Real Estate
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An Oak Bay redevelopment may actually decrease density

A development meant to help densify Oak Bay may do the opposite

By Ryan Hook
February 15, 2022
Real Estate
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An Oak Bay redevelopment may actually decrease density

A development meant to help densify Oak Bay may do the opposite

By Ryan Hook
Feb 15, 2022
The house at 960 Foul Bay Road is proposed for redevelopment—but that move could actually decrease the neighbourhood's density, rather than increasing it. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
The house at 960 Foul Bay Road is proposed for redevelopment—but that move could actually decrease the neighbourhood's density, rather than increasing it. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Real Estate
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An Oak Bay redevelopment may actually decrease density

A development meant to help densify Oak Bay may do the opposite

By Ryan Hook
February 15, 2022
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An Oak Bay redevelopment may actually decrease density
The house at 960 Foul Bay Road is proposed for redevelopment—but that move could actually decrease the neighbourhood's density, rather than increasing it. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

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Near the border between Oak Bay and Victoria, on a busy Foul Bay Road, a 100-year-old mansion sits in a sprawling, well-worn yard. Inside, tenants live in what they describe as “decaying Edwardian splendour” beneath high ceilings and Tudor revival-style architecture.

The Lawson residence, known to its tenants as “The Chateau Dome,” won’t be there for long. The building will be just a few metres away, moved off its current foundations to accommodate more buildings on the huge lot.

It’s not hard to see the property’s development potential: it occupies nearly an acre of prime urban land, and the house is a little long in the tooth. So, when Stacey Dewhurst bought the house in 2016 and moved a group of young people in as tenants, everyone knew it was going to be a short-term arrangement.

For six years now the tenants have lived under that particular Sword of Damocles, waiting for redevelopment and hoping to renew their year-long lease. 

The Chateau Dome has become an affordable safe harbour in an increasingly hostile housing market, giving a leg up to more than a dozen young people looking for affordable housing. Though the paint is chipping, the couch on the front foyer is damp, and coffee tins overflow with cigarette butts, the mansion is a place that students, tree planters, young professionals, and others who are routinely priced out of Victoria can call home.

Kiefer Aland has lived at the Chateau Dome since just about the beginning, and accepted that his housing could be pulled out from under him at any time.

“Each person that lives here is often trying to get to the next stepping stone before the development happens,” Aland said.

After years of uncertainty, it seems likely that the residence’s years as an affordable rooming house are coming to an end. It’s the end of a long road for the redevelopment: after its purchase in 2016, a first proposal was denied, and the second proposal was never built. Now, a new consultant has taken over the project with the goal of renewed neighbourhood consultation and a design with density in mind. The new development plan for 960 Foul Bay Road will be proposed to Oak Bay council in the coming months. 

The property could potentially accommodate more density, but as with the first proposal, neighbours want fewer homes per lot and less density than what developers are hoping to build.

That follows a pattern for Oak Bay, which despite being part of a growing city, actually shrunk by 0.6% between 2016 and 2021.

The 960 Foul Bay Road development has the potential to tick a lot of the boxes the District of Oak Bay and the City of Victoria are looking for in this housing market: more density and more affordable living. The irony is that the 100-year-old home—or dome—already fulfills those needs.

Photo: Oak Bay Archives/ CR 140 long appraisal card, 960 Foul Bay. Copyright District of Oak Bay, used with permission

The Lawson Residence

The Lawson Residence has had many purposes over its 106-year lifespan, but always the same layout and features—eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, wood floors, glass doors, two sun rooms, several fireplaces, radiant heating, and lots of large windows.

The residence was designed by Samuel Maclure—also the architect of Hatley Castle and other notable BC buildings—and built for Henry Graham Lawson, a businessman and lawyer who wanted a recreational house in Oak Bay. The house was built in 1914, and Lawson lived there until he died in 1945. The Stuart family owned the house from 1958 until 1973, and were active community members who, according to a family member, helped build both St Patrick’s Church and St Patrick’s Elementary school.

