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Burnaby seniors housing proposal at Seton Villa faces rocky road to approval

While five other non-market and supportive housing projects passed second reading unscathed, the four-storey seniors housing proposal faced significant pushback by neighbours
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Burnaby city council meets – partly virtually and partly in person – on Dec. 17, 2020.

Five of six supportive and non-market housing proposals made it unscathed through a public hearing last week – but one faced scorching criticism from neighbours.

All six of the proposals received second reading from council at a special council meeting last Thursday, called by Mayor Mike Hurley at the end of a public hearing held two nights earlier.

The Tuesday evening public hearing went more smoothly than at least one Burnaby city councillor anticipated. As the six housing proposals were approved for the public hearing in late November, bringing the total to nine items, Coun. Colleen Jordan suggested the hearing was likely to be too long.

Housing proposals – and doubly so affordable housing proposals – are often contentious within their neighbourhoods and tend to see significant showings at public hearings.

But only a proposed four-storey seniors housing project faced backlash from its local community, while the others were either met only with a handful of questions or no feedback at all.

Seton Villa Retirement Centre, operated by Action Line Housing, currently has a highrise on McGill Street, near the northern tip of the city, but its parent organization is seeking to add a four-storey building to its lot.

The two-hour hearing for this proposed rezoning started with several speakers with connections to Seton Villa. Those proponents of the project spoke to why a new building is necessary, saying it would add much-needed adaptable housing units for seniors – and officials said the existing tower can’t be retrofitted for accessibility.

The elevators and the units in the existing tower are not built to today’s accessibility standards, which one former resident, speaking in favour of the proposal, said caused significant issues.

“Residents will spend up to an hour a day or more waiting for elevators. … Seniors who cannot walk matter,” said Gail Bongalis.

But the project was met with significant resistance from neighbours, who said Action Line Housing was not a good neighbour.

Sam Warsh lives next door to the tower, and he said he hears around seven garbage trucks a week in the mornings and similar numbers of shipping vehicles, which park just a few dozen feet from his bedroom window. This invariably includes backing up and the loud beeping noise that comes with it, which he said does not follow the city’s noise bylaw.

“I’ve timed it, and I’ve used my decibel meter to check this – from my bedroom, it’s breaking the law,” Warsh said.

Speaking for his 87-year-old grandfather, who lives nearby, Matthew Benedet said delivery trucks driving to and from Seton Villa have damaged his property, including driving over his lawn. He told council that Action Line Housing denied it was responsible for the damage.

“They have absolutely no respect for anyone, which includes their neighbours and local community,” Benedet said.

Several other neighbours had similar stories of large trucks impacting their properties, including damaging concrete work.

The original tower was controversial when it went up, and neighbours pointed to previous council decisions that the property should not get another development on its site, including declining an alcohol treatment centre.

But Denis Barnard, who lives just across the border from Seton Villa in Vancouver, said bylaws created in the 1960s shouldn’t be invulnerable to change today.

Pras Krishnan, also arguing in favour of the project, said it was “laughable” for people to be “arguing about, once we get our piece of the pie, how we can exclude others” from the community.

“I think that attitude is really just selfish and unfair. We have people with privilege who have so much resources to be able to buy something in such an expensive part of the city, of the country, and then … (they) go on and say that their quality of life is not good, and they’re feeling that their esthetics are ruined,” Krishnan said.

Neighbours said Action Line Housing officials have, recently, reached out to try to mend relationships with the community, but neighbours said the effort was disingenuous and inadequate.

“They promised us that they would do better. They have not. They lied,” said one neighbour. “They’re making it seem like it’s all hunky-dory, and it’s not. I think because they’re a non-profit, they’ve gotten away with more than a regular commercial facility has.”

At Thursday's special council meeting, five of the six housing proposals passed second reading without comment. While the Seton Villa proposal passed second hearing, it met some friction from councillors.

“Obviously we heard a lot from the neighbourhood and from other residents of Burnaby that (included) a lot in support and a lot of opposition,” Hurley said. “While I will support this going forward at this stage, I just want to make it very clear to the proponent that there are many changes to this building that need to happen.”

He said the changes required for his support could go as far as including relocation for the building.

Coun. Colleen Jordan, an independent, said it was “a really difficult decision,” calling the submissions from residents “thoughtful … on both sides of the issue.” She suggested including a formal process to allow neighbouring residents to bring their issues to the organization that oversees Seton Villa to be addressed.

“Because clearly there’s been some gaps in that over the years,” she said.

She also suggested a condition assessment of the aging tower, including around seismic issues.

Burnaby Citizens Association Coun. Pietro Calendino questioned whether the city has the authority to require things like a condition assessment from a private landowner.

Hurley acknowledged that question, saying council can “very, very strongly recommend that these actions happen in the best interest of moving forward in the most favourable way.”

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