More than 100 people packed city council chamber Monday night to ensure their voices were heard about a controversial development project in Sapperton.
The Elizabeth Fry Society applied to change the official community plan designation of 273 and 275 Sherbrooke St. from residential low-density to major institutional so it can construct a building next to its current building at 402 East Columbia St. The new building would include space for a 37-space licensed group daycare, a multipurpose room, offices for the society and 10 units of non-market housing for women.
More than 60 people addressed council during a six-hour public hearing in council chambers Monday night, with many area residents fearing the official community plan amendment would lead to the "destruction" of their single family neighbourhood, and project supporters stressing the need for more affordable housing and child-care services.
Around midnight, council voted on the official community plan amendment. Coun. Betty McIntosh being the only councillor to vote against the amendment. (Mayor Wayne Wright didn't attend the public hearing, as he was attending his eldest grandson's graduation ceremony, and Coun. Lorrie Williams received legal advice not to vote on the matter as she lives in the area.)
Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said many people find themselves without homes during their lives, and it's fortunate that New Westminster has facilities to help them at those times. He believes housing is more in need than ever before.
"Having social services in your community is not a negative," Puchmayr said.
Coun. Jonathan Cote said the proposal is consistent with the city's housing and child-care strategies. He views the proposal as one application aimed at dealing with social issues.
That isn't a view shared by many residents living in the immediate area, as they worry it will lead to more institutional or commercial developments along Sherbrooke Street.
Area resident Robert Kroll fears that amending the official community plan for this site would put the area on the radar of developers. Joan Begg said the entire neighbourhood could be razed in a decade.
Kate Lancaster said the crux of the matter for area residents is that the change to the official community plan is a "slippery slope" that could lead to more development down Sherbrooke Street.
While many area residents' concerns related to the potential development along Sherbrooke Street, others are concerned that the project doesn't provide enough parking and will exacerbate existing parking problems in the area.
Geoff Pinkerton, president of the McBride-Sapperton Residents' Association, said the association voted 36-0 to oppose the official community plan amendment.
Some residents suggested the Elizabeth Fry Society should look on Columbia Street for a property for its services, rather than building on Sherbrooke Street.
"We are not asking EFry to leave or stop doing their work," said area resident Ross Eichendorf. "We are asking them to explore other options.
While many area residents opposed the official community plan amendment, a similar number of people spoke in favour of the plan.
Sapperton resident Lorraine Helmer said the city needs to work with Royal Columbian Hospital to address the area's parking problems, as she believes that is a bigger contributor to the parking issue than EFry. Helmer said it's ironic that neighbours fear some of the EFry clients, when the EFry society often helps women who are "fleeing fear" such as domestic abuse.
"When I hear these women speak, I am so deeply touched, and I know why I do the work I do," she said. "It leaves me speechless."
Several women who have benefited from EFry's services gave emotional testimonials about how the society had helped them deal with domestic abuse, drug addiction, homelessness, custody problems and other social issues and urged council to support the application.
One woman told council that she arrived "beaten and broken" at EFry five years ago, but they gave her shelter, kept her safe from her abuser, got her into rehab, helped her find a job and stable housing.
"They stood for me when I couldn't stand by myself," she said. "Now they stand beside me so I don't stand alone."
Another woman told council that it's unfair to suggest that Elizabeth Fry Society clients are the sole cause of all issues in the neighbourhood.
A Sapperton resident who attends the Elizabeth Fry Society drop-in two or three times a week with her daughter said she's never felt threatened by any of the society's clients.