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South Surrey inclusive-housing project defeated

Early morning council decision ‘devastating’: Tennant
Despite overwhelming support at a July 26 public hearing, UNITI’s Harmony project, proposed for the 15100-block of 20 Avenue, was defeated. (File photo/Jack Hundial Facebook photo)

Surrey council has quashed plans for an inclusive-housing project proposed for South Surrey, sparking confusion, anger and disappointment.

Following several hours of public hearings – including more than three hours spent listening to dozens of people weigh in on the Harmony development eyed for the 15100-block of 20 Avenue – council voted just after 1:10 a.m. Tuesday (July 27) against an amendment bylaw and variance permit sought to facilitate the six-storey, 91-unit development.

READ MORE: New public hearing set for South Surrey inclusive-housing project

The majority of the 60-plus people who had called in to speak to the project proposed by UNITI – a partnership of Semiahmoo House Society, Peninsula Estates Housing Society (PEHS) and the Semiahmoo Foundation – had expressed support, citing a “critical” need for the type of housing proposed, and excitement at potentially calling it home.

“My parents are aging and I would like to move into my own place,” said Manjeet, 35. “My community, my family, my friends are all in this area. I have Down syndrome and I need affordable housing where I can be supported to live independently.”

Council defeated the project on a 5-3 vote, with Couns. Brenda Locke, Steven Pettigrew and Jack Hundial in favour. Coun. Linda Annis recused herself.

In an early-morning tweet, the organization’s CEO described the decision as devastating.

“Despite overwhelming public and city staff support, Harmony was not approved by @CityofSurrey Council this morning,” Doug Tennant tweeted. “Devastating for those who have waited years for a place they could call home.”

UNITI had proposed the Harmony project for the southeast corner of the Peninsula Estates housing complex, a 5.5-acre site owned by PEHS and currently home to 51 townhomes and an 18-unit apartment building built in 1983. Seventeen of the townhomes were slated to be demolished to make way for the new building, with affected tenants to be given first crack at a unit in Harmony.

READ MORE: ‘Inclusive, affordable’ South Surrey project aims to meet ‘desperate’ housing need

The building was to include a combination of inclusive, affordable and close-to-market-rate units, and more than 200 people had expressed interest in living there, according to UNITI officials.

Area residents who spoke against the project were not opposed to the concept, but said they were not OK with its height. The variance sought to increase the allowed height to 19.2 metres from 13 metres.

“How is a six-storey complex right in the midst of two-storey homes compatible with the existing neighbourhood? It isn’t,” said Glen Chambers, a resident of the High Grove development located behind Peninsula Estates. “The buildings are too high and the neighbourhood will be forever changed.”

Another High Grove resident, Dennis Matheson, said the project “may appear to be a noble experiment,” but questioned how that would play out over the rest of the site in years to come.

“Can we trust UNITI as to future expansion once the thin edge of the development wedge has been driven into our community?”

Online comments following word of the project’s defeat were largely critical. One described it as “a sad day for those who need supportive housing,” while another said mayor and council were “completely out of touch.”

“I can’t see how anyone could oppose this project esp. with community support,” Lisa Geddes writes on Facebook.

Coun. Brenda Locke on Tuesday said she had expected the project to move forward, because “there was so much support.”

“It’s such a needed piece of housing,” Locke said. “Certainly, the public overwhelmingly wanted to see it go through. It’s quite concerning to me that we didn’t go ahead with it.”

Coun. Laurie Guerra told Peace Arch News she voted against it after hearing from neighbours of the site that they weren’t consulted as promised, and that UNITI officials had been unwilling to compromise on the height.

“I felt that there was merit to the project and I thought if they had just collaborated a bit more,” Guerra said. “But the heights of the buildings were just devastating for these people.

“I was convinced that they could come up with a solution,” she continued.

“You have to give and take on these things. I still think that there could be potential for that.”

Tennant said Tuesday that UNITI had addressed all of the concerns raised by mayor and council, and that its defeat was confusing. At the same time, he said he was heartened to hear the community embrace the type of housing that was proposed.

It “demonstrates that what we’re doing is the right thing,” he said.

Tennant said UNITI will “never” sell the property, which has offered affordable housing since 1983. He is confident that the city “will realize that there is a housing crisis” in the not-too-distant future, and said UNITI will be ready when the next opportunity arises.

Until then, “we’re going to rest up a little bit,” he said.

“It’s exhausting running up against barrier after barrier.”

– with files from Tom Zytaruk

Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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