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Housing agency says opposition to Vancouver project is ‘not unexpected’

A residence built from shipping containers is pictured at 502 Alexander St. in Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2016. The Atira Women’s Resource Society is proposing to construct a seven-storey building out of recycled shipping containers on Hawks Avenue in Strathcona, which would house women and children affected by violence.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The agency proposing to construct a seven-storey building out of former shipping containers in one of Vancouver's oldest residential neighbourhoods says it will ignore its most vocal critics because there's no way to satisfy them.

The 21-unit project on Hawks Avenue in Strathcona, which would house women and children affected by violence, is facing sharp criticism from the Strathcona Residents' Association.

While a residents' association official described the use of containers as a clever recycling effort, she argued the project does not work in the Strathcona area, which is bordered by Burrard Inlet, False Creek and Chinatown.

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But the chief executive officer of the Atira Women's Resource Society, which previously built a similar, smaller complex out of containers in 2013, and is now proposing the new $4.3-million project, accused critics of "Nimby-ism."

"Many projects in the city, of this sort, face the same kind of opposition," Janice Abbott, chief executive officer of Atira, said in an interview.

"Oddly enough, the opposition concerns never materialize and/or they disappear within a few months of any new building opening.

"You just kind of expect this opposition when you're doing non-market housing or social housing. This is not unexpected."

Ms. Abbott said the residents' association does not fully represent the Strathcona community, and that she expects others will support the effort as it proceeds through the process to seek city approval.

Atira sees the use of containers as cheaper than conventional building measures.

Asked about the status of the project, a spokesperson for the City of Vancouver said in an e-mail that the new container project remains under review, with no council hearing scheduled to assess it.

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Elana Zysblat, a spokeswoman for the residents' group, said she can't claim to speak for all of Strathcona's roughly 18,000 residents, but she said the association is among five organizations representing tenants, seniors, business, cultural groups and others who are united on this issue.

"I represent thousands of people with very strong concerns," Ms. Zysblat said.

Specific concerns include that the proposal contravenes local planning proposals, is out of scale with neighbouring homes in the area, lacks commercial space and comes after issues such as drug use arose with residents in the 2013 project by Atira.

Ms. Zysblat said the project is also a poor fit for the people it is supposed to help because it lacks interior common-area space for occupants and outdoor space, and there is no on-site support for their needs.

"Just because the applicant is saying, 'It's urgent; we have women on the street; we have to house them now' isn't an excuse for not doing responsible and thorough planning."

The long-term issue, she said, is designing dignified housing that's going to be relevant in the long term in a diverse neighbourhood.

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"It's [Atira's] job to try and house as many women as possible, but it's our job as the community to try and say, 'What happens to these women two weeks later? What happens with them a year later?'"

She conceded that the use of containers may even be a "brilliant" approach to developing housing from recycled materials.

"I commend Atira for experimenting with this idea. But having used recycled materials and been innovative, they have to create spaces that are livable and sustainable and designed for human beings," she said.

Ms. Abbott said containers are an emerging form of construction that Atira sees as less expensive. "Otherwise we wouldn't be doing it," she said.

While units, ranging from 320 to 500 square feet, are built from containers, there are other conventional halls in the complex.

Mark Hogan, an architect with the San Francisco firm OpenScope, suggested in a September blog posting that containers don't really work for housing. He said they are not an ideal size and need a great deal of insulation, and buildings made with them will need a lot of space to run utilities.

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