New home still stirs controversy

Notorious modern Oak Lanes home sparked formation of Oak Bay watchdog group

Method Built developer Rajinder Sahota hosted an open house at Oak Lanes last Friday after a year of tumult

The afternoon sunlight spills through an arbor and across the manicured lawn of a Monterey Avenue home. On the steps of her 100-year-old craftsman-style house, Caroline Mitchell looks past her garden and across the street to Oak Lanes. The $1.95-million West Coast modern home sparked the formation of a citizens’ watchdog group committed to tighter building size restrictions. And though the view isn’t too bad from where she’s standing, Mitchell says, the building remains the wrong house for the location from an esthetic standpoint – development she wants to see halted across the municipality.

“I moved here from Vancouver where it’s just a hodgepodge of older homes torn down and homes that take up the whole lot replacing them and the whole feel of the neighbourhood was completely lost because of that,” says Mitchell, the first to speak out publicly against Oak Lanes. “I moved here because I sensed that Oak Bay was somewhere very different, where people valued it and it would stay like that. But now I get the sense that people are moving here for other reasons and aren’t bothered by what’s happening.”

On the other side of the avenue, past the sign warning of video surveillance at 1058 Monterey Ave., Method Built developer Rajinder Sahota tours the home. He earnestly points to details in the Russ Trelour design – a great room that opens to an outdoor living space, an abundance of windows – and recounts with ease the resistance he’s experienced to the project.

The Method Built sign at the entrance was twice vandalized, he says with a smile. But one vandal used such diligence and care that he can’t help but laugh about it.

“Like anything it’s progression,” says Sahota, also a lawyer specializing in social activism. “We see progression in every other sphere of our life. Apparently a lot of well-respected architects globally find that architecture is one area that people resist the most of any sort of progressive movements and I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for that.”

Imposing subjective preferences, Sahota says, creates homogenous societies and opens the door to discrimination in all spheres of life.

“When I questioned the neighbours on if they had any objective reasons why they thought this design shouldn’t be accepted in this neighbourhood, they didn’t really have any. They said, ‘This is a British neighbourhood with an arts and crafts history and you should respect that.’ To be frank, I don’t think you should be doing what was done 100 or 120 years ago ad nauseam.”

Mitchell, though apprehensive to broadcast her opinion, openly admits she remains opposed to the appearance of the West Coast modern design of Oak Lanes and feels many others in the community still share her sentiment, though they won’t speak up for fear of backlash.

The Oak Bay resident since ’89 would like to see tighter regulations on character and streetscape, as well as size, to protect the municipality from future developments, and until that time, she’s doing what she can to preserve her own neighbourhood in its current state.

Mitchell and her partner help with yard maintenance around the neighbourhood as well as some home support for the woman who lives next door. They run errands for the senior in an effort to keep her living in the home, Mitchell says.

“There’s one house after another potentially falling down and you end up with large homes not suited to the ambiance of Oak Bay,” Mitchell says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back.”

Mitchell underlines that she speaks solely for herself, though she has had some involvement with Oak Bay Watch, a group of citizens who banded together in the early stages of Oak Lanes’ construction and continue to advocate for a return to previous regulations on building size, among other objectives.

Up the street at Monterey Recreation Centre, active Oak Bay Watch members Eric Zhelka and Tony Mears focus their conversation on defining their group’s primary goals. Included among them, a return to the 1990s-era floor area ratio building limit of .4 to 1.

In 2007, a floor area review committee eliminated the ratio in the zoning bylaw and replaced it with fixed maximum gross floor area restrictions. The fixed gross area was removed from the definition of density, allowing council to vary the maximum allowable floor areas though a development permit application.

According to a recent staff review, since 2007 such applications have increased by 500 per cent with an approximately 96 per cent approval rate – the crux of the issue for Oak Bay Watch.

“This is wrong,” Mears says. “We’re not concerned about development. We’re concerned about overdevelopment and appropriateness.”

Sahota claims to agree wholeheartedly with the value of regulating floor area ratio and notes that Oak Leaves falls 1,500 square feet below the maximum allowable size under the current regulations.

“But that wasn’t their argument and now they want to shift their argument; if they want to mission creep their objective they can do so, but everybody knows what their concern is and the honest ones will tell you,” he says.

The group’s website defines Oak Bay Watch as both “an association dedicated to protecting the character, ambiance, heritage and livability of Oak Bay,” and one “not opposed to development, nor is it a proponent of specific architectural styles,” and invites new members to join the 200-some people already receiving email updates on their quest to change bylaws unrelated to architectural style.

“Most of the funny press that we got at the beginning of this was because someone picked up on the word ‘design’ and thought that we were just a bunch of neighbours concerned with the design of the building and that’s not our mandate,” Zhelka says.

Rather, tree protection and providing sufficient notice prior to building were two top issues which sparked the ire of neighbours during the Oak Lanes construction that went largely unrecognized by the media, Zhelka adds.

After a 20-minute chat on their hopes for imparting change unrelated to design, Mears lightens the mood by comparing the appearance of Oak Lanes to that of the Currie Road sewage pump station, a building with a peaked roof and stonework, designed to reduce the impact on the neighbourhood. Oak Bay is now host to a pump station that looks like a house and a house that looks like a pump station, he explains with a laugh.

“I don’t know what my neighbours on either side of me could possibly build,” Zhelka says. “I don’t feel a sense of control like I felt before. It’s just not fair.”

About 100 visitors, including some neighbours, Sahota says, visited Oak Lanes during the launch later that night. In spite of the vandalism and media coverage leading up to the event, it likely won’t be the last, he says.

“I think we’re just starting. I anticipate a lot more projects in Oak Bay.”

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