The May Street backflip – A change of mind ‘when nobody is watching’

Some say Victoria city council follows its own agenda and doesn’t listen to residents affected by their decisions.

Others say that’s a cynical point of view. Of course they listen, and then they vote yea or nay based on various factors and opinions that are often conflicting.

Here’s a story about one small group of neighbours dealing with a council with a heavy workload, so focused on other priorities they apparently neglected the human impact of their decision. Although some would say, that’s the most important one.

In this case of a building project on the site of a neglected home on May Street near the Ross Bay cemetery, council made an unusual and little-known decision this summer. They nullified a vote passed in their previous meeting to turn down the proposed projectt. They had rejected the four-unit building by a 5-3 vote, and, then, two weeks later in a surprise move–can they do that?–they cancelled the original motion at the request of Mayor Lisa Helps by a backflipping 8-1.

That’s bitter medicine for the neighbours adamantly opposed to this project, based on parking issues, the design and scale of the building, and its fit–or lack thereof–into their neighbourhood. “Form and character” are specific factors council is supposed to consider in reaching a decision on rezoning for new developments. To residents, these are crucial issues, but apparently not to the mayor and some members of council who seem focused on growth and development first, last and only, as shown in our voting record chart.

To compound the injury, everyone who was in on the decision to nullify the vote–mayor and council, city planners, the developers and their staff–was informed of the change or were a part of the process. But the neighbours who participated by writing letters and emails and appearing before council to speak were left in the dark. No one bothered to tell them, just furthering the perception that when it comes to decisions about some issues in this city, public input doesn’t count.

Six weeks after council’s reversal, I called some of these neighbours to get their reaction to the new decision. The response was, “What new decision?”

“I feel duped and betrayed,” said Lisa Lezza, standing in the garden of her home, behind the back yard of the stucco-clad house at 1417 May Street. “They said they’d do one thing, and then when nobody is watching, they do whatever they want.” She was one of seven neighbours who petitioned the city about the proposed development in letters or in person.

Just five days after the vote reversal, Lezza, a Navy training officer, still unaware of the new decision, emailed five members of council to comment further on the project. She received only one brief reply from Councillor Ben Isitt: “Thank you for providing this valuable input, Lisa.” But nothing about the vote change. I suppose no one wants to deliver bad news.

Of course, it’s the prerogative of elected officials to vote as they see fit. But some Victoria residents walk away from involvement with city hall feeling like they were never heard.

If the May Street story was an isolated case, we could explain it as an error (or several errors) of omission. But to some, it reflects more of a rule than an exception. Residents facing impacts from city decisions–or indecisions–petition their civic leaders and make their case, often based on sound research, but council ignores their voices, and moves ahead, or refuses to act.

We’ve heard those sentiments expressed after council approved major developments in North Park, Rockland and Fairfield this year. And we’ve heard them from business operators on Fort and Pandora affected by the new bike lanes and from residents and storekeepers facing crime and mayhem, side effects of drug addiction and the homeless crisis.

Surely, if “we’re all in this together,” as Mayor Helps insists in one of her campaign slogans, she or one of her assistants at city hall could have informed the May Street neighbours of the new vote.

Or council’s liaison to Fairfield Chris Coleman, who said “fair call” when I asked about this omission.

Or the city planners, who should know they work for the people of Victoria, but may need to be reminded, which is the mayor’s duty again, if she was so inclined.

Or even the leaders of the Fairfield Gonzales Community Association, who have long since abandoned their core function of advising and working with residents on development issues, a state of affairs that only increases conflict in the area, but the City seems to prefer to an empowered FGCA active in resident involvement.

Artist’s rendition of new complex at 1417 May

The home on May Street, in an unusual pie-shaped block in Fairfield, stands or leans in a state of neglect, in sharp contrast to the tidy lawns and carefully-tended homes of the area.

The house was once owned by a couple with a large garden who sold flowers on the front walkway. Today, it looks so bedraggled that passers-by might think the sooner it’s bulldozed, the better, an old story in the development trade.

“I thought the house would be gone a year ago,” said Howard Sparks, the prospective developer who bought the property in 2016. He recently hired a junk removal company to haul away piles of refuse left behind by previous tenants.

Some residents fear this may be the fate of whole blocks of established neighbourhoods–a sentiment echoed by Councillor Geoff Young–if city hall keeps accelerating down this path of rezoning or even city-wide upzoning, as the mayor has called for in her blog. She advocates an entitlement of up to 12 units on a single-family lot, without the requirement for rezoning or comment from the neighbours.

The mayor showed great enthusiasm for the May Street complex, even a willingness to stretch the bounds of logic. She told council, without any evidence, that since the people who occupy the home next door didn’t appear at the public hearing, they likely supported the project.

She described Fairfield as “one of the best places in the city, if not the world, to live.”

“Best” implies a peak of perfection, but to Helps, there is still much room for improvement, even a thorough makeover. She held up this project as an example of “gentle density,” the latest development buzz-phrase that is bandied about the city, but still wide open to interpretation.

Gentle density to many people means development that fits gently into its setting, generally conforming in character and design. It’s a long stretch to imagine this project, compared by some neighbours to “stacked shipping containers,” would fill that description.

‘I struggled with this all weekend whether or not to bring it forward,’

the mayor told council as she introduced the motion to change the vote.

Helps tried to tie the project to affordable housing, assuming each of the four units in the complex would cost $700,000, but had to admit: “By all means, $700,000 is not affordable to many people working in Victoria, buying their first home.” She insisted they would be more affordable than if the developer built two units instead of four, as was previously proposed. But still out of reach.

And she praised the project’s green building features like an airtight building envelope, triple pane windows and doors and “solar-ready” design.
Councillors Geoff Young and others spoke against changing the decision, but after an amendment and then an amendment to the amendment, the motion to rescind the rejection passed, with only Isitt opposed.

Some would call this an artful process of getting to yes, others a gentle manipulation of councillors to convince them to change their votes when nothing about the project had changed.

In the coming months, the fourplex will return to council for a new hearing. Meanwhile, they instructed the planning department to work on improving the design of the building with the developer and his staff–but not the people living nearby, who raised this issue in the first place.

If Helps and other council members discover a rougher road than they expected on the way to the election, this will be a key factor–people across the city feeling ignored and left out of decisions. She may hear more about this if she approaches the neighbours of 1417 May St. as she continues her campaign canvas.

See for yourself:

The council debate on reconsidering the May Street decision

Mayor Helps’s blog post called Neighbourhoods are for Everyone