Council considers highrise debate

An old squabble between two neighbourhood associations found a new venue Monday, as Brechin and Newcastle residents voiced their visions of Stewart Avenue development in front of city council.

An old squabble between two neighbourhood associations found a new venue Monday, as Brechin and Newcastle residents voiced their visions of Stewart Avenue development in front of city council.

For 18 months, the two neighbourhood associations, along with city staff, have worked to develop a draft neighbourhood plan for both Brechin Hill and Newcastle areas. At issue are possible building heights and residential densities.

To get to this point, the process has involved significant public engagement, including several open houses, workshops and charettes, as well as considerable staff time, suggestions from Plan Nanaimo Advisory Committee, and input from local stakeholders, agencies and organizations.

Michael Harrison, president of the 306-member Brechin Hill Community Association, said the draft plan does not fit with the Official Community Plan that was adopted in 2008.

“I’m pleased to see from our staff report and recommendations to council that our city planners have recognized there are some very serious issues in the draft neighbourhood plan,” said Harrison. “The neighbourhood properties, access from the views along Stewart Avenue are important and significant to all the citizens of Nanaimo. The issue of heights in the area have also been raised as a concern by PNAC.”

Harrison said the community wants the medium-high density waterfront designation, currently located at Pimbury Point and Brechin boat ramp area and from St. George Street to Cypress Street on Stewart Avenue, removed from the plan. They also want the base height along Stewart Avenue reduced from four storeys to three, citing the fact the OCP limits heights along the corridor to three storeys to maintain existing views of Newcastle Channel.

“We would like to see this balanced approach to be considered by staff,” said Harrison.

Council instead voted to receive the draft plan instead of endorsing it, realizing there are still several key points that need to be hammered out.

“As a council, we’re going to have to make decision and I can’t predict in advance what it will be,” said Mayor John Ruttan. “But at the next meeting, council is definitely going to be challenged with trying to decide which way to go on this thing and which philosophy to support. Like a lot of issues, there isn’t a right or wrong or black or white way of doing it.”

Council will likely have to consider alternatives to the current draft and provide staff with direction on March 28.

“We have to take into consideration what the residents of those areas are concerned about, but we really have to consider what is best for all of Nanaimo,” said Ruttan.

City staff were also directed to prepare alternatives for council consideration regarding building heights above four storeys on portions of the waterfront within the medium-density designation, as well as for density issues on the west side of Stewart Avenue.

Thirteen residents and stakeholders both in favour and against medium-high density residential units and buildings higher than four storeys addressed council Monday.

Marc Stones, owner of Stones Marina on Stewart Avenue and co-chairman of the Stewart Avenue Waterfront Stakeholders Association, said there is little freehold land along the entire 1.6-kilometre stretch — it is mostly land leased by Nanaimo Port Authority and owned by the federal government — so there are limited sites to develop for commercial or residential purposes.

“With so little freehold along the avenue, the challenge we’re faced with is how to provide for the appropriate level of density, while at the same time minimize any impact on the views that we all want,” said Stones, who supports the draft.

“The eight-plus heights in these areas are a balanced and rational compromise, and is supported by staff as a realistic and workable solution,” he said.

Several residents said they opposed any form of highrise building along the corridor.

“We don’t need another urban node with highrise towers,” said Newcastle resident Fred Mcdonald. “There are highrises downtown and they aren’t full; there are lots of spaces downtown that could be built on.”

Linda Hildebrand, vice-president of the Newcastle Neighbourhood Association, said her organization supports the draft plan, which is intended to improve quality of life for all residents.

“The plan contains many things that are essential to a contemporary urban plan,” said Hildebrand. “These include considerations for environmental and economic sustainability and considerations for improved quality of urban living. We think this plan offers a balanced, sustainable approach …”

Council is scheduled to give first and second readings of the draft plan on April 11, followed by a public hearing on May 5.

The Brechin-Newcastle draft plan is available for viewing at

Nanaimo News Bulletin