Onni Group, a real estate development company, requested the City of North Vancouver a few months ago to add a new business to their Central Lonsdale condo project, CentreView. Onni found it had excavated an ‘extra’ 7,884 square feet space which could be used for building a bowling alley. The over-excavated portion of the site was “not originally contemplated”. The proposal faced criticism from many citizens as well as councillors. But the extra dug-out space was a fait accompli. The district said it did not regulate the depth of excavation. You could as well dig your way to China, as a councillor had wondered.
Now that Onni had dug out extra space by mistake, what was the harm if a bowling alley comes up? The council approved Onni’s proposal with a 4-3 vote. But a strange thing happened.
Just before the voting—months after it was debated if anyone could excavate to any depth by mistake, later beg forgiveness, and then ask for an additional development—an Onni representative told the council that Onni had not over-excavated the site at all. It had been in the plan all along, he said. To add to the mystery, he also wondered how the impression got created in the first place. It was a strange statement. Didn’t extra dug-out space became the very basis for allowing a bowling alley?
Onni over-excavated, or it did not? Strange twists and turns marked the process that led to the approval of a controversial bowling alley at a Central Lonsdale project.
On July 8, Onni executive Chip Lyall appeared before the council and expressed his utter surprise at how the council and the community came to believe that his company had over-excavated or mistakenly excavated on their project. It appeared as a whodunit mystery to him. “There were some items that I would say were incorrectly debated, based on perhaps some incorrect information that has been presented earlier in the process. Hopefully I will provide some clarification,” Lyall said.
“It has been discussed in the meetings that it has been over-excavated or accidently excavated and this really just isn’t the case. And I am not sure how that came to be the common thought. But both the approved rezoning and approved building permit plans did show the space as excavated,” Lyall said.
As Lyall concluded, a stunned Clarke lost his composure: “Well, this is getting curiouser and curiouser. First we were told it [bowling lanes] were too short. Now, apparently, it’s not too short as suggested by the developer. We were told this was over-excavated. Now we are told by the developer it’s not over-excavated.
Lyall’s explanation clearly perturbed Councillor Rod Clarke, who had been the first—and with the exception of Councillor Pam Bookham, the only one —to repeatedly question the staff on over-excavation. As Lyall concluded, a stunned Clarke lost his composure: “Well, this is getting curiouser and curiouser. First we were told it [bowling lanes] were too short. Now, apparently, it’s not too short as suggested by the developer. We were told this was over-excavated. Now we are told by the developer it’s not over-excavated. So, those are two big changes we have to deal with. This is surreptitious. Thumbs down to ONNI, and thumbs down to bowling alley. They should pay $1 million so we don’t get this conduct in the future.”
Clarke voted against the project, but it passed 4-3. There was a key question, however, that Lyall posed—and then left unanswered: How did the council and community come to believe in the first place that Onni had over-excavated at their site?
Perhaps Lyall won’t have been so amazed if he had remembered that merely two months ago before he spoke to the council, it was another Onni employee who told the North Shore News that the company had over-excavated at the site.
Lyall’s colleague, Dionne Delesalle, told the North Shore News (Onniasks council for a bowling alley add on, April 25, 2017) that while the excavation was initially thought to be prohibitively expensive, Onni realized during construction they could satisfy parking and storage requirements and dig out the extra 7,884 square feet.
A month ago on March 8, Delesalle also appeared before the city’s advisory planning commission to discuss the project. He said, “Originally, there was no plan to excavate the subject area. The underground configuration changed during construction and when parking ratios were factored in, the subject space was found to be surplus to requirements.”
If only Delesalle had called or simply walked over to Lyall in the office, he would have known that Onni didn’t need to ask for forgiveness because they had not over-excavated but rather it was all part of their plans to begin with.
But even if it can be assumed that Delesalle had no clue that the excavated space was part of their plans, surely the city officials would know for a fact if Onni had over-excavated or not. It was a hot potato by then, and it would have taken city officials just a few minutes to click open the documents to find out if the company had over-excavated or whether the excavated space was all part of the original plan, as Lyall later told the council. That would have saved the staff as well as the council a lot of hot arguments.
Back in the council chamber in April, this was exactly the kind of information Councillor Clarke was impatiently looking for: “I am concerned about how this happened. I am aware of engineers digging holes in the ground to come up with foundations and build buildings but nobody that I know who is an engineer would advocate for over-excavating anything. It takes big money to excavate that dirt. So, I am wondering if we have explanation from our staff on how this happened.”
This is the explanation that planner, Michael Epp, gave: “I can’t speak to the decision making on Onni side of things, but I can talk about the control the city puts into place. We enact a development covenant which restricts the project to build out on a specific way and according to the zone. Those covenants are not hyper-specific about the subterranean configuration and you will see with the whole Onni project the configuration of the parkade and the way that was laid out at the rezoning stage versus a detailed design drawings at the building permit stage are quite different. The city doesn’t get involved in regulating these things so long as they meet the required perimeters in terms of numbers of parking space and the LEC space. So, the developers would have quite a bit of flexibility to reconfigure below-grade space or to excavate as desired.”
Councillor Holly Back said bowling alleys were awesome and it seemed like they were making a comeback, though she was concerned about over-excavation and the fact that Onni wasn’t paying enough for asking to transfer density. “I agree with Councillor Clarke that when they excavated, what were they thinking? Were they planning on using this space…I don’t know. I like the project but there needs to be some different solutions,” she said.
When council met in June, two months later, an incredulous Clarke was back on the topic of over-excavation. “With respect to over-excavation, I am looking for confirmation that city doesn’t regulate the depth of an excavation except that the use can’t exceed the floor space ratio and parking.”
The planner Epp replied: “That is absolutely correct. So long as the use doesn’t count to FSR, the excavation can occur in any fashion as the applicant can deal with.”
“That means I can dig to China?” Clarke said, to which the planner confirmed that there was no regulation pertaining to depth. Clarke then wondered what happened when they found out about the over-excavation.
“That means I can dig to China?” Clarke said, to which the planner confirmed that there was no regulation pertaining to depth. Clarke then wondered what happened when they found out about the over-excavation. “I wouldn’t have the chronology on how that would work out. But at the building permit stage, amendments are common and they are made and they are plan-checked, and there being no regulations to floor area not counted in the gross floor area, they would have passed that plan check and able to proceed,” Epp said.
This is what Mayor Mussatto had to say: “I am not happy with the way the space was created, but it’s there, and the developer is willing to make a contribution and they want to put a small bowling alley. There will be a use for everyone with the bowling alley rather than storage. Would I like it not to happen? Yes, but it’s here and I think bowling would benefit people in the community.”
Mayor Darrell Mussatto too did not like the way Onni had over-excavated extra space. He even wished Onni had not done that. But he saw Onni’s over-excavation as a fait accompli—since they have done it, now let them add the new business.
“I am not happy with the way the space was created, but it’s there, and the developer is willing to make a contribution and they want to put a small bowling alley. There will be a use for everyone with the bowling alley rather than storage. Would I like it not to happen? Yes, but it’s here and I think bowling would benefit people in the community,” Mussatto said.
However, the puzzle at the heart of the project remained unsolved: Was this an over-excavation, or was the space that was shown as excavated always part of Onni’s development plans as Lyall later claimed? Onni representative Lyall could have come and cleared the controversy.
As anyone would assume, it won’t have been difficult for the district to find out. There was a clear answer in the report Epp had himself prepared. It said, “The portion of the below-grade space was not originally contemplated to be excavated and was not shown on the plans at the time the project was approved through rezoning. Having excavated this additional space, the proponent initially intended using this space to provide residential storage beyond the storage already provided elsewhere within the parkade. The proponent has been approached by an operator of a bowling alley seeking to operate on the site.” But Onni representative Lyall had later countered this very fact, saying the over-excavation was part of the plans even at the time of rezoning. So why did Epp’s report say that?
When we asked CNV, this is what it said, “The below-ground space where the bowling alley is now anticipated was originally shown as being excavated on the plans which were approved by Council through the original rezoning.” The city also said, “At the time of the Building Permit submission, following the rezoning, Onni opted to reduce the amount of space that was excavated to less than what was shown at the time of rezoning.”
The story got more mysterious. Didn’t planner Epp’s report state that the area was not shown at the time of rezoning? When we asked the city to explain the contradiction, they said planner Epp—who had wisely declaimed on the topic several times and explained in detail to the doubting councillors why everything was hunky-dory with the Onni plans—was factually wrong.
“This was misstated in the staff report. At the time of rezoning, the area was shown as excavated, though the parkade was configured differently than what is now proposed,” the city said in its response.
We thought Onni will reasonably explain what had by now started looking like a charade. Initially, we asked company representative Lyall two questions: —when did Onni find it had over-excavated the area? When did it find it actually did not? Despite repeated attempts, Lyall failed to respond in time. Maybe, Onni and the city can shed more light and prove the path that led to approval of the bowling alley was straight—and not as crooked as it seems. When they reply to us, we will inform you.
(This story was carried in the print edition dated October 1.)
By Gagandeep Ghuman