Nelson city council unanimously supported a development variance permit Monday that will allow Nelson Commons to go ahead with construction of a mixed use building at the east end of Baker Street.
The $27 million condo and retail development spearheaded by the Kootenay Co-op was requesting a significant reduction in the required number and size of parking stalls and a slight increase in building height for the project that could begin construction next year.
Project manager Russell Precious was among about a dozen Nelson Commons proponents who sat in the public gallery as council debated their request for about 30 minutes before coming out in favour of it.
“It felt a little bit like we were there for a sentencing. I didn’t know if we were going to be found guilty or innocent,” Precious told media after the decision.
Not everyone will be pleased with the decision. Four neighbouring businesses and one resident, who all received advance notice of the request coming to council, wrote letters concerned about the loss of parking.
The building will have 100 parking stalls, ranging in size from 13 square metres to 15 square metres, in an underground lot. Without the variance, the city zoning bylaws would have required 190 parking stalls at a size of 17 square metres.
Meeting the parking requirement would have meant adding a second level of underground parking at a cost of $2 million — which Precious said would have ultimately made the project financially unfeasible.
Councillor Donna Macdonald framed the decision as a choice between either having more parking or the landscaped green space designed by local resident David Fisher, who produced the Oso Negro courtyard.
“The only place for them to add more parking without the added cost would be on top of that beautiful green space,” Macdonald suggested.
The developer agreed to compensate for the loss of parking spaces by increasing bike storage and adding a dedicated longterm parking space for a Kootenay Carshare vehicle.
Dave Wahn, Nelson’s development manager, told council that new construction in the downtown core is extremely rare — only one new building has been added downtown in the past two decades — and barriers need to be removed if some of the vacant lots are ever going to be developed.
“Municipalities around BC are significantly reducing parking requirements or getting rid of them all together to help encourage development in their downtowns,” Wahn explained, noting that a new zoning bylaw currently being circulated for public review proposes a general reduction in downtown parking requirements that would have meant the Commons wouldn’t have required any variance.
“When you live downtown, you don’t need a car — you’re already where you need to be.”
Council had little concern about the proponents’ request to increased building height — from 16 metres to 17 metres — to allow for multiple roof heights, which aims to improve the look of the building and allow more daylight into the third floor residential units.
But a couple of councillors commented on the aesthetic design of the building, lamenting the lack of heritage features.
“It doesn’t seem, in my opinion, to fit into the Victorian looks of neighbouring businesses and residences … but I understand we can’t dictate design,” councillor Robin Cherbo said.
There was also talk of how the project would support affordable housing priorities in the city. The variance permit states the developer will be required to pay $54,000 into an affordable housing fund. But that could be subject to change in the future because Nelson Commons now plans to have three non-market housing units in the building.
Precious explained after the meeting that a deal is being negotiated between themselves, the main financial institution funding the development (Van City bank) and the builder (Vancouver’s Intertech Construction LDT) that could see them each contribute $60,000, reducing the sale price of three units by that amount.
“Buyers that meet certain criteria of financial need would be eligible for these units,” he said, adding it could be decided by lottery who gets them. There would also be a re-sale restriction to ensure any later sales are priced $60,000 below market value.
Between the three subsidy units and 45 claimed in pre-sales, there are now only six residential units left to sell.
“We’ll begin the process of closing sales in the next couple of weeks, which is when people will actually have to get out their chequebooks,” Precious said. “We might lose one or two interested buyers in the process, but we believe most of the people who have signed up are pretty serious. They’ve been following the project for well over the year and taken part in focus groups along the way.”
If all goes as plan, the former Extra Foods building currently on the site will be torn down this December and construction of the new building could begin next year.