City hall threatens non-profit organization with eviction

Oxfam Canada operates office on Railway Street

Vancouver city hall is not the Grinch that stole Christmas from Oxfam-yet.

The city sent letters dated Dec. 1 to eight tenants of 343 Railway St. stating their office use contravenes zoning, development and building bylaws. The letter explained each tenant, including a regional office for Oxfam Canada, has until the end of December to apply to stay or face eviction.

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Ron Fisher, a partner in Eagle Harbour Management, which owns the building at 343 Railway, said the property is zoned M2 or "industrial," or "light manufacturing."

"That whole M2 zoning is outdated and antiquated," Fisher said. "Just because a software manufacturer isn't cranking out seven-inch floppy disks doesn't mean they're not an industry."

Fisher said several of the tenants facing eviction work in information technology, while another is an animation production company. "Most of them can't afford office space anywhere else," he said.

And then there's Oxfam. Fisher said he's known the non-profit organization, famous for its work in developing countries, likely contravenes the property's zoning. But he added the zoning allows a certain percentage of space be used for service use. No one from Oxfam returned phone calls or an email from the Courier.

"I know it's office space and I know that rules are rules," Fisher said. "But what's the difference between someone sitting behind a computer or sitting behind a sewing machine?"

Eagle Harbour Management buys heritage buildings, restores them, brings them up to code and then rents out the suites or offices. Fisher noted because many of the company's 11 buildings, including 343 Railway, are situated in less desirable areas of the city the rents are more affordable.

"But the city continues to throw obstacles at us," said Fisher. "They raise our taxes, they tell us they don't think our tenants are right and they don't consider the issues we face. That building is like a fortress with bars on the doors and windows."

Fisher said the city is long overdue in reviewing its definition of industrial or manufacturing zones.

"There aren't a lot of sweatshops left in the city so I think it's time they broaden those guidelines," he said.

Fisher noted tenants at another Eagle Harbour building were served similar notices at this time last year, and he wonders why the city chooses to put businesses under stress weeks before Christmas. Fisher saved Christmas for the tenants last year by paying the city $10,000 for approval to a change of use agreement.

Will Johnson, director of licences and inspections for the city, agreed the city needs to review the definition of "manufacturing" as it applies to zoning.

He said the city is not forcing a departure of 343 Railway tenants just yet.

"We did send a letter to a number of suites telling them what they need to do," said Johnson. "And they have to put in an application by the end of the month. But we're not asking for them to leave."

Johnson said once the tenants submit a change of use application for their unit, the city will decide if they can stay.

He said the tenants came to the city's attention after a company applied for a business licence for the location. Upon inspection a city worker discovered 16 tenants that either didn't have a business licence or didn't meet the qualifications for the zoning.

As for Oxfam, Johnson said the city will have to decide whether the work done at its office qualifies under the zoning.

sthomas@vancourier.com

Twitter: @sthomas10

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