In 1974, Barrie Henderson took it over, and beginning in 1977, the Lawson residence had, according to Oak Bay Archives, rapidly changing, and multiple occupants.

Lillian Henderson, who officially took ownership of the home in 1983, preserved that idea, and effectively sowed the seeds of the community house as it stands as today. Dewhurst, and neighbours recall Henderson for her affection and wine

Dewhurst told Capital Daily that by the time he took the place over in 2016, Henderson didn’t have the money to maintain the mansion. “She was rich but cash poor, so she didn't have any money to spend on the maintenance,” he said.

It showed. But Dewhurst, who owns multiple properties across the city, had just the tenants in mind for the slightly rundown mansion while he navigated the long redevelopment process.

“I had these kids living in a few of my other houses—one house actually burned down,” Dewhurst said. “So I moved them around and landed them at the Lawson Residence.”

The house is now occupied by a self-described intentional community: people who live together with shared values in a co-operative lifestyle. They play music together, they cook meals together, and they have formal rules that ensure the function of their community, which they call the Dangle Dome.

A member of the Dangle Dome created a website in anticipation of a film they’re producing. The film will be a chronicle of their philosophies on community living. The website includes a written history of the homes they’ve lived in, including when their first home, the Midgard House, burned down in 2014.

A house member described the fire as “some smite of God shit” caused by a confluence of natural phenomena. Saanich Fire was responsible for investigating that fire and says its cause is still unknown. Nobody was injured, but many lost their possessions.

After that, Dewhurst moved the intentional community into another property he owned on Southgate Street, next to Beacon Hill Park. But as always, the arrangement was temporary: the community had to move when the house was demolished in 2016 to make way for luxury apartments. Cue the Lawson Residence.

When the Dangle Dome saw the Lawson Residence, they moved in eagerly, despite being told it wouldn’t last.

While the house can comfortably fit eight people, Dewhurst says he knows it’s even more densely occupied than that. “You go through the house, and every nook and cranny has got a mattress in it,” he says.

According to the Dangle Dome website, the house has previously had 15 or 16 residents at once. For them, community housing isn’t just a lifestyle; it’s a way to stay afloat in a tumultuous rental market. “It’s no secret the housing market is tough for students and young people,” Aland says. “I’ve lived in communal housing almost my whole life and I’m 31 now.”

In 2019, half of Canadians were making less than $39,134 per year and, according to Statistics Canada, an average single Victorian was making $14.71 per hour for an annual salary of $30,600.

According to The National Bank of Canada’s Housing Affordability Report from November 2021, Victoria has seen a steep increase in rent—a trend that began halfway into 2019. The average non-condo home costs over $1 million in Victoria.

Across the housing spectrum are families who can’t afford their first home and university students unable to find space to rent. Community housing like the Chateau Dome can provide an affordable alternative, but it’s quickly dwindling. Adam Tree started a Facebook page to help people find community housing.

“When we first started the group 10 years ago, I remember there was a room open for $300 a month,” he says.

One scroll through the Facebook page shows rooms going for between $850 and $1,200 a month, even for a single bedroom with a shared living space, kitchen, and bathroom. Now, the current climate in Victoria’s community network is starting to look a lot like the housing market writ large.

Initial Dewhurst development proposal  at 960 Foul Bay Road. Photo: Submitted

The development

Dewhurst’s first proposal in 2017 was to subdivide the property into five lots, moving the Lawson Residence to the northeast corner of the property and restoring the potential for basement suites. 

Two existing garages were to be destroyed, and replaced with four two-storey single-family homes ranging in size from 2,400 to 2,700 square feet and intended to house multiple tenants. The new homes would have taken design cues from the Lawson Residence and neighbourhood homes.

Some neighbours responded to the first redevelopment plans with a number of concerns. Gloria and Lorne Silvertson said they disagreed with any plans for multi-family homes, the density of the five homes and the lot, and the increased traffic. The potential damage and noise from the construction, as well as the loss of trees and green space, were also causes for concern.

