White Rock Development: Paving Paradise

After White Rock's Official Community Plan, and its barring of any development of over nine storeys, expired, residents led by Jean Kromm fought the planned development of a 25 storey condo building till exhaustion with no avail. So why did they fail to prevent the paving of their paradise?

After White Rock’s Official Community Plan, and its barring of any development of over nine storeys, expired, residents led by Jean Kromm fought the planned development of a 25 storey condo building till exhaustion with no avail. So why did they fail to prevent the paving of their paradise?

Divorced, raising two children alone, returning to university to complete her social-work degree, financially imperiled and often despairing about her life, Jean Kromm would walk the miles of sandy beaches when the tides rolled back in White Rock, her hometown. Out there on the dunes, in the wash of surf and seagull cries, she would find the peace and solitude of nature, and it sustained her. Years later, after remarrying, she moved to Port Coquitlam, but living in the shadow of mountains that attracted rain and fog was not for her. She longed for the sunshine. “Have you ever noticed,” she asks, “how the morning light starts over Mount Baker and no matter how high the sun rises in the sky, this entire area is bathed in sunshine? A few homes facing north get some shadow, but really it’s all filled with light, this entire area.” She and her husband sacrificed money and time, she says, to live again under the big sky of leafy green White Rock. Today she spends the necessary time to make the longer commute to work. She pays White Rock’s higher taxes. She gave up 1,800 square feet of living space in Port Coquitlam for a modest 1,200-square-foot townhome where she and her husband now live comfortably, if somewhat frugally, in a park-like setting off the appropriately named Thrift Avenue. Shortly after she returned to nature and the village ways of beachside White Rock in the late 1990s, Kromm, now 66, caught scent of a new development that would urbanize the town centre with high-rise residential towers – one topping 25 storeys. “Clusters of high-rises,” she says, “that belong in the West End, not White Rock.” The proposed development exceeded the limits of the former Official Community Plan (OCP), which restricted heights to nine storeys before it was revised, some say without enough public input. It was also outside the limits of the Lower Mainland’s official Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP), which designates the town centre as a green belt. Kromm was determined to stop what she called “this travesty.” She organized the White Rock Ratepayers Association, gathered more than 1,000 signatures on anti-development petitions and convinced hundreds of people to stand up at city meetings to rail against the project. She even got four of the city’s seven councillors in her corner against the project. So the question is: Why did she fail? To understand the battleground, it’s helpful to get a handle on the geography. Uptown White Rock is what out-of-town visitors drive through as they veer down the cliff to the beach, where more than 50 quirky shops and lively restaurants line Marine Drive. The uptown looks grey and failing – empty storefronts, old folk on scooters and walkers – while Marine Drive radiates sunshine and vitality. Uptown White Rock streets have no parking meters for fear of scaring off potential retail customers, while Marine Drive has made an industry of them, collecting millions of dollars annually from state-of-the-art, computerized and cell-phone-activated meters. For uptown commercial property owners and retailers, new threats are emerging everywhere: Southpointe, a giant new mall, has taken root 10 blocks north; Grosvenor Canada is building a super-sized Langley-style big-box mall eight blocks east; Larco Investments, the owner of West Vancouver’s Park Royal shopping centre, has announced intentions of building an upscale mixed-use residential/commercial complex even closer; and it’s generally believed the old Semiahmoo Mall will soon be redeveloped, literally across the street in Surrey. “Without this new town centre, we’re going to be sucked dry,” says Wayne Baldwin, the City of White Rock’s 60-something, soft-spoken chief administrative officer. Baldwin was once an officer in the armed forces and holds degrees in business, engineering and science. For the town-centre project, he’s definitely the wizard behind the curtain. Whatever economic woes have befallen White Rock’s uptown, Baldwin knows it has one undeniable asset. It is situated on the peninsula’s highest rise of land, with the lovely tidal bay below. Beyond, looming above the cloud line, is magnificent Mount Baker; far out in the dappling waters of Georgia Strait are the serene Gulf Islands; to