Bus Garage property development hobbled by Town foot-dragging

A coveted piece of land in the heart of downtown Qualicum Beach, commonly referred to as the Bus Garage property, is back on the radar with the unveiling of a conceptual design by local natural foods retailer Naked Naturals.

The Town’s Advisory Planning Commission (APC) met on September 15, 2021 to consider the site development plans for construction of a new Naked Naturals food store, plus coffee shop and restaurant, and rental apartments on a portion of the Bus Garage property, situated along Memorial Avenue opposite Quality Foods. This parcel was purchased from the Town by Naked Naturals, as announced on January 21, 2021, conditional on several subject-to clauses.

Photo: Town of Qualicum Beach – Media Release January 2021

What is proposed is not just a simple retail store, surrounded by parking on a blank plot of privately owned land on a commercial strip. It will instead be a highly visible landmark at the entrance to our Town centre and a prominent component of… well, we don’t know what. Simply put, there is no overall plan for the entire block of the former Bus Garage property into which Naked Naturals owners Jordan Batey and Kris Baker are trying to best position their establishment.

How will the currently unused grass field to the south of the store site, owned by School District 69, eventually be used? Meanwhile, to the west and north of the proposed store, the Town has provided no public details as to what it plans to do with its portion of the acreage either. Currently there are only vague hints about some forms of public amenity on a Town square or plaza between the store and Fern Road.

In this article we will review what was learned at the APC meeting, what was glossed over, and some of the more obvious remaining challenges, as well as how some of the challenges might be resolved and next steps. Readers can listen to the APC meeting in its entirety, and see the architect’s audiovisual presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b_SnGVzSpc This recording is to remain available until Council’s decision on the proponent’s application has been reached.

Vague direction from Town creates guessing game

It was acknowledged at the public APC meeting that there remain “subject-to” clauses that must be removed before the sale is final, and to which time limits apply. The Town’s announcement in January 2021 made no mention about these subject-to clauses. Mayor Brian Wiese’s suggestion at the time of the deal being a “legal certainty” seems a tad premature.

Why isn’t the store being placed at the north end of the Bus Garage property, on and accessible from the commercial street (Fern Road), thus providing as much buffer as possible for affected residences, and leaving the Town with a contiguous piece of property adjacent to the Commons owned by School District 69?

So why wouldn’t Naked Naturals simply plough ahead with their store, fingers crossed that the Town doesn’t create “amenities” that conflict with the store’s ability to serve its customers and continue its well-earned success and brand? For one thing, the purchase agreement appears to be tied to joint development, with the Town of Qualicum Beach, of some aspects of this property.

Parking is one of the complications, truck traffic another, plus other considerations that could potentially have an impact not only on nearby residential streets but also on Town residents and the public in general. There are likely more hurdles that we are not privy to, and that directly or indirectly influence the proponents’ ability to remove the conditions on their offer to purchase the site.

Architect’s eye candy impeded focus on important factors

The visuals presented by the architect were elaborate and informative. However, what was missing was any serious discussion about the impact on our other primary senses — like smells and sounds. As you can see from the video recording of the APC meeting, the main focus of the architect’s presentation to the five-member Advisory Planning Commission, and the follow-up discussion, was the visual impact of their plan. Thanks to technology, the architect Carsten Jensen was able to take us on a guided tour of their model, raising the camera up and down, zooming in and out, and circling around the graphic design image of the entire building. He was even able to simulate the changing view as the sun would rotate in the sky.

Visual stimulation does sell, so it was not by accident then that the APC became preoccupied with how the building looked. The video tour showed us verdant trees, sparse traffic on Memorial Avenue, an even more sparsely occupied surface parking lot, including… look at that, a white Tesla!

Meanwhile, the analytical corner of my mind was scanning for what might be missing — accidentally of course — from this imaginary masterpiece of modern simulation.

Where are the trucks?

The first things noted missing from the tunnel vision focus on visual appearance were the trucks. A successful grocery store receives a huge volume of goods daily on large trucks and generates a considerable volume of refuse to be collected, again by large trucks. In typical retail stores, there is a “front facing” side where customers enter and leave, and there is a “back facing” side where supplies and refuse enter and leave. This critical reality was not examined nor even discussed during the architect’s presentation.

The gritty, noisy backside of a grocery store operation is hard to hide, especially so when you are surrounded by Memorial Avenue leading into Town on the east, plus residences to the south, plus a public Town square potentially to the north, and public access, not to mention TOSH and school yards to the west.

Sounds and smells — major sensory impacts missing

This is where the current proposal is being criticized by the neighbours, the human “context” into which the proposed development must fit, and currently a problem that will need to be remedied if Baker / Jordan want to achieve social license (aka community buy-in) to operate in their chosen location. Viewing the presentation, we are left to rely on our imagination to assess the potential auditory and olfactory impacts of the operation as currently proposed.

