Saturday April 19, 2014

Home street home

Much of Seymour Street downtown has changed from homes to small businesses. But a few families still remain. And the clash that can result arose in City council chambers this past week.
Murray Mitchell

Frank Sirianni and his mother, Venise, 88, inside their Seymour Street home built by Gino Sirianni in 1959.

The east end of Seymour Street has become an area of transition between businesses and residences.

The clash of these two uses became apparent earlier this week at 905 Seymour St., a house bought by Kristopher Ruston nine years ago in his bachelor days.

The property is at the confluence of Ninth Avenue, Seymour and Victoria streets. The zoning on the streets is mostly commercial and many of the businesses have converted old houses like Ruston's and turned them into offices or services.

Not the house immediately beside him, though. The Sirianni family has lived there since 1959. Matriarch Venise, 88, and her son Frank are still there; he returned to help her stay in the home longer.

Behind their houses, across the alley, are family homes facing St. Paul Street. So far, they all remain residential, although some are rentals and some might include home-based businesses.

Ruston and the Siriannis are on the disappearing line of homes on Seymour Street.

Nine years after he bought his home, Ruston is married and has an 18-month-old child. The 1927 house has become too small, so three years ago he put it on the market.

But the property is zoned C-4 (service commercial), so even though it has a house on it, potential buyers can't get a residential mortgage for it. Ruston felt trapped.

Ruston thought he had a buyer in Drake Smith, who wanted to set up a funeral office in the house. Smith runs similar operations in Barriere and Clearwater, so Kamloops seemed like a natural extension.

Smith's plan was to add a two-storey addition on the back of the house, which would include a garage and a cooler with space to store as many as four dead bodies.

His business involves helping families make funeral arrangements, but there would be no embalming or actual funeral services held in the building. That use isn't included in the zoning, so Smith took his application to the City.

The neighbours closest to the house turned out at Tuesday's public hearing to strongly oppose the rezoning at 905 Seymour St.

The Siriannis objected to the rezoning for several reasons.

Loss of privacy and loss of light to the garden from the two-storey addition next door were big issues, especially for an Italian mother who loves growing tomatoes.

Venise Siranni is also uncomfortable having a funeral home next door, particularly where dead bodies will sometimes be kept for several days.

On top of that, their back alley gets a lot of truck traffic going to businesses down the block. The rear parking at the funeral home would be a safety concern.

"I understand business. I know progress has to happen. But does this type of business need to be downtown?" he asked.

Gino Sirianni bought a house at 935 Victoria St. — a few doors down — in 1949 when he and Venise were first married. He built their next home at 911 Seymour a decade later.

The house has the stucco exterior common to the time, along with a coloured-brick fireplace and wide plate-glass livingroom window.

"There wasn't the traffic we have today. Things were pretty slow," Venise said Friday as cars and trucks rumbled past.

Frank Sirianni said the documents he's looked at show the land was zoned commercial as far back as 1967, when he was six years old. He grew up with families all around, but also watched businesses move in to the east during the 1960s and '70s.

In more recent years, the houses to the west have been converted into businesses.

Dick Nguyen owns the house directly across the alley from 905 Seymour with his wife and young son. They added on to their home a few years ago.

His Asian roots leave him with a lingering superstition around dead bodies being nearby — it's bad luck. But he wasn't opposed to the funeral arranging side of the business.

City council rejected Smith's rezoning application, but it wasn't a decision that came lightly — or without disagreement.

Five council members voted to turn down the application; three voted in favour.

Coun. Donovan Cavers supported the rezoning for the funeral home, although he had reservations.

"It was definitely controversial in a way that I didn't anticipate," he said. "I understood the sensitivities, but based on my personal beliefs, I guess, I have a hard time treating that as an absolute power of one of the neighbours.

"It seemed like the applicant really knew what he was doing and they were going to make every accommodation possible. That gave me enough comfort."

Coun. Arjun Singh did not vote for the rezoning. What swayed him was the neighbours' resistance to having dead bodies stored at the site, even though that wouldn't bother him if it was near his