the north and west are the snowcapped peaks of the Coastal and Golden Ears Mountains. The views are huge, spectacular and worth millions. But Baldwin is not the only one in White Rock to appreciate the million-dollar asset, with views “that none of us are going to be able to afford,” according to Kromm. At the first meeting called by the City of White Rock to introduce the new uptown proposal in October 2004, the developer chosen by the city, Dale Bosa, the 35-year-old VP of development for Bosa Properties, was greeted by an ambush in a rented hall. There were almost 500 people, the majority of them members of Kromm’s ratepayers association. Virtually all of them were wearing red to demonstrate their solidarity against the proposal. So vociferous and personal were the attacks and verbal abuse that Bosa finally responded like John Merrick, the Elephant Man, declaring to the jeering crowd: “I am a human being. If you want to speak with me, I demand to be treated with respect – like any human being would!” It was, he says later, “absolute mayhem.” The meeting was one of many surprises Bosa encountered in the competition to develop the city’s uptown centre. The first was that nobody else was competing. When the City of White Rock issued a request for proposals in 2004, eight development companies expressed interest, according to Baldwin. They included some of B.C.’s most serious players such as Concert and Polygon, but all but Bosa Properties balked when it came to the cost of preparing a presentation. Developers were reluctant for two reasons. First, the RFP called for a completed proposal within 30 days (60 to 90 days is the norm). Second, and more important, White Rock is generally perceived as anti-development by the development community. The city council of the previous decade received only five major land development proposals, and turned down three of them. But if the former city council was anti-development, the former mayor wasn’t. He feared for the financial sustainability of a community whose main source of revenue was collecting coins from parking meters. While in office from 1993 to 2001, former mayor Hardy Staub formed a task force charged with reversing the city’s anti-development attitude. The “back-room boys,” as Kromm calls them, found the solution. The key was to lower what is known in the development industry as developer cost charges, or DCC. The DCC is what a city charges a developer per unit or per square metre to build infrastructure and provide civic amenities. It is also an indicator of the willingness of a city to co-operate with zoning and variance bylaws. Generally, the higher the DCC, the less developer-friendly a city is perceived to be. At the time, White Rock carried the second-highest developer cost charges in B.C. [pagebreak] Staub’s administration dropped the DCC by about 80 per cent to $3,402.10 per individual condo or townhouse unit, repositioning the DCC from second-highest to second-lowest in B.C. Across the street in Surrey, according to the B.C. Ministry of Community Services, the DCC is as low as $6,000; in Coquitlam, $10,400; in Richmond, $11,400. (Some cities’ growth strategies are even more dramatic than White Rock’s. Nanaimo, for example, eliminated the DCC altogether for development in its downtown core.) The signal sent by the DCC was received by Bosa Properties. The company had been attracted to White Rock for some time by what it saw as a “pent-up demand” for housing. The Lower Mainland’s residential development market had been booming for years and nearby Surrey was mushrooming with newly constructed multi-family projects, but little had risen in White Rock – the ocean-view jewel that its new mayor, Judy Forster, calls “the Monaco of the Mainland.” Dale Bosa and his colleagues believed, perhaps naively, Baldwin’s assurances that the tall-towered vision for the town square was exactly what the people wanted. The RFP called for two towers, one 23 storeys high on the site of the old town hall, and two adjoining privately owned buildings on the main street. Bosa Properties responded by optioning an adjoining shopping centre, known locally as Hillcrest Mall, effectively doubling the site area to over an acre, a very large city block. Bosa Properties’ plan also called for adding two more mixed-use residential/commercial towers, all built around a central town plaza. The proposal would mean a total financial benefit to White Rock of $12.6 million in land purchases, amenity development, permit fees and the DCC, as well as $1.5 million in annual taxes, according to the Bosa Properties website. Key to the concept’s success, Dale Bosa explains, is a street that runs through it like a meandering river. It’s the street that creates what developers like to call “body heat.” “People want to be around other people,” Bosa explains. “You’re looking for the right