Town halts planning for public square at former Bus Garage site

June 30, 2022 – In two previous articles, we reviewed progress (using that term loosely) on development of the property owned by the Town of Qualicum Beach at the southwest corner of Fern and Memorial, commonly referred to as the Bus Garage Site. Recent Town deliberations reveal puzzling delays. It appears the net result that will have been achieved on this Bus Garage Site project over the entire term of the current Council is… well, NIL. Let’s take a closer look.

In January 2021, the Town had announced its sale of a portion of the site (less than half of it) to Naked Naturals “for the purpose of a new grocery store, residential units and onsite parking.” The Town stated that it would retain the remainder of the property “for the development of public amenities.” The public was provided no firm picture of what exactly was in the works as public amenities on the site.

Fast forward a year and a half to the June 8, 2022 Town Council meeting, and there is still no clarity about what public amenities are planned by the Town on the Bus Garage Site.

As we explain in this article, we are now unlikely to see any planning results until 2023.

Town Planner continues to stall

The Town’s Advisory Planning Commission (APC) met twice in fall 2021 to review Naked Naturals’ proposed construction plans on their section of the site. APC members expressed frustration with the Town Planner for not being able to describe the development plans for the Town property that surrounds the Naked Naturals parcel. At the first APC meeting, Chairperson Bill Scott stated that the Town “needs to get its act together,” and Commissioner Walter Hoagland pointed out the difficulty of assessing any proposed construction without the context of “what’s happening around it.”

The APC’s recommendations at the end of that first meeting included two explicit asks from the Town planners: “Provide a unified landscape concept for the entire site plan, including the town square and the site pedestrian and vehicle traffic pattern.” And “Create a process for successful joint planning, design coordination, construction and operations, of the Naked Naturals’ project, town square project and underground parking project.”

Neither request has been actioned by the Town’s Planning Department to date.

Multiple iterations of “concepts,” but no decisions

Lots of people have had a go at suggesting possible uses for the Town’s portion of the site. A gamut of options were listed in the Town’s Official Community Plan in 2018.

A VIU student project in 2019/20 conjectured plenty of ideas for the entire two blocks bounded by Sixth, Primrose, Fern and Memorial, albeit apparently without engaging the major property owner, School District 69 / BC Ministry of Education.

According to the project summary posted on the Town’s website by Luke Sales, Director of Planning, in February 2021 “Working Groups [were] formed to discuss how best to engage remaining Town land for amenities and parking.”

Nothing specific materialized publicly from that activity. On October 17, 2021, Sales informed us, through his report to Council, that: “The working group made the following recommendations, which were endorsed by Council on March 24, 2021 [Ignore the incorrect “2020” in his report]:

  • The area should function as a whole (synergy) with surrounding uses, with natural flow between Naked Naturals, parking, public and private outdoor areas.
  • Maximize view of Mt Arrowsmith from key public spaces.
  • Support a rational traffic flow from Memorial Avenue and Fern Road.
  • Residential unit parking is required. Parking for Naked Naturals needs flexibility based on overall site plan that comes out of Working Group. Should be determined by Naked Naturals and Town Council at time of zoning amendment application.
  • Prioritize safe and pleasant pedestrian connectivity through and around store, outdoor public square, outdoor areas and parking.
  • Creates opportunities for Naked Naturals landscaping, outdoor space, and Memorial Avenue street presence.
  • There should be a multi-purpose public gathering square at the corner of Fern Road and Memorial Avenue, in accordance with the covenant.
  • Quality of residential neighbourhood will include 8 – 12 upper floor units provided with own shared entrance, and parking.
  • Preserve and protect the environmental aspects of the site – e.g. solar gain, views, etc.
  • This is the gateway to the Town centre and the architecture should be designed accordingly.
  • Enable practical and safe movement tractor trailers, vehicles and pedestrians.”

Lack of transparency continues to plague project

That was pretty quick output from a Working Group that Council had supposedly authorized to form just two months earlier at a January 20, 2021 meeting.

We say “supposedly” because BOTH the January 20, 2021 meeting AND the March 24, 2021 Council meetings were CLOSED to the public.

This lack of transparency prompted us to ask in our previous report: “Who selected the members of these Working Group(s)? What were/are their qualifications? Whose interests are they accountable to represent? What tasks were they assigned? What are their deliverables? What is their work schedule? To whom do they report? And, specifically, since they are planning and designing things, what is their expected working relationship with the Advisory Planning Commission?”

More succinctly, QB resident John Wood asked Town Council in November 2021: “Why has there been so much secrecy around the ‘working group’ that is/was looking at the overall [Bus Garage] site development?”

Nice platitudes were delivered by the Working Group, but not anything that can be relied on to guide design of specific public amenities. In the design world, form follows function. The residents of Qualicum Beach need to provide functional specifications for the future of this site, sufficient to ensure that whatever gets delivered performs those functions well.

For now, the Town Planning Department appears to be wandering in the wilderness, searching for someone to tell them what to do with the site.

Next batter up – Cal Srigley

At the May 18, 2022 regular Council meeting we were treated to “a character study and preliminary design options” by “Urban Design Consultant Cal Srigley” who, as a 10 minute Delegation at the beginning of the meeting, proffered his imaginative ideas and colourful sketches of possibilities for the site.