Proposed location of Naked Naturals store.

Consider this scenario. In the wee hours of the morning, a reefer (large truck with refrigeration and / or freezers, attended by the continuous hum of external compressors) has arrived and sits there, awaiting the store’s opening. At 6 a.m. a large commercial waste hauler arrives to empty the dumpsters. If you want to know how jarring that can be when you’re trying to sleep, just ask the residents near the College Heights condos (old College Inn site). Add to that mix of noise and noxious fumes the fact that the prevailing breezes are from the northwest, and now the operation has created an untenable imposition on the neighbours living to the south and east of the proposed development.

Too bad the architects didn’t round out their simulation with a little VR (virtual reality) complete with representative sounds, and preferably release a little diesel exhaust into the room at the same time.

This issue received little attention by the APC members apart from Commissioner Susan Wong’s acknowledgement that the operation as currently planned would “impose upon” the Lee family who live on the corner of Fourth and Memorial, and Commissioner Maureen Dyson’s comment that “we need to respect what’s around us.”

Resolving challenges

Some of these challenges are quite resolvable. Other potential complications of the existing proposal could also be remedied at this stage.

Mitigating the impact of transport truck traffic

This need not be a show-stopper. In thinking about ways to mitigate the adverse effects of trucking on existing residential neighbours to the south and east, one need only walk across to the adjacent block north of Fern Road. There, the Qualicum Foods store as well as the Liquor Store both have loading docks served by large transport trucks and waste haulers. Note that the trucks enter and leave via Fern Road, and the loading docks are aligned facing east-west.

In short, there is no need to have huge transport trucks entering or exiting via the residential side street of Fourth Avenue West. Just pivot the delivery bays and loading docks 90 degrees to face west, enabling truck access from Fern Road. 

This is a time tested, logical and effective design — we look forward to seeing it incorporated into the next iteration of development planning on the south side of Fern Road.

Underground parking a good start but needs further thought

At the APC meeting we learned that plans include a one-level parkade under BOTH the Naked Naturals store and the Town’s adjacent “plaza.” The current plans only provide a SINGLE shared entrance/exit.

This “shared amenity” presents a potential can of worms all on its own, and is a hindrance to successful completion of this project. Not tying Naked Naturals underground parking to the Town’s as-yet unknown plans would help.

Why limit underground parking to just one level? Unless there is some impenetrable granite down there, why not keep digging and put in two or even three levels of underground parkade? The Town ought to gladly pay for this extra parking, freeing up surface land for purpose-built rental housing.

Land on which to build affordable housing is supposed to be scarce, and yet an overhead view of our downtown shows a large footprint of surface parking spaces, a poor and uneconomical use of land that could shrink if we increase underground parking. Not to mention the attractiveness and usability of an underground parkade on hot, wet, windy, snowy, or cold days, of which we get more than a few.

“Integration” with the Town’s potential amenities

As Chairperson Bill Scott stated at the APC meeting the Town “needs to get its act together” and let the APC (and the public) know what, exactly, they intend to install and operate on our adjacent acre of land. Commissioner Walter Hoagland astutely observed that it’s a challenge to assess a proponent’s application for commercial development when we don’t know the context of “what’s happening around it.”

Optimizing the overall site

If we go back to the overhead image provided by the Town with their January 2021 media release, and given the challenges presented thus far, one rather obvious question leaps to mind: Why did the store end up splitting the Town’s “half” of the available property?

Why isn’t the store being placed at the north end of the Bus Garage property, on and accessible from the commercial street (Fern Road), thus providing as much buffer as possible for affected residences, and leaving the Town with a contiguous piece of property adjacent to the Commons owned by School District 69?

My use of the term “commercial street” is intentional. We classify, using zones, the intended and restricted use of property. Why don’t we similarly classify each roadway as to its intended and restricted purpose? With this is mind, Fourth Avenue West ought to be classified as a “residential street,” not as a “commercial street.”

Town bureaucrats may already have considered these outside-the-box suggestions and for legitimate reasons abandoned them. But, if that is the case, the public deserves to know why.

Next steps

At the conclusion of the APC meeting, the Commission voted to support the development application subject to a number of architectural details, as well as three specific process actions, namely:

  • “Provide a unified landscape concept for the entire site plan, including the town square and the site pedestrian and vehicle traffic pattern;
  • Town creates a process for successful joint planning, design coordination, construction and operations, of the Naked Natural project, town square project and underground parking project; and
  • That the Advisory Planning Commission be given the opportunity to review the proposed modifications to the entire development design.”

The APC recommendations will be provided to Town planners and Council. It is reasonable to expect that the next iteration of plans will include improvements to the existing proposed plans, and that the information will be fully and transparently shared with the public.