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On the surface, Onni Group seems to have the right ingredients to win approval from the City of North Vancouver for a condo and office complex.

On closer inspection, the developer overestimated its clout and misjudged the complexities and politics of seeking permission to build beyond what is currently allowed. Onni has spent more than two years on its proposal to construct new buildings at Lonsdale Avenue and East 13th Street. But the company is now in a tough spot, even after pledging to include space for child care and affordable housing units, and to contribute at least $1-million to a "community amenity fund" and $250,000 for public art, in exchange for approval.

Onni president Rosanno De Cotiis wrote a letter to North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto last week, adopting an approve-us-or-we'll-walk tone with city council. Mr. De Cotiis threatened to withdraw his development application, accusing two city council members of unfairly criticizing Onni. His father, Inno, founded the privately owned business (Onni is Inno spelled backwards), and executives say the company has a history of taking the high road.

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Onni is upset that city council voted 4-3 in late November to request the developer undergo a second public hearing to give the project further scrutiny, even though its density compares favourably with that of other sites in Central Lonsdale. "We already reduced the number of condo towers from three to two and made a number of other changes," said Beau Jarvis, Onni's vice-president of development.

The mayor and two councillors support Onni, but two councillors oppose the project and two are on the fence, Mr. Jarvis said. For Onni executives, Lonsdale Avenue might as well be renamed Lacklustre Lane if Onni is thwarted. They argue that their project would liven up the business strip, especially helping retailers in the area between City Hall and Lions Gate Hospital.

Onni's property covers more than a half-block, including land currently occupied by a Safeway grocery store and parking lot. The goal is to construct two condo towers, one 18 storeys and the other 24, and a five-storey office building. The 342-unit condo complex would also have commercial tenants such as a grocer, pharmacy and restaurant.

The two councillors opposed to Onni's project are Rod Clark and Pam Bookham. North Vancouver is crafting an official community plan, expected to go before city council next spring, and Mr. Clark questions Onni's timing in attempting to push through its application before that plan is presented.

Mr. Clark alleges that the first public hearing was tainted because the developer "stacked" it with speakers in its favour. "They hijacked and manipulated that meeting," said Mr. Clark, adding that the project would not fit with the region's push to locate new development near major public transit hubs. "It doesn't sit well with me," he said.

But in his letter, Mr. De Cotiis vehemently denies engaging in underhanded tactics, saying that Onni has a solid track record in co-operating with B.C. municipalities.

Michael Geller, an urban planning consultant, said the recent mudslinging between Onni and its critics has exposed weaknesses in the planning process – municipalities face mounting pressure to approve developments to get the community amenities in return. City officials in North Vancouver have extracted significant public benefits from Onni, but the trade-off would be granting permission to build condo towers that some residents see as too tall for that parcel of land, Mr. Geller said.

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"There was an ongoing dialogue between the developer and the city staff in North Vancouver, which resulted in an agreement that allowed for increased building size in return for a number of public benefits," he said. "But the process has exploded."

Mr. Geller is worried that municipalities have become addicted to securing community benefits such as affordable housing and contributions to artists from developers, and are approving projects that are larger than residents want.

Don't count Onni out yet, though. The developer's application remains alive, and it could make changes to win over a majority of councillors. Or if Onni decides that enough is enough, it could sell the Lonsdale land to a company willing to forge ahead on a smaller scale.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More


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