly what town council has been doing and seemingly proceeding with the rezoning process based on what they call questionable information from the developer.
Council has, in fact, shown that it’s as split on the issue as their community seems to be. Omicron’s rezoning request proceeded Aug. 22 in 4-3 votes by council. Price said council has been very thoughtful about the proposal and have weighed pros and cons for Sidney.
“The outcome, either way,” he said, “will have a long-term impact. How will the area around Sidney change? That will depend on this decision.”
One thing Price said he doesn’t want to do — something he feels opponents of Gateway are wanting to do — is try to roll up the drawbridge and keep everyone out.
He said the municipality’s job is to not stifle competition.
“It’s not council’s place to decide which stores we have, or the number of stores in town.”
The petition and the constant lobbying of the municipality is seen by Talbot and others as the first step in opposition to Gateway. Talbot said Sidney will lose control of what happens on the land if they approve the rezoning on Monday. He suggested that if that happens, the VAA board of directors becomes the “our new council,” in terms of negotiating anything further with Gateway.
Since the 10-acre property is federal land, controlled by the VAA, it will be the airport authority who issues a development or building permit. They signed an agreement with Sidney in 2014 to consult with the Town as those steps are taken.
In addition, the VAA has agreed to sign another memorandum of understanding along with Omicron, the Town of Sidney and B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Highways. This agreement — which was discussed by council Sept. 6 — reinforces the original agreement and states that VAA will not issue any permits until traffic improvements on the highway and a pedestrian overpass are approved by the Town and the Province — and Omicron provides security to confirm construction of the overpass.
“For greater certainty for all parties,” reads the document, “the VAA will simply not issue a development permit to Omicron until (the ministry) and (Town of Sidney) approve the traffic plans for this development.”
That might address one of Talbot’s concerns over the impact of Gateway. Yet, he’s still concerned the project and additional retail centres — Sandown, Uptown, Mayfair, Tsawwassen Mills — has and will continue to siphon off business from downtown Sidney.
“We’ve already lost 25 per cent of sales, which we won’t see again,” he said, referencing outside pressure from other retail areas and online shopping.
Talbot said that in his 40 years in the retail development business, he’s never seen a highway shopping centre benefit an adjacent downtown.
Public hearing Monday
Whether Gateway will benefit Sidney is something Town council will wrestle with on Sept. 12. Price said councillors are wading through letters, emails, development plans, reports — all to help them make up their minds. He agreed it’s not an easy job.
“I was voted in to stand up to people,” Price said. “Part of my job is to keep (negative) people, mobs, from taking over.
“I have no idea which way (Monday night’s hearing and vote) is going to go. If nothing else, we have an intelligent, independent council.”
During the hearing, council will hear from the public, with no time limit on people to speak their mind. Price added the council will try to ensure they hear from different people and take in new information.
The meeting takes place at the SHOAL Centre on Resthaven Drive at 7 p.m. Price said if there are more people than the hall there can handle, the Town will look at adding TV or sound systems to other areas of the centre.