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Big Buddha back on track

Matthew Hoekstra , Staff Reporter

Richmond’s Lingyen Mountain Temple will boast the city’s tallest building at 16 storeys if a massive expansion plan is approved by the city.

City council considered the proposal for a $50-million North American religious centre for the first time Monday night, three years after the temple first submitted its application to add 10 buildings totalling 12,239 square metres (131,740 square feet) of space on its No. 5 Road property.

In a 6-2 vote, council sent the proposal to a special public hearing Sept. 20.

A packed council chambers filled with supporters and opponents signaled the plan has already attracted significant attention and is one that could be as contentious as a recent application for a pub on the same street, south of Steveston Highway.

Plans call for the buildings to be arranged around a courtyard with a main temple standing 49 metres (160 feet) high with the addition of a rooftop plaque. It would rival heights of high-rises in the city centre and stand 3.7 metres (12 feet) taller than Richmond City Hall, the city’s tallest structure.

Inside would be a 12.2-metre (40-foot) statue of Buddha that would rise near the top of the ceiling with a stand and halo.

According to a staff report, believers assert the temple must reflect the significant nature of being a North American centre for the Pure Land Buddhist sect, whose members are followers of a monk who established a similar temple in Taiwan some 20 years ago.

Believers say the temple must also accommodate 2,000 people at one time and all must have a clear view of the Buddha statue.

Other buildings, ranging in height from 38 to 88 feet, would serve as smaller temples, offices, a cafeteria and dormitories for monks, nuns and visitors.

According to the staff report, the proposed expansion would fulfill the temple’s goal to create an international Buddhist centre in Richmond that would serve as a Buddhist learning centre, a pilgrimage destination and a training centre for monks and nuns.

While some supporters Monday spoke of building a “historical monument” and the importance of the expansion for believers, others urged council not to support a “Buddha Disneyland.”

“I do not feel that it is a wise move for our city to be dominated by a 160 feet tall temple, whatever religion it is,” said West Richmond resident Jane Chu, adding other religious groups might want to build even taller places of worship.

“We must catch up with the times. The era of tall towers and buildings with temples are practically speaking over,” Chu added.

Others, such as worshipper Casey Cheong, said the project will benefit temple goers and the city, which would gain a focal point to draw people to the intricate eastern architecture.

“This piece of structure will be a world showcase,” said the retired banker and former president of the Vancouver Chinatown Rotary Club.

Others decried the “further erosion” of farmland, as the property is located within the No. 5 Road institutional corridor of the Agricultural Land Reserve. Although the temple has agreed to continue to farm its remaining back lands, it’s unclear how much more agricultural land will be lost due to the project.

Kabel Atwall, a development consultant handling the proposal, has already received approval from the Agricultural Land Commission—without first seeking input from the city—something staff were critical of in the report.

That also raised the ire of Coun. Harold Steves, who called the move “unprecedented” and “backwards.”

“That just makes me bloody angry,” said the veteran councillor.

City staff also expressed concern over the height of the main temple, recommending the height be reduced by a third.

With a height four times greater than most buildings on Richmond’s so-called “highway to heaven,” staff are concerned with its visual impact on nearby residents and a 677-space parking lot surrounding it, which a staff report calls a “sea of asphalt.”

Steves and Coun. Linda Barnes were alone in opposing the project, while the rest of council were cautious in support.

“The structure looks very calming, impressive and quite lovely. But that’s a model and I’ve been trying to get my head around the size of the temple that’s going to house the Buddha and it’s absolutely massive,” said Coun. Sue Halsey-Brandt.

Coun. Bill McNulty, chair of the planning committee which brought the application to council, noted little opposition to the project so far. A public open house organized by the applicant last summer yielded 210 mostly favourable responses.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie said if the temple is built it will be a “world class” building and a “positive element” in Richmond, “but that doesn’t mean you can put it anywhere.”

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