A few other neighbours agreed with the Silvertsons.

In a letter to Oak Bay council on Sept. 17, 2017, Dave and Wendy Cornock wrote, “There would be no way that he [Dewhurst] would agree to any less density other than what he had proposed.”

The Cornocks claimed that Dewhurst proposed a 24-unit townhouse and said the home bordering their backyard would be designed with the least amount of privacy for them. They said Dewhurst vowed that if the Lawson Residence was torn down the Cornocks would be directly responsible for that decision. According to the Cornocks, Dewhurst was proposing to build “large monster homes that would be even more intrusive” on their property.

The first proposal was effectively denied.

In 2018, Dewhurst came back to the neighbours and Oak Bay council with the neighbours’ concerns in mind. The new plan would only add three single-family homes. The Silvertsons signed a non-objection letter in regards to the new proposal with an agreement between them and Dewhurst that these new single-family homes were not to have basement suites or be built for such suites—the Lawson Residence would also remain a single-family residence.

The Cornocks remained against the proposal despite the Silvertsons’ non-objection letter and again wrote to council in 2018. “This development doesn't fit with my vision of Oak Bay for existing neighbourhoods,” the Cornocks’ letter said.

The Cornocks expressed their concerns over parking and strata-units for condos on the property. They hoped the property could be developed for seniors wanting small homes. Their vision is still a denser lot, but with three single-family homes instead of four, including a single-family Lawson Residence.

“Our concern is if there are more renters in the house and more vehicles, this intersection could become less safe,” the Cornocks said.

Despite their concerns, Dewhurst’s second development plan was approved in 2019, though the lot has languished until now. Fortunately for the Dangle Dome residents, they renewed their lease when the timeline to build the development proposal lapsed, which sources close to the development said was due to a lack of finances. In 2020, Dewhurst left the project entirely. He refused to specify his reasons.

“The neighbours are not pleased with the lack of action. They're not really receptive to more density,” he said. “The property supports a lot more density than three single-family dwellings and the Lawson Residence.”

Having gone through the wringer with the neighbours the first time around, he expects whatever gets proposed next will also provoke a strong reaction. 

“There's definitely potential for a bit of a shitshow,” Dewhurst said.

At issue still is what will sit on the four lots when 960 Foul Bay Road is developed. Neighbours, like the Cornocks, want more single-family dwellings with people less primed to congest the neighbourhood with their cars. Wendy Cornock said her idea of density can still fulfill needs that are currently not being met by the available housing in Oak Bay, without afflicting her neighbourhood with traffic.

“I’m concerned with the type of density and congestion,” she told Capital Daily. “We would like to see other missing housing for seniors to downsize to. Typically, seniors have one car, and they don't have teenagers.”

Seniors in Victoria are facing homelessness due to high rental costs—though with the expectedly high price of the units on the Foul Bay Road lot, seniors whose fixed incomes are already failing to meet high rental costs around Victoria would likely not be able to afford to move in.

Greater Victoria realtor Ryan Cochrane tells Capital Daily that based on the current price per square foot in South Oak Bay, the proposed homes on the property would likely sell for between $1.95 and $2.2 million each.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch says Oak Bay council is considering how to address the community’s unmet housing needs by looking at building more duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, laneway houses, and heritage conversions in Oak Bay.

“We want people to have access to different housing forms in neighbourhoods that allow people to have the right housing as their needs change over time,” he said.

But Dewhurst doesn’t think Oak Bay council truly wants more density. He says working in Oak Bay is a challenge due to both the neighbours and the local government. “What [Oak Bay council] is most interested in is getting elected or re-elected. And in order to do that, they have to generate the most votes,” he said.

In this neighbourhood, it feels like déjà-vu. It’s the third proposal within a one-block radius to undergo major community consultations, with uncertain outcomes, just within the period since the Lawson house changed hands.