balance of cars, scooters, retail and people. You create that energy by how you size it.” A model for the concept is Newport Village, built as the town centre for Port Moody by Bosa Development Corp., a company founded and operated by Nat Bosa, Dale Bosa’s uncle. Dale sees it as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to transform the turgid White Rock uptown into a lively gathering place. The opponents, however, want nothing to do with the city-supported vision. It isn’t “urbanization” they want. What they want, says Kromm, is “clean air and a small-town attitude.” After the confrontation with the red shirts, Bosa understood the situation he had been dropped into. “We were caught in the middle,” he says. As the battle for the future of White Rock began, it was evident that the city might have the vision, but getting the project approved would take plenty of groundwork. Bosa Properties started by looking for “allies” and “strategies.” It began with a meeting with the arts community in early 2005 to present a possible 5,000-square-foot Visual Arts Centre opening onto the plaza – a place where local artists could display paintings and sculptures and local performers could present music and dance. Less than 50 people showed up for the presentation, in an area where there are over 40 arts organizations and over 2,000 visual and performance artists, many with international reputations. The artist-run Visual Arts Centre quickly morphed into a city-operated community/arts centre to replace the current seniors’ centre that will be lost when the old town hall is demolished. Baldwin, the city administrator, then convinced Bosa Properties to make a change of plans: donate, instead, to the redevelopment of the uptown’s historic theatre. The donation would help to restore a civic amenity and create a new uptown ambience. The theatre is privately owned by the non-profit Players Club and sits across the street from the proposed town centre. The Players Club was once a formidable presence in community theatre, particularly in the 1950s when the company’s pantomime played the Queen Elizabeth Theatre each year on Boxing Day. Even today, the local panto is regularly sold out, and the theatre represents the uptown’s singular nighttime destination. Bosa Properties committed $275,000 to the project – the amount the local MP failed to secure for the federal government’s share for the cost of the restoration – on the understanding that the donation would be made only if the town centre was approved. Because of this condition, Bosa asked that his company’s “amenity contribution bonus” remain confidential. When the news was leaked to the local press, the $275,000 was immediately labeled by opponents as “a bribe.” Controlling their story is a continuing problem for the pro-development side, led by a bureaucracy that historically prefers secrecy to transparency. Take the city’s Official Community Plan, for example. In 1987, it maximized height in uptown White Rock at seven storeys. In 2001, the city raised that limit to nine storeys, with the option to go to 12 according to the developer’s willingness to add amenities. By 2006, the OCP maximum was 23 storeys – a change critics claim was made without adequate public consultation. Opponents of the project claim they learned about the ever-increasing height of the proposed town centre mostly through sketchy reports in local newspapers. The “secret” revisions to the OCP infuriate and rally opponents who also believe the project breaches the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Livable Region Strategic Plan, the comprehensive planning agreement for the Lower Mainland signed by all B.C. municipalities in 1996. According to the wording of the agreement, the plan “provides a framework for making regional growth management and transportation decisions” for various levels of government and the private sector. The agreement specifies that the intention of the LRSP is to protect the environment and “guide the location” of urban activities. The LRSP established the area zoned for the town centre as a green belt – “land where no intensive urban development is to occur”– and caps the population of White Rock at 20,000 by 2021. That is already the city’s current population. Asked about the LRSP, Baldwin assures BCBusiness that after the development, the population will reach 25,000 – “tops.” Kromm and her people are not amused. “The OCP is not a trivial thing,” she argues. “People sign documents and agree to use these things as guides.” Last year, intending to bring legal action against the council to rescind the changes, the ratepayers association learned at the last moment that they were already too late: a six-month statute of limitations protects such council decisions. But the catalyst that ignited the protest and the symbol on which the anti-development