Plans for the $100 million Walmart-anchored shopping centre in West Cambie have once again hit a roadblock after city council's planning committee refused to approve the project.
With only two of the five councillors on committee in support — Evelina Halsey-Brandt and Linda Barnes were in favour — the proposal was shunted back to city staff at the end of an occasionally heated two-and-half-hour meeting Tuesday.
The primary reason for stalling this time was planning chair Coun. Bill McNulty’s demand to know just how many people are expected to flock to the 14-acre shopping centre between Alderbridge Way and Alexandra Road, near Garden City Road.
It’s a factor that McNulty, whose motion it was to send the proposal back to staff, believes is critical to be aware of before he can consider sending the proposal to a public hearing.
“I’m in no rush to push this forward,” said McNulty of the now 10-year-old plans.
“I want to know how many patrons are going to be going there, and I’m surprised we don’t have that information from the developer.”
The plans will now come back to the same planning committee next month. And, with or without the committee’s approval, it’s likely the proposal will then go before the next full sitting of council for it to decide if the project sees the light of a public hearing.
City staff had recommended sending the project to the public hearing stage, after the proponent, Smartcentres, had agreed to fully-fund an $11 million connector road on the west side of the site and give the city up to $3.45 million to buy out two properties, deemed vital for the connector road to go ahead.
The new road to the west of the site would not be needed until up to ten years after the shopping centre opened, according to city staff.
But that wasn’t nearly enough to shift councillors Harold Steves or Chak Au, with the former in no mood to give the green light to a project he says Richmond has always said it wouldn’t entertain near the city centre.
“This would be a regional shopping centre that will be drawing people in from all over,” said Steves.
“(The developer) is trying to hide it with parkscapes and things like that and (city) staff did a good job of hiding the fact this is a big box store that doesn’t belong here. We’ve been saying this for decades.”
Au, meanwhile, was concerned with the net loss of environmentally sensitive area (ESA) land within the site, adding that the ESA designation is there for a reason.
“We have a responsibility to preserve, protect and restore (the land) and this sends out the wrong message that, if you allow the land to deteriorate, then you will get permission to develop the land,” Au said of the accusation that Smartcentres has deliberately decayed the site over the years they’ve owned it.
Questions were also asked of the assertion by city staff that the two Garden City Road hold-out property owners on the connector road path would sell to the city when they’ve thus far refused to sell to the developer.
The developer has agreed to give the city more than twice the current appraised value of the properties.
However, ultimately, the committee was told that, if a deal couldn’t be struck, the city could wield the expropriation axe to make the road happen.
“I’ve had land expropriated and there’s no way I will support that,” said Steves.
“Yes, we have the money (to buy the properties) but we are now threatening expropriation.”
Referring to the city’s West Cambie Area Plan (WCAP), which was set up seven years ago by the council of the day to guide development in the area, Halsey-Brandt said it’s high time the matter proceeded to a public hearing.
“We’re encouraging people to come live in this area and we have to give them something,” said Halsey-Brandt.
“This deserves for the people of Richmond to have their say. When we do these area plans, we do make adjustments to what comes forward.
“I trust our city staff when they tell me all the technical aspects of this project have been met. I’m not a Walmart fan but there are lots of people out there who are and lots of people on low income who might be helped by the jobs created.”
Barnes, also admitting not to be a fan of Walmart, said this kind of development runs pretty close to the intentions of the WCAP.
“This is about land use and this will open up that area,” she said.
“It’s time to move this forward to a public hearing and let the public decide.”
Local resident, environmentalist and former provincial Green Party candidate Michael Wolfe lambasted the developer for riding roughshod over the 1.5 acres of ESA-designated land on the site.
“(The developer’s consultant) says the ESA land has reduced in environmental value because of invasive species,” said Wolfe.
“There’s invasive species there because of the neglect of the property owner; they’re the ones who’ve diminished the value of the land.
“There are 176 trees there right now. You’re never going to get trees that big again on sandy, compact soil.”
The plans, which have been on the city’s table for ten years, were last before councillors in December, 2012.
At that time, Smartcentres’ offered to pay just 59 per cent of the cost to build the connector road. Now, the developer is agreeing to pay the full cost — estimated at $11 million — but not build it for another 10 years.
“I still think the connector road needs to be built before the development opens up,” said McNulty of city staff forecasts that the road — a realignment of an Alexandra and Leslie connector road — doesn’t need to be built for ten years.
As well as paying the city the full construction cost for the connector road, Smartcentres would make a number of major and minor intersection improvements in the area if the plan goes ahead.
A new north-south "High Street" would also run down the middle of the development, linking Alexandra and Alderbridge.
During their presentation to council last December, SmartCentres cited the "significant amount of economic impact" and "improved amenities" for the West Cambie area from the development, such as: 975 employees; $2.5 million per year in property taxes; $7.2 million in one-time development cost charges.
The plans involve a 36,000-squaremetre development split into an east and west portion, partly on the West Cambie Natural Park.
As well as a 15,000-square-metre, three-storey Walmart anchoring the eastern section, the likes of London Drugs, Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls and The Keg are penciled in for what would be called “Central at Garden City.”
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