A search for “Srigley” on the Town’s website coughed up only a similar presentation to Council in support of the Duttons’ Pheasant Glen development application back in 2017. We cannot find any more recent record of the Town issuing an RFP for design consulting services or Council’s endorsement of a contract to Mr. Srigley’s firm.

It does not appear that Mr. Srigley’s  work has been constrained by any specific set of functional objectives, technical limitations, or taxpayer funding caps. He provided no indication that he has engaged with either Naked Naturals or School District 69 – the main neighbouring property owners who have more than a passing interest in the Town’s “plan”.

Sketch Cal Srigley

Here is Mr. Srigley’s ground level sketch looking westward from Memorial Avenue, illustrating a multitude of concurrent users of potential “active and passive” spaces on the site – shops, kiosks, galleries, splash pool, community programming events …

Plenty of practical questions leapt to mind. I imagined myself as the cyclist in the lower left corner of the sketch thinking: Where can I park my bike? This Town could sure use a secure bicycle valet service like Victoria’s. I wonder if that Info kiosk can point me to a nearby public toilet. How did all these people get here? I don’t see any parkades. This is a lovely summer scene. I wonder how many of these people are visitors and how many are locals. I wonder if any of this space gets used in QB’s normal six months of cold wet weather. What’s with that huge empty field behind the grocery store?

Srigley’s drawings led to the following overhead view where, in Srigley’s words: “We begin to see a very vibrant hub developing adjacent to the downtown, incorporating a mixed-use arts/retail building.”

Sketch Cal Srigley

What does the public need, and does the Planning Department care?

Back in January 2021, when the Town announced the sale of a portion of the site to Naked Naturals, they stated that “The Town will be engaging residents and stakeholder groups in a discussion about how best [to] engage the remaining Town land for amenities (in addition to parking). Some of the ideas to be explored include a public square, pavilion, amphitheatre and theatre.”

Apart from the non-specific output from the secretive Working Group of unnamed individuals, no public engagement occurred in the remainder of 2021.

At their December 8, 2021 regular meeting, Town Council instructed staff (under direction of then-acting CAO Heather Svensen) to “provide Council with a roadmap and public consultation plan for the proposal at 111 Fourth Avenue West, to include design options for the remainder of the site for context.”

The original schedule for public consultation

The staff report from Luke Sales to Council on January 12, 2022 presented “a tentative timeline with public consultation steps for both 111 Fourth Avenue West and the surrounding Town-owned land:

1. Landscape Architect [unnamed] completes options for surrounding Town-owned land (Current – February 2022);

2. Council review of options for Town-owned land (March or April 2022);

3. Refer the plans for 111 Fourth Avenue West and the options for the surrounding Town-owned lands to Advisory Planning Commission (April 2022);

4. Schedule a Public Information Meeting held by applicant [Naked Naturals] for 111 Fourth Avenue West (May 2022);

5. Schedule a Public Information Meeting held by Town staff for surrounding Town-owned land (May 2022);

6. Initiate a public survey for the surrounding Town-owned lands based on the designs (May- June 2022);

7. Present plans and survey results for 111 Fourth Avenue West and the surrounding Town-owned lands at a Committee of the Whole Meeting for public discussion (July 2022);

8. Council decision on DP [Development Permit] for 111 Fourth Avenue West and adjacent Town-owned land.

Public consultation did not proceed as promised in this schedule. In fact, none of the tasks listed above appear to have even started.

The second schedule for public consultation

Instead, Luke Sales came back to Council four months later on May 18, 2022 with a new, scaled down, very compressed work plan and schedule for public consultation during the height of summer:

“1. Preliminary character study and design options presented to Council (May 18, 2022 delegation to Council);

2. June 2022: Public Information Meeting to get feedback.

3. June 2022: Incorporate public feedback into several design options.

4. July – August 2022: Conduct an online and paper survey to get public feedback on the design options.

5. September 2022: Present a report with recommendations on next steps for Town-owned land, as well as next steps for review of the Naked Naturals Development Permit application.”

We recommend readers watch Council discussion on the topic, which can be found at around the 2:03:00 mark of the May 18 meeting recording Step 1 – the Srigley delegation to the same meeting – is at the 00:14:40 mark.

This second work plan and schedule from Mr. Sales lasted a whole three weeks before he arbitrarily changed it… again.

The third schedule for public consultation

Sales came back to Council three weeks later on June 8, 2022 to say: “Initially the public consultation was scheduled to begin in June 2022. Unfortunately, staff recommend that the process be delayed for the following reasons: The earliest time the consultant is available without Town scheduling conflicts is in July, and the Town generally avoids major consultation events during peak summer months (July – August). Fall is usually an ideal time for consultation, but staff would recommend deferring the start date so that the incoming Council can take part in the entire process.”

The legacy of our current Council

It is inexcusable that Mr. Sales is allowed to hold the Town’s progress hostage to the availability of a single pet consultant for an entire year. There is more than one consultant available in the marketplace for this kind of contract. Making non-competitive awards to favoured contractors is a red flag, leaving the Town wide open to suspicion of possible corruption.

This stalled project will be quite the legacy that our current Town Council will leave, especially when the 2019 shenanigans in the East Village are rolled into the mix.