battle was waged came into focus: the issue was height. While the pro-development side punted on its effort to rally the arts community, opponents were hand delivering desktop-computer-published newsletters to their neighbours and setting up booths in malls where concerned citizens could sign petitions. “We were being tarred with a big brush,” Bosa says. Opponents were saying “it’s going to turn into Vancouver. We’re going to have prostitution and the homeless on the streets. More traffic. Fear and more fear.” But without the benefit of polling or plebiscites, neither Bosa nor the city really knew what White Rock citizens feared or didn’t fear. In spite of reassuring talk about the approval of “the silent majority,” on the ground, Bosa admits, the opposition felt at the time “as if it has the numbers.” For the city councillors whose careers are determined by the voters, public reaction is critical, and it was the councillors’ votes that would decide whether the town centre would or would not be approved. [pagebreak] Margaret Woods, 58, one of the newly elected councillors, came to the town centre debate, she says, with an open mind. If enough voices in White Rock said they didn’t want it, she says, council would have responded to the will of the people. “It’s our requirement.” Privately, Woods’ view of the project was clear to its opponents. In her soft Scottish accent, Woods tells BCB, “There’s a place for high-rises and it isn’t White Rock.” Councillor Mary-Wade Anderson was also known to be against the project. “She shouldn’t have been telling us anything,” says Kromm. Councillors are “supposed to sit back and listen and then make up their minds but these guys were yakking all over the place.” Counting councillor Doug McLean, known for his ¬anti-development position, the opponents chalked three of the council’s seven votes. The wild card was the mayor, unfortunately nicknamed “Flip Flop” Forster, a label so often and unfairly affixed to politicians who prefer deliberation to dogma. Says Woods, “Judy is never straightforward about her position. She can be swayed.” In Baldwin’s corner office in City Hall, the undecided mayor and the undeclared pro-development councillors would meet separately and frequently in conference with the city administrator, looking for Baldwin’s assurance that the project still had public support: that they were not losing the public relations battle and with it, the goodwill of the people. It was Baldwin who opponents say was “ramming through” the project; he was at the centre of the storm. Baldwin reassured the elected officials that “the silent majority” was onside. Privately though, he, too, was unsure as protestors picketed City Hall, accusing him of being in the pocket of developers and threatening him with unemployment after the next election. The enmity became increasingly bitter. Career- and reputation-damaging accusations flew carelessly from both sides. Meanwhile, Bosa Properties was developing a new strategy. Three days before the second public information meeting scheduled for May 2005, Dale Bosa hired Steve Zuliani, 49, a land-development consultant with a background in civil engineering and urban land economics. Zuliani’s resume includes project management and administration of the rezoning for Imperial Landing, the waterfront transformation of the former BC Packers site in Steveston. A South Surrey resident, Zuliani broke his own rule about not working in his own community and signed on with the company’s development team headed by Daryl Simpson, essentially as its PR consultant. Zuliani attended the second meeting as a spectator. Like the first engagement, the red-shirted opponents were clearly in the majority and dominated the process. Later, speaking to BCB, Zuliani observes, “The community just doesn’t understand what the project is offering.” He and Simpson decided on a new strategy. Along with Dale Bosa, they would meet privately with anyone or any group that Zuliani could coerce into listening. Zuliani corralled the White Rock and South Surrey Chamber of Commerce, the White Rock Business Improvement Association, Rotary and service clubs, local merchants, arts groups, local strata councils, and even the White Rock Ratepayers Association – anyone who was willing to meet with them. The strategy, says Bosa, was not to shy away from anyone. Be transparent. Always tell the truth. Say what we believe in. In the meetings, the Bosa Properties team managed to reframe the issue. It became a matter of density, not height. Which was preferable: elegant tall towers or squat chunky buildings that leave no breathing space for plazas, trees, pedestrians, a meandering street and body heat? The one-on-one strategy, Bosa says, is “what really turned it around. We would have men and women who wanted to tear off our heads before we got in, but by the end of our hour