Just steps away on the other side of Foul Bay Road, the United Church fought a protracted battle starting in 2017 to build denser housing on land it owned. In the end, neighbours with “stop overdevelopment” signs on their laws prevailed. 

Close to a year ago, Capital Daily reported a story on the 902 Foul Bay Road controversy, in which neighbours with concerns about loss of trees, increased traffic, and “neighbourhood character” rallied in opposition to a townhouse development a block away from 960 Foul Bay Rd.

And while signs litter Oak Bay lawns in the area to save the trees at 902 Foul Bay Road, there are no signs about the Deodar cedar tree recently chopped down on 960 Foul Bay Road, and nothing about the Garry oak in the front yard.

Deodar Cedar tree chopped down on 960 Foul Bay Road. Photo: Ryan Hook / Capital Daily

A few neighbours tell Capital Daily that they believe the “Save the Trees at 902 Foul Bay Rd” campaign is really more about the increase in density—and a protest against the arrogance of developers.

The key difference between the two properties, other than being in two different municipalities, is the proposed density. Down the road, Aryze Developments proposed a pair of three-storey buildings, a parking lot, a playground, and bicycle parking on a bare lot (a single house, which burned down the same year Dewhurst bought the Lawson house up the street, used to occupy the space).

By contrast, most neighbours Capital Daily spoke with think the Lawson Residence already has too many people and not enough parking. With Dewhurst gone, they have another chance to get what they want in the next iteration of the plan.

In 2020, Scott Travelbea, Dewhurst’s business, took over as the acting property owner and brought in Mark Holland as a consultant for the project.

Holland says he understands Oak Bay residents’ concerns over new developments. Early in the process, he circulated a large booklet of architectural designs to neighbours, asking for their opinions on minute details of the houses, from siding to shapes of windows, and he is currently drafting a new development layout that included their input.

Draft of a proposed development from Mark Holland (Submitted)

Holland says it’s not typical for neighbours to be this involved, but he welcomes it.

“We've got a good working relationship with the neighbours. I think that they're going to disagree with some of what comes forward, but they’re included in the design process,” Holland says, reiterating that he’s trying to build in Oak Bay—one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country. “When you choose to live in Oak Bay, you can pretty much choose to live anywhere else. Anytime a group of folks like us [developers] start coming in and making changes then we should expect the community to be anxious about what those changes may be.” 

Holland says the next few months will require sensitive work with the neighbours. So far, Holland’s designs offer the same as the first proposal: five properties on five lots.

The buildings, if they include multiple units, will still appear similar to a large single-family dwelling; and as for the trees, which have caused so many headaches for Aryze, Holland said he will consult with an arborist to discuss which trees should be taken down and which ones will be replanted. Holland says most of the trees around the perimeter will be preserved. The units will have on-site parking, and Holland intends to provide additional community parking spaces along Brighton Avenue.

The new building could therefore check many of the boxes demanded by neighbours. It won’t, however, help with the most pressing issue for many Victorians.

“Yes, we’re redeveloping; yes, we’re adding more density; and yes, we’re displacing them [the current tenants]—but no, the new building is not as affordable as the old one,” Holland said.

Nicole Chaland, an advocate for sustainable community economic development, says it’s a shame a house like this is dissolving.

“The housing crisis is really felt differently by different income groups. A townhouse or a unit in a house is going to sell for less than an entire house, but it’s still only going to be people with higher than median incomes that can afford to live there,” Chaland said.

When and if the development at 960 Foul Bay Road goes through, the Dangle Dome residents will be priced out of the neighbourhood. They know that. As young people in one of the most expensive cities in the country, they’ve come to expect displacement and instability.

“I got pushed out of Vancouver when I was younger because it was unaffordable, and I’ve lived in community housing all my life,” Aland said. “When that development goes through, we’ll all just leave. I’m not sure where people will go.”

Correction on March 24 at 3:30pm: The Stuart family's former ownership of the Lawson residence was mistakenly omitted from a previous version of this story.

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Ryan Hook
Food, Arts & Culture Reporter

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