Kootenay Co-op general manager Dierdrie Lang and Nelson Commons project manager Russell Precious in the Nelson Commons show suite. The project received city approval this year.

2013’s top stories No. 6: Nelson Commons approved

The Kootenay Co-op received the go-ahead this year for a major commercial and housing development at the east end of Baker Street.

The Kootenay Co-op received the go-ahead this year for a major commercial and housing development at the east end of Baker Street.

Architectural renderings for Nelson Commons were first presented in March, showing a $27 million four-storey building stretching from Hendryx to Hall streets to replace the vacant Extra Foods building and parking lot in front.

The main floor would be commercial space, home to a new, expanded Kootenay Co-op, with 54 suites on three levels above, plus underground parking.

The project had its fair share of detractors, however, who suggested the existing building should be renovated and the rest of the plan abandoned.

“The purchase of the property was a good move, but why spend a whole bunch of money to tear down a still usable building?” Stefano Bozzi asked. “Not really low impact or organic in any way!”

Co-op manager Deirdre Lang and project manager Russell Precious admitted that when they bought the property last year for $3.57 million, they didn’t expect to develop a mixed-use project.

However, as they investigated the building’s condition, “we realized we had an extraordinary opportunity to turn the site into something amazing for the co-op and our community.”

The building had been inadequately maintained and was very energy inefficient, they said. The new development would also reduce the co-op’s long-term debt.

In August, a display suite opened on Vernon Street. Prices ranged from $239,000 for a one-bedroom, 714-square foot suite to $469,000 for three bedrooms and 1,176 square feet. Although they could not yet begin selling them, interest was expressed in 45 units.

“It’s a big deal,” Lang said. “It’s a big deal for our town, for our co-op, and for natural food co-ops everywhere in North America.”

Some complained the development looked too urban and out of place amongst the city’s heritage buildings, but designer David Dobie defended his choices, saying it was an exciting addition to a dynamic downtown.

“What really matters is the Nelson Commons, or any like project, be true to its identity with the intention of belonging to Nelson’s growing community and willingly take its place in future heritage,” he wrote.

When the proposal went before city council in October for its development permit, it was unanimously approved, along with a significant reduction in the number of required parking spots. But first there was a half-hour of debate as proponents watched nervously.

“It felt a little bit like we were there for a sentencing,” Precious said. “I didn’t know if we were going to be found guilty or innocent.”

Four neighbouring businesses and one resident wrote letters concerned about the loss of parking, but councillor Donna Macdonald framed the decision as a choice between parking and a landscaped green space.

The co-op agreed to compensate for the loss by increasing bike storage and adding a dedicated parking space for a Kootenay Carshare vehicle.

Councillor Robin Cherbo was unimpressed with the building’s aesthetics.

“it doesn’t seem to fit into the Victorian looks of neighbouring businesses and residences … but I understand we can’t dictate design.”

With approval in hand, the co-op asked members for a $1.5 million loan to equip the new store with things like an indoor seating area, meeting space, and other fixtures. (The co-op engaged in a similar program when it moved to its present location in 1991, but back then the target was $100,000.) In a month, the goal was achieved and exceeded.

Pre-sales of residential units began November 20, and so far 16 have moved. The co-op has given itself until the end of March to sell 46 units to finance the project. If that doesn’t happen, they will revert to Plan B and renovate the old Extra Foods building into their new store.

The building permit application was submitted this month. The co-op hopes to complete the development in 2015.

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