Central Lonsdale sits east and west of Lonsdale Avenue, the “spine” of the City of North Vancouver. North and south, it extends from Upper Levels Highway down to 8th Street. The area offers advantages as an urban village: good public transit, independent shops and services, recreation and culture, and proximity to downtown Vancouver (with Burrard Inlet serving as a buffer.)
But the neighbourhood and the city government face development pressures, and controversy came to a boil in December 2012. Onni, a major developer in the region, said it would withdraw an application to construct two condo towers (24 and 17 storeys, with 350 units), a six-storey office block and ground-floor retail space, citing “public abuse” and a “smear campaign” on the part of two members of Council.
After walking Central Lonsdale last week, I understand why local residents might want to regulate the pace and scale of development. The 15 or 20 towers in the neighbourhood vary with regard to street appeal. One of the new entries, the concrete facade on the Extra Foods project on Lonsdale at 17th, appears overwhelming, although we can still hope that something more elegant will emerge.
Beyond aesthetics, there may be another issue in play. The city has a population of about 50,000, and like some other B.C. urban municipalities hemmed in by larger neighbours, it has been densifying for a long time. As of 2006, 44 per cent of dwelling units were rental apartments in low-rise buildings. This is relatively high compared with a 27 per cent average across Metro Vancouver, but it represents a sharp drop from the 65 per cent reported for the City of North Vancouver in 1986. Condo conversions have been chewing up the rental stock. The City’s 2008 Central Lonsdale Planning process, whose recommendations were deferred, focused on the rental housing issue. A public advisory panel recommended that the number of available rental units should be held steady, if not increased; this could be done partly by allowing the builders of rental housing to exceed Community Plan limits, and build bigger buildings. The panel’s interest in rental apartments, by the way, was related to affordability, and keeping a diverse population in the urban village, and providing convenient access to work for employees at village businesses, all excellent reasons in my view.
The 2008 report, in other words, suggests that high-rise towers might be more acceptable in Central Lonsdale if they provided rental housing, rather than condos for purchase. The Onni proposal did not offer rental housing, except for perhaps a dozen below-market units, added to the plan during a two-year public engagement process.
In March, 2013, two months after we first posted this piece, North Vancouver City Council reversed its position and approved the Onni proposal by a vote of 4 to 3. News media reported that the Onni had topped up its cash payment to the City, but the note below from Toni at North Van City Voices indicates this was not accurate.
On my visit to Central Lonsdale, my co-tourist was my sister Morna McLeod. We ate at Eighties, a pub restaurant overlooking the civic plaza, and visited Ayoub’s Dried Fruits and Nuts, a Persian shop full of exotic foods. It’s an extensive and varied urban village; I look forward to seeing what decisions are made about its future.
I might mention that I have no problems with Onni. The few conversations that I’ve had with company employees in the course of my work have been businesslike. As for the City of North Van, I helped to facilitate public workshops for the city government some years ago, unrelated to planning or development. The experience was positive, but I have no contacts at the City at this point.
(This is post #14 in our Urban Villages series.)