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Renderings of a development proposal in Vancouver that would include a 12-storey building on Commercial Drive. The proposal hasn’t even reached the stage of an official rezoning application, and it won’t until a master plan for the neighbourhood is finalized later this year.

The city's most famously left-leaning neighbourhood is at odds over a project that would allow a long-time local mental-health services agency to build a bigger new centre and create housing. But the trade-off means giving a developer the chance to build a 12-storey condo tower.

The No Tower coalition, a community group that formed to oppose the project, says the development will open the door to more towers and disastrous change for Commercial Drive, legendary for its lively street scene and political leanings.

"The way it is, it's going to endanger what's here on Commercial," said Susan Garber, part of the coalition.

She and others are worried that the Drive, surrounded by an eclectic mix of historic houses, low-rise apartments, co-ops and subsidized housing, will end up being taken over by towers if Boffo Properties is allowed to get a foot in the door by building a block-sized project in conjunction with the Kettle Friendship Society.

Ms. Garber said her group supports what Kettle does – providing a well-used drop-in for the mentally ill, as well as managing a couple of hundred private apartments for its clients in the area. But they believe there's a way to help Kettle build a new centre and new housing without having to join with a developer or to build anything higher than four storeys.

The coalition wants the city to give land it owns on the block to the agency, for example. (The value of the city's land is unclear, but the larger front half of the triangular block is assessed at about $7-million.) With free land, the agency wouldn't need money from a developer, and so that developer wouldn't have a basis to ask for extra density from the city, the reasoning goes.

The No Tower coalition also says the city could push harder to persuade the province and Ottawa to contribute money, which would also reduce the need for profits from market condos to help finance the project.

But others, inside and outside the neighbourhood, say the Kettle-Boffo partnership is a reasonable way to provide desperately needed social services in a time of reduced government spending.

"This has become almost a discussion of choosing between density and human beings. I'm always going to come down on the side of the people with the most needs," Councillor Kerry Jang said, adding that he didn't think the opponents' proposal would be workable financially, even if the city did provide the land for free.

The proposal hasn't even reached the stage of an official rezoning application, and it won't until a master plan for the neighbourhood is finalized later this year. The whole project is also dependent on the city selling its land to Boffo, if the proposal is approved.

But it has generated enormous debate.

The discussion went up a notch this week as Boffo and Kettle jointly released a new visualization of the project, showing a development that is 12 storeys on the north side – much lower than the 20 storeys talked about in previous years – and five storeys on the side closer to the busy part of the Drive.

Like others supporting the project, long-time community activist Eileen Mosca said she sees the Kettle-Boffo proposal as a reasonable way to provide much-needed new space for the mentally ill, noting that the agency that has done a good job in the neighbourhood for decades.

She also noted that there is another, even higher, building nearby, constructed in the 1970s to help provide housing for seniors and the disabled.

"This building is not a major threat. It's a win-win," Ms. Mosca said.

She worries the debate has been dominated by the homeowner opponents, while Kettle's mentally ill clients have been ignored.

"The voices you're not hearing is the people who would benefit from this."

But the No Tower coalition, which now has 3,600 signatures on an opposition petition, is sticking to its position that the project shouldn't be higher than four storeys.

The issue represents the dilemma in which many cities find themselves. As senior levels of government have reduced the money available for subsidized housing or social services, cities have had to rely on the one big bargaining chip they have: granting developers extra density in return for community benefits.

Nancy Keough, Kettle's executive director, said her group had tried every way possible over the years to get money for a new site and housing but was unsuccessful.

"There weren't any other options. Our main thing is to leave a legacy so our clients can stay on the Drive."

Daniel Boffo said the project has been complicated and demanding, but his family company got involved because they believed in doing things to strengthen the community.