Victoria/Vidal values

As our community changes, how do we protect the values that support our unique identity and great quality of life?

I wrote a post a couple weeks ago, titled friendly & inclusive?, about what I thought “small town values” means in terms of how we treat one another. Now let’s think about the values of the built environment. Consider the Miramar Village project and Victoria/Vidal proposal (Turtle Recording Studio behind the Boathouse); What does community reaction tell us about their fears and the values we want to protect?

The neighbours of the Victoria/Vidal project protested at this week’s meeting saying that the building would ruin their views, undermine the character of their neighbourhood and create uncertainty about what heights Council would permit. Some said that, since the rules were changed in the town centre, that they cannot trust that the rules wouldn’t also change on the waterfront.

Changes in the community have become very visible. It seems there is now consensus that some degree of growth will be accepted. The question is, where should it be directed and what will the impact be on the values of our community?

Unfortunately, we won’t know for certain what the impact will be until it happens. It is this uncertainty that leads to fear of the unknown… What does a change in values mean for the future? Our values of the past served us well enough, or at least provide predictable results, so why take the risk of accepting a change in our values?

In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond writes about the role of values in a society facing environmental threats. He often uses the example of the Greenland Norse. They clung so tightly to their identity as Christian, pastoral Europeans that they refused to learn from the well-adapted Inuit. Even as they starved to death, they despised their pagan neighbours. Had they questioned their values and learned how to use a kayak, hunt seal and whale, the Norse might have adapted to the world changing around them and survived.

Perhaps, in the case of redevelopment in White Rock we should consider the difference between an exception to the rules (Victoria/Vidal) and a change in the rules (Miramar Village). One could argue that it doesn’t much matter since the end result is the same. However, I think there is a difference since one signals a change in values regarding building height while the other does not.

Two dramatic examples of a difference between a change in the rules and an exception are war and civic rights.

Everyone knows that killing people is bad – it’s against our values; it’s against the rules — but we honour the efforts of soldiers even though they kill people. Nobody is asking for a change to the accepted rule that killing people is bad, but it is generally accepted that there are circumstances under which it can be tolerated — that an exception to that very important rule is acceptable. The value hasn’t changed, but this exception does not create uncertainty because the purpose, context and limits to the exception is clear.

We now believe that recognizing different sets of rights based on their race is wrong – it’s against our values; it’s against the rules — but it wasn’t always so. Rosa Parks defied the rule that she stand on the bus so that a white person could sit. As a result of changing values, the rules were changed, though not without an angry resistance. The rules changed because the values had changed.

Many people in our community protested Miramar Village because it created (or represented) a change in values for the city. They didn’t want to question the pre-existing values and correctly predicted that the project would create a precedent that others would follow. The neighbourhood at Victoria/Vidal worries the same would be true on the waterfront. But the two projects are very different from one another. While the Victoria/Vidal proposal exceeds the bylaw’s height limit, its shape, size and design is in keeping with the values of the existing neighbourhood.

Some in the neighbourhood have said that if Council doesn’t adhere strictly to the bylaws, then they are meaningless. They charge that if Council allows an exception, citizens would not be able to trust Council.

These are curious statements. Variances are not unusual. They very rarely recieve negative neighbourhood feedback, often none at all. Clearly, granting an exception to a bylaw does not render it void. So why would some exceptions to bylaws be accepted while this one, we are told, is a test of Council’s relevance?

There are two questions to ask when considering a variance request. Why and why not? In judging the answers to both questions, the intent of the bylaw is the startng point.

Would the variance defeat the purpose of the bylaw? Would it allow the property owner an unreasonable benefit, or create a disadvantage to the surrounding neighbourhood that the bylaw is intending to prevent?

Those questions demand the consideration of the context. In the case of the Victoria/Vidal proposal, it is behind the Boathouse on a small, odd shaped corner lot, and the neighbouring buildings are two or three storeys.

Many of the neighbours say they are opposed to the project because they fear the 3.5 foot height variance would set a precedent that would invite other developers to push for ever greater heights, or that they were told 20 years ago that the Boathouse exception would not be repeated. They worry about protecting the character values of the neighbourhood.

They worry about ensuring future buildings fit in with the best of the existing neighbourhood and improve the worst. So, they too are talking about context.

It seems the reason the variance was request is to allow an additional floor. I don’t believe the impact would disadvantage the neighbourhood whatsoever. Since it is behind the Boathouse, nobody’s view of the ocean would be blocked, views of the hillside would be blocked even with the permitted height, and any loss of the sky would be barely perceptible beyond the impact of permitted height. So, it seems the variance would not violate the intent of the bylaw.

Given the challenges of the site and high quality of the building proposed, I don’t feel that an additional floor would return an unreasonable benefit to the developer.

The variance as a precedent is limited by the context. This context is quite unique in that there are no other properties in the neighbourhood that are behind overheight buildings like the Boathouse. This site is an exception.

It is not possible to not change. The challenge is to manage change and choose changes that improve our well-being. Knowing that change is not optional, and that it is healthy to reevaluate our values (as in the case of the Greenland Norse and the civil rights movement), how do we do it in a way that turns fear, risk and uncertainty into trust, understanding and confidence?

For the City of White Rock when dealing with development proposals, I believe the answer to that is to consider the context and communicate with residents more effectively about how proposals respond (or not) to that context.

In the meantime, I believe the Victoria/Vidal proposal should be approved. It would not signal nor invite a change in values or the rules. The integrity of the bylaw will retain intact. Given its unique context of being behind the Boathouse, it will not block views and does not create a precedent that can be replicated on other properties in the neighbourhood.

Losing the benefits of redevelopment on this site simply out of fear of change, or a blind, dogmatic adherence to the bylaw, would be very unfortunate.

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