Towering concerns on Austin

If there’s one message Coquitlam city council got this week, it’s that it’s hard to get people’s attention — even when something big is happening in their neighbourhood.  - TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO
If there’s one message Coquitlam city council got this week, it’s that it’s hard to get people’s attention — even when something big is happening in their neighbourhood.
— image credit: TRI-CITY NEWS FILE PHOTO

If there’s one message Coquitlam city council got this week, it’s that it’s hard to get people’s attention — even when something big is happening in their neighbourhood.

That was made clear Monday evening when about 200 people showed up at a public hearing, most of them to oppose a 24-storey tower planned for Blue Mountain Street and Austin Avenue — the first highrise set to be built as part of the revitalization of Austin Heights.

Despite years of planning that involved open houses, flyers, signs on the property and dozens of newspaper advertisements and articles — including some stories on the front page of The Tri-City News — several speakers told council they had no idea towers were part of the neighbourhood makeover.

And a few people gasped and shook their head when Chris Dikeakos, an architect for the Beedie Living project, showed an illustration of the highrise on the large screen.

Most who had come put stickers on their lapels that showed towers with a red slash through them. They credited a neighbour, Todd Purves, for getting the word out.

Last week, Purves delivered 600 flyers around the Austin community, with another 900 dropped off by fellow residents. He said he learned about the Beedie tower after his father-in-law showed him a notice in the mail from the city about the hearing.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Purves told council after submitting a 240-signature petition against the project. “Revitalization of the area is one thing; a total transformation to a high-density neighbourhood is completely another.”

Under the Austin Heights Neighbourhood Plan, which council passed in April with the aim to add 5,000 more residents in 2,500 more homes between Blue Mountain and Linton streets and Foster and Rochester avenues, a total of 15 sites are proposed to have towers of more than 15 storeys.

The Beedie tower at 955 Austin Ave., on the former Shell gas station site, is proposed to have 167 units with 210 parking spaces.

Gary Pooni of Brook+Associates Inc., which represents Beedie, said 5,000 flyers were distributed to Austin Heights residents to promote its April 14 open house at the Vancouver Golf Club. Of the 140 people who attended that session, 67% were in favour of the highrise plan, called The Austin.

Still, Pooni took heat when Purves showed council an advertisement Beedie had placed in last week’s Westcoast Homes and Design, a Vancouver Sun advertising supplement, about The Austin. Many speakers said they felt slighted and called the ad “inappropriate” given the public hearing had not happened.

“It’s a surprise to us, too,” Pooni told council. “It’s not an official marketing. I think the timing is unfortunate,” Pooni said and blamed the newspaper for running the ad.

Others said the sales display office Beedie has built shows the developer sees the project as a “fait accompli.”

“All of this makes me feel very cynical about this process,” resident Jane Shoemaker said.

Ryan Beedie, who was in the crowd, did not immediately return a call for comment yesterday but Mayor Richard Stewart told The Tri-City News the ad was a “stupid, stupid blunder. It puts us, as a council, in a bad light... We have to remind developers to be a little more sensitive.”

Other concerns raised at the hearing centred on increased traffic, pressure on low-rent tenancies, the long shadows the highrise will cast on surrounding homes and the area’s character. But the highrise’s height was the main issue, with many urging to keep buildings under 10 storeys, as in Burnaby’s the Heights neighbourhood.

In the end, council referred the Beedie bid to staff to review the concerns. Stewart said should the application change, it would prompt another public hearing.

Stewart told The Tri-City News he was surprised by the opposition, with three out of four speakers opposing the highrise. “It’s an inconsistent message that we received at the open houses,” he said yesterday.

He also echoed what some highrise supporters said at the hearing, including area resident Owen Coomer, who said: “What is truly shocking is that people can ignore three years of planning, albeit, the Austin Heights Neighbourhood Plan has been on the table for a lot longer than that — try eight to 10 years, if not more.”

“There has been lots of information about this plan. It’s been a long time coming,” area resident Janice Cotter said of the neighbourhood revitalization. “It’s not something that’s been rushed into.”

Voting against the Beedie plan would delay Austin Heights’ renovation and “send a negative message to investors,” Cotter warned.

Resident Brenda Bagan noted the positive changes coming, including better transit and shops. “I’m willing to take a stand for change,” she said. “It isn’t easy. I know there may be some things I don’t like, but the alternative — the future without higher density — is far worse,” she said.

And Erin Davidson of the Austin Heights Business Improvement Association said her biggest fear is that Beedie’s corner lot will sit empty for a decade, slowing neighbourhood growth.

“The Austin corridor is in desperate need for revitalization. Right now, the area is in decay,” Bill Challenger said, adding, “I’d like to live in that tower. It’s fantastic.”

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