Oak Bay United Church board chair Cheryl Thomas was the first to announce the church’s plans for redevelopment and aim towards an affordable housing project. (Oak Bay News file photo

Oak Bay United Church to improve public engagement process

Congregation hopes to shed more light on redevelopment plans with local residents.

Oak Bay United Church plans to ramp up its community engagement as it proceeds on an affordable housing development at Mitchell and Granite streets.

The initiative, announced mid-July this year, is meant to create cash flow for the church congregation and aging century-old structure, as well as support the Oak Bay community with more affordable rental housing. This came as a result of plummeting funds and mounting maintenance costs for the church in recent years.

“When we looked at the options that were consistent not only with our values and the needs of the community, affordable housing became our focus,” Oak Bay United Church Rev. Michelle Slater told council on Monday night. “Our vision is to use our church property to create rental housing that will complement the community that is already here. This is not subsidized housing and not support housing for people who are in vulnerable populations.”

Slater added part of the plan is to move the church thrift shop to an off-site location, as it is “not sustainable” where it is.

The proposed plan isn’t without its share of controversy, however.

After the announcement, residents living near the church complained they were not properly informed by church representatives of what plans were set in motion and how they could affect their neighbourhood.

“The church failed to engage the neighbours meaningfully and instead of proposing a development supported by the neighbours, they set in motion a confrontational process,” Matt Stuke, a local Oak Bay resident told council earlier this month, adding residents “just want to be consulted” beforehand.

Others, such as former Oak Bay mayor Joanna Butler, criticized the church congregation for being too vague and prioritizing cash flow over positive community growth and engagement.

“We were told that we’d get a chance to comment once sketches of the proposed development had been prepared… this is putting the cart before the horse,” Butler said. “It would be better if the various parties sat down to discuss values and principles to guide any proposal put forth.”

To help clear the air, Slater stepped up on Monday night, pointing out things are in motion to better engage with Oak Bay residents on the church’s plans for redevelopment.

“We’ve formed an advisory panel, including a developer with experience in government-funded programs, a residential property investor experienced in government real estate, a lawyer with extended experience with housing and local government law and former Oak Bay mayor Christopher Causton.”

The church also applied to B.C. Housing for a loan to begin the community consultation phase and approached Rod Windjack (from CEI Architecture) to be the architect. Windjack previously worked on the recent Oak Bay High initiative by creating a successful design charrette, subsequently easing tensions between citizens, developers and other parties.

“With Rod, we’re planning the process of community dialogue and conversation, including open houses and workshops,” Slater said, adding the church is trying to keep the community more in the loop, which includes a monthly newsletter.

“We’re grateful that our neighbours are so intentional about being in conversation with us and we look forward being in much more dialogue and collaboration with this project,” Slater said.

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