UPDATE: Frustrated Onni quits Lonsdale development

Proposed Onni project at Lonsdale Avenue Safeway site. - Submitted photo
Proposed Onni project at Lonsdale Avenue Safeway site.
— image credit: Submitted photo

Onni Group, the developer behind one of the most ambitious and publicly divisive condo plans in North Vancouver history, walked away from the lucrative Central Lonsdale project Tuesday, citing “narrow-minded” remarks from city councillors that amounted to a “smear campaign against the company.”

In a scathing Dec. 3 letter obtained by The Outlook, Onni president Rossano De Cotiis told Mayor Darrell Mussatto the company intended to “publicly announce within the next 48 - 72 hours that we are withdrawing our application” for the 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue redevelopment. De Cotiis then blamed his company’s departure on comments made in council by councillors Pam Bookham and Rod Clark.

By Tuesdsay evening, that departure was official.

In his letter, De Cotiis said the problem “goes well beyond a simple disagreement over the issues associated with the project,” and claimed the two councillors acted unfairly when they accused Onni of manipulating a public hearing at which Onni staff and supporters spoke in favour of the project.

“We are no longer able to tolerate public abuse from these colleagues of yours,” De Cotiis told the mayor, “and are unwilling to continue to go to endless rounds of public hearings until Councilors [sic] Bookham and Clark get their way.”

That letter was received by the mayor and copied to council shortly after their unanimous vote Monday night to send the Onni proposal for two high-rise condo towers and one six-storey office building back to another public hearing at the end of January.

On Tuesday evening, Onni confirmed its full withdrawal from the massive mixed-use development, saying that after two years of consultation on the plan, the process was undermined by “a number of councilors [sic] whose opposition does not, in my view, reflect public input, city staff expertise or the views of professionals in the field,” according to a statement from De Cotiis.

A Nov. 19 hearing on the 350-unit condo proposal heard more than 90 people speak over six hours, with supporters of the project outnumbering naysayers 3-1. Accusations followed from council that Onni staff had arrived at the meeting early to add several supporters’ names to the speakers list — a move which is not against existing city rules on public hearings, and appears to have been a tactic used by both sides at the meeting, according to Coun. Don Bell.

De Cotiis maintained Tuesday that each of the Onni supporters at the meeting had a legitimate right to be there as a concerned resident.

“All of the people who came out to support our project are residents, business owners, tax payers, and voters in the City of North Vancouver,” he said.

But in his Monday letter to the mayor, De Cotiis said Onni’s problems with Bookham and Clark specifically had been ongoing, writing “[t]he outrageous public comments made by Councillor Clark and Councillor Bookham over the past number of months are not only unprofessional and undemocratic but, in our view, possibly defamatory.”

Speaking with The Outlook Tuesday morning, Coun. Clark was defiant when asked if he regretted accusing Onni in council of “bullying” and “hijacking” the Nov. 19 hearing.

“Absolutely not,” Clark said. “I said what I said based on the facts as I see them and my belief is that is not defamation of character.”

He continued, “I do believe that the public meeting was hijacked,” adding, “The meeting wasn’t just hijacked, it was stacked.”

Coun. Bookham, meanwhile, declined to comment on the letter.

Mayor Mussatto told The Outlook on Tuesday he’s deeply disappointed with the Onni decision and laments the loss of not just the 24- and 17-storey condo towers and six-storey office building, but the commercial space and community amenities that were to come with the 1300-block Lonsdale redevelopment.

“All I can say is, it’s been a frustrating process and I’m very disappointed that we’re going to potentially lose 10,000-square-feet of non-market rental housing, a 37-space daycare, 80,000-square-feet of office space,” he said. “There’s no blame, I’m just disappointed we’re going to lose it all.”

This was the second proposal Onni put forward for the 1308 Lonsdale Ave. property, after their 2010 proposal for three18-storey condo towers was rejected.

Under the city’s Official Community Plan (OCP), the density of the 100,000-square-foot Safeway site is capped at a floor space ratio (FSR) of 2.6. Because Onni was seeking a much higher density of 4.5 FSR, a public hearing to amend the OCP was required.

“We have done everything in accordance with City rezoning policies and have essentially arrived at where we started two years ago,” De Cotiis said.

“We will evaluate our situation over the holidays and into the New Year in an effort to determine the next steps for this important corner of Central Lonsdale.”

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