Onni Development controversy heats up densification debate

Onni gone

Onni gone

City of North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto has high hopes for the new year.

With any luck, it will bring a new deal with Vancouver’s Onni Development Corp., which is currently poised to withdraw its application for an ambitious mixed-use development in Central Lonsdale after accusations that it had rigged a public hearing on the project.

The hearing was for the second iteration of the project, a redevelopment of the prominent Safeway site on Lonsdale Avenue at 13th Street. The design itself had undergone three iterations, and a reduction in density from 5.7 to 4.57 FSR (floor space ratio).

Onni’s original proposal in 2010 sought permission to develop three 18-storey condo towers on the site, but the city’s vision of Central Lonsdale as a mixed-use hub with both residential and commercial space sent Onni back to the drawing board.

It returned last year, proposing 95,000 square feet of shops, including a grocery store; 78,000 square feet of office space; and two residential towers with approximately 350 units. The development would also deliver the city 10,000 square feet of residential space and a 37-unit child care.

But the project, billed by some as the largest redevelopment venture in North Vancouver’s history, met with opposition both on council and the street. The allegations against Onni were the final straw, and it threatened to withdraw its application.

But it stopped short of withdrawing its application when a potential conflict of interest on the part of the accusing councillor came to light, said Beau Jarvis, vice-president, development for Onni. Jarvis said Onni is seeking legal advice prior to withdrawing its application.

Musatto is hoping Onni won’t ditch the project.

“I’m hoping that we can still work with the applicant, Onni, and council, to see if we can find a way to still make this work,” Mussatto said.

The loss of the project would delay delivery of the public amenities and office space the city had sought, and potentially inhibit other developers from attempting similar projects.

“I’m afraid that it wouldn’t send the most positive message out there to the development community,” Mussatto said.

Dense challenge

Densification of Central Lons-dale is receiving a rough ride, but such endeavours are beneficial.

Similar to Onni, Anthem Properties Group is developing condos as part of a redevelopment of the Extra Foods site at Lonsdale and 17th Street, and several other public and private developments are transforming and densifying properties on and off Lonsdale. Buildings of five storeys or more now account for a fifth of the city’s structures as Lonsdale steadily changes from a walkable, low-rise neighbourhood into a contemporary (and still walkable) town centre.

It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto has said that some people think the sky will fall if densification happens, but it results in more people living locally again because there are more services within a smaller radius.

A recent BMO Bank of Montreal report penned by the bank’s outgoing chief economist Sherry Cooper underscores the importance of such hubs to economic development.

“Population density is rising as land-use restrictions limit the number of single-family homes and rent controls encourage condo-for-rental construction,” she wrote last month.

“This continued urbanization of the population nearer to the downtown core boosts demand for a widespread array of personal and business goods and services.”

It also provides opportunities for online shopping and delivery services. Cooper added that the trend “provides enormous opportunities for business.”

Not only are jobs created, but the services also make such areas more attractive to residents and young professionals who are downsizing. As other parts of Metro Vancouver are discovering, densification has benefits when done wisely.

Cornered

A hostile $4.4 billion takeover bid for Primaris REIT could see many of the country’s well-known shopping centres – including six in B.C. – changes hands in the coming months.

KingSett Capital has expressed an intention to acquire Primaris, owner of Aberdeen Mall, Kamloops; Driftwood Mall, Courtenay; Orchard Park Shopping Centre, Kelowna; Westbank Shopping Centre, Westbank; and Woodgrove Centre, Nanaimo.

At the same time, Riocan REIT and the CPP Investment Board would joint-venture on the acquisition of Grandview Corners in Surrey.

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