How High Are We Willing To Go?
At Esquimalt Council’s final meeting of 2009, Development Services staff presented council with a recommendation to amend the Official Community Plan (OCP) to increase density and development by allowing building heights to go from the current 10-storey limit to 14 storeys.
Barbara Snyder, Esquimalt’s Director of Development Services, referred to the amendment as “a moderate change” in height restrictions. She indicated that 14 was identified as the appropriate number that will attract investment and help spur local growth. In a report to Council, Snyder argued the change “will allow for more intense development in selected areas to achieve more sustainable urban densities in keeping with Smart Growth principles” (managing growth and development of communities that aim to improve environmental, economic and social sustainability, particularly by reducing urban sprawl and dependence on the automobile). It was further claimed that the recommended OCP change to increase density “will also provide a greater number of consumers to support new and existing businesses within the Township.”
The recommendation was moved by Councillor Randall Garrison and supported by Councillor Lynda Hundleby. Garrison argued passionately that if we want to promote sustainable, green living while keeping down property taxes, then the logical step is to increase density heights. Hundleby was torn on the matter, but agreed that Esquimalt was only going to benefit by growth if developers are provided with more certainty on more profitable height regulations.
Mayor Desjardins and the majority of council, however, remained sceptical. Desjardins pressed staff on the issue of what would be accomplished with simply replacing one number with another. She contends that going to 14 storeys will result in Council losing its negotiating powers to attain “density bonusing” (see definition below) on projects that go over 10 storeys. “The only thing we end up doing is losing our ability to gain bonus density,” said Desjardins. But Garrison countered that it was a moot point because nothing is happening in Esquimalt at its current height limits with no developers expressing any appetite in density bonusing at a 10 storey starting point.
While Council did reject the change in height restrictions, it made it very clear that it still wanted to foster community growth and work with developers to attract new projects and development with the goal of revitalizing Esquimalt. It unanimously passed a second recommendation to work cooperatively with developers on the issue of “Density Bonusing and Amenities”. This is a strategy used by Council to allow developers to go above the 10-storey OCP limit if the developer is willing to negotiate with the community to offer private investment in public amenities such as parks and recreation. For example, if the proposed Legion Tower at Admirals and Esquimalt Road wanted to go above the OCP height limits (its current proposal is for 17 storeys), then it would have to contribute significant funds to community amenities before getting approval for the density bonusing of an additional 7 stories.
While supportive of the concept, some on Council argued that Esquimalt would be better off to adopt a Development Cost Charge (DDC) bylaw. This would require all real estate developers to pay a development fee based on the project’s size and scope to help cover the municipal costs of increased demands on sewage, water, drainage, streets, and parks. Currently, no such bylaw exists.
In short, our community’s strategy for growth is that “officially” we still have a 10-storey height limit, but if you want to build over 10 storeys, then make it worth our while by contributing some impressive amenities that all the community can enjoy.
This is, more or less, the status quo. After months of public consultation on the matter, not much has changed. If council wants to be serious about attracting growth and development, it may very well have to revisit the matter. ..again.