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City worries apartments may be too small

The city's planning department is concerned some units in the proposed redevelopment of the old Savoy Hotel may not be big enough for habitation — but the proponent thinks it should be up to the market to decide.
Jim Reimer is dispelling misconceptions about plans to develop the old Savoy Hotel for low-cost housing.

The city’s planning department is concerned some units in the proposed redevelopment of the old Savoy Hotel may not be big enough for habitation — but the proponent thinks it should be up to the market to decide.

Senior planner Dave Wahn says they haven’t been able to find any standards that support the smallest self-contained apartments of 164 and 168 square feet, although they have not yet formed a recommendation for city council.

“We are still doing research,” Wahn says. “There are no standards for this kind kind of housing. The question is whether this is suitable for residential units.”

He adds typically the smallest units supported by various housing agencies are in the “200 to 300 square foot range. Typically even over 300. We want to make sure they meet a decent living standard.”

However, Pastor Jim Reimer of Kootenay Christian Fellowship, which is trying to buy the old building and renovate the second floor to create 17 low-rent apartments, argues the people they’re targeting are willing to sacrifice space for cheaper rent.

“Low-income working people don’t want large units. They want something affordable,” he says. “Let the marketplace decide. If this place is too small, then nobody will rent it.

“[Wahn’s] concern is it’s too small to be appropriate living space. My counter is would you  rather live in a car?”

Reimer says they could have fewer, larger units “but then the project becomes challenging.” They originally hoped to have 20 apartments but brought it down to 17 and don’t want to go any lower. “In order to make larger units, there’s a lot of reconstruction that would have to happen, which would be a big expense,” he says.

(The other units besides the two smallest average 200 square feet, while one is 240. Each also has a 25-foot sleeping loft.)

Reimer says they could increase the size of the units by 10 square feet by removing individual bathrooms in favour of communal ones, but don’t want to.

“People are saying no way, give us the bathroom. I’ve got 20 people who have signed a piece of paper saying they would like to live there with the size of units that we’re proposing.”

He notes there is a waiting list for Ward Street Place, which has slightly larger units but communal bathrooms.

“If they had a choice between Ward Street Place and our smaller unit with its own bathroom, they’d take our smaller unit,” he says. “What people want is what we’re offering: affordability and a washroom. That’s big for them.”

Space considerations will, however, dictate re-insulating the living space on the outside. New insulation is required to bring the building up to code if rezoning is approved, and doing it on the inside would reduce each unit by six square feet.

“The only other option was to insulate the outside so we can retain the maximum amount of living space,” Reimer says, adding that it is more expensive and will require the blessing of the heritage commission. “But the beauty is you’ll get a better looking building.”

The city planning department is still compiling its report and says it can’t be certain when the application will go before council, although it will be no sooner than next month.

Reimer says the vote on rezoning is critical: “If city council doesn’t pass it, the deal is dead.”

Reimer addresses misconceptions

Reimer says several misconceptions exist about the project. First, he stresses it will not be for men only.

“We have no plans of renting the units out just for men,” he says. “It’s for both sexes.”

The issue has been raised at two public meetings, but Reimer says it stemmed from a misunderstanding that they are creating a rehabilitation centre for men with drug addictions. Nor, he adds, will tenants have to belong to the church. “This is not a church project. This is a community project that’s barrier free of gender, sexual orientation, or religion,” he says.

Next, there has been angst around donating money to buy a church.

“That’s a fair point and worthy of discussion. We’re asking for help to buy a building which would house a number of different tenants, one being Kootenay Christian Fellowship.”

However, it would remain a charity: “This is a social enterprise. No one’s going to make money.”

To sustain itself, the building will need a number of commercial interests. But Reimer says the $1 million they are trying to raise through the Square Foot to Freedom campaign will go toward buying the building, not refurbishing the space.

The overall project is expected to cost closer to $3 million.