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Onni struggles with big box space in Fremont Village

The lack of demand for big box retail space has forced a developer — and the city of Port Coquitlam — to rethink its plans for Fremont Village.

The lack of demand for big-box retail space has forced a developer — and the city of Port Coquitlam — to rethink its plans for Fremont Village.

Tuesday, the city’s smart growth committee reviewed a new vision from the Onni Group, which owns the Fremont Village properties in the Dominion Triangle, that calls for shrinking the size of its large-format commercial uses and adding more homes.

The triangle, located west of the Pitt River bridge and north of Lougheed Highway, contains the city’s last large tracts of land left for big development and has such anchor tenants as Walmart, Canadian Tire and Mark’s Work Wearhouse.

But while those retailers are a major draw, Onni says its shopping centre south of Sherling Avenue has been a hard sell because of the changing commercial market.

As one-third of its current commercial buildings are empty, Onni is asking the city to amend the official community plan and rezoning for Fremont Village to reduce the commercial floor area by 13,225 square metres from its original bid and to more than double the number of residential units on Lot C-1, located south of the Walmart parking lot.

If approved by city council (first and second bylaw readings will be considered at next Tuesday's council meeting), the update would mean 473 new homes on Lot C-1 plus the 294 units now under construction on Lot C-2 — a total of 767 condos.

Coun. Brad West, who said he's in favour of the land-use changes to spur growth and complete Fremont Village (25% of the site is unused), said the committee he chairs is also asking Onni to look at doubling its 10-year commitment to provide 273 rental homes.

As well — for the first time in PoCo’s history — the city plans to enter into a housing agreement with the developer to require 27 homes be rented out as affordable units in perpetuity.

“I would have liked to have seen more offered at below-market rates,” West said. “That was something I pushed for but I’m pleased because this is a start in the right direction for Port Coquitlam.”

West said the committee also wants Onni to modify its proposal to change the size of the suites, allowing bigger units to accommodate families, and to include a community garden.

One- and two-bedroom homes “are squeezing families out of the marketplace so we want a better mix with two- and three-bedroom condos,” he said.

The proposed land-use changes come after Onni reached out last summer to Fremont Village businesses and mailed information to nearly 500 business addresses on the city’s northside and around Ottawa Street.

The company also met with the Downtown Port Coquitlam Business Improvement Association (BIA), which is opposed to smaller-scale commercial in Fremont Village due to fears they will draw business from downtown retailers.

“We’re in a state of change in the downtown,” said Susanna Walden, the BIA's executive director. “We want development. We are obviously competing with Fremont Village and, if they change their space size, we are in a position where we will be potentially be affected by that.”

Still, she said BIA members are sympathetic to Onni’s plight with its vacant lands.

West said Onni’s new plans “strike the right balance between commercial and residential” on a former industrial-designated site that has poor soil conditions, and his aim is to see the shopping district be a complete community, where people can live, work and play.

Added Coun. Laura Dupont, chair of the city’s sustainability and environment committee: “These are positive zoning changes that will bring a more livable, walkable aspect to the Fremont area. The results will be less of a big-box feel to the area and more of a focus on six-storey residential with amenities.”

In a statement, an Onni Group spokesperson said Fremont Village has been in the works for the past decade and, at Tuesday’s committee meeting, “new direction was provided to city staff and the Onni Group for the final phases of the project and we are looking forward to working with staff to bring the changes to final adoption.”

Duncan Wlodarczak added: “With the upcoming addition of a new B-Line bus route down Lougheed, Onni feels this is an exciting time for Port Coquitlam and Fremont Village, and we are looking forward to contributing to the city’s growth and new opportunities within the community.”