session, we had their support.” Even when support wasn’t forthcoming, the Zuliani strategy helped defuse emotions and correct misunderstandings about the project. For the first time, during the summer of 2005, Dale Bosa was starting to feel confident the uptown centre had the public support necessary to convince the city council to approve the project. Then, on June 19, he picked up the Peace Arch News, White Rock’s local newspaper, and read that Mayor Forster was having second thoughts about the height of the towers and was suggesting the project be brought back to the drawing board. Bosa tried repeatedly to contact the mayor by phone, but she was not returning his calls. “I think it got overwhelming for Judy at times,” he recalls. The mayor finally called late one night, at what Bosa calls “an odd hour. I almost felt she was just trying to leave a message as opposed to talking with me,” but he intercepted the call. “Judy, what was said was said,” Bosa told her, “but you have to remember we’re a team.” He reminded her of the city’s history with the development community. He said, “If Bosa can’t get a deal done in White Rock, you’re never going to have any development, period.” Forster reminded him of her duty as an elected official: to do what has lasting benefit for the community, and that she has been in favour of uptown redevelopment almost from the time she first came into office in 1990. She explained that she faced similar opposition to change when council voted to upgrade beachside Marine Drive to widen the sidewalks and allow outdoor dining, which proved to be a wildly successful initiative. In conversation with BCB, Forster also recognizes the 30-minute telephone exchange as pivotal. It was “a good conversation and very positive,” she says. A few days later, Bosa Properties presented updated blueprints and drawings that emphasized what Forster calls “a West Coast look” and, from that point, her support for the project never wavered. Baldwin, the city administrator, growing more confident, proposed what weeks before would have been a preposterous idea to the nervous councillors – to schedule the meeting to decide the uptown project just two weeks before the regular autumn-2005 election. The election, the council agreed, would become a referendum on its decision. The final town centre meeting was held over two nights in the nearby United Church, which was large enough to accommodate the hundreds who wished to speak for and against the Bosa Properties plaza. The venue was also one which, perhaps, might encourage more moderate dialogue. In the course of the meetings, one of the previously dissenting councillors – Mary-Wade Anderson – announced that since the plans for the town centre now included a Kwantlen University campus, she would vote in support of the project. The new town centre was approved, with only two votes against. Two weeks later, with the exception of long-serving Councillor McLean, the full slate of anti-development candidates, including Councillor Margaret Woods and newcomer Jean Kromm of the White Rock Ratepayers Association, was defeated at the polls. Mayor Forster won by a margin that can fairly be described as resounding. Baldwin – now thinking about retirement – had secured his legacy. Dale Bosa was about to embark on the largest project in his company’s history, a landmark that will shape his future and his fortune. The pro-development victory reflects the truth about White Rock. Regardless of what many would prefer to believe, White Rock has not been a village for a long time. In the late 1940s, the Vancouver Sun gave away lots in White Rock as a gift with purchase for subscribing to the newspaper. Those days are long gone. Today, its cliffs are layered with million-dollar homes; mansions line the streets of nearby Morgan Creek, and resident executives handle the commute going into and out of Vancouver in limousines. Despite the best intentions of the LRSP, beautiful White Rock is no less susceptible to the wave of city dwellers flooding into the Fraser Valley than the once-green hills of Abbotsford or the freshly clear-cut mountainsides of Chilliwack. King Canute, goes the legend, tried to stop the tides, but only to show his fawning courtiers how fallible he was. Jean Kromm couldn’t stop the tides either. Whatever her best motives, she discovered you can’t stop people from living where they want to – particularly when million-dollar views are involved. Editor’s Note: A White Rock property owners’ group , the Friends of White Rock, subsequently filed an injuction against the City of White Rock to halt the uptown centre project. In an interview with the local newspaper, the Peace Arch News, the group’s director Raynard Von Hahn said, “… the society is claiming the development permits were improperly issued.” At press time, the case was before the Supreme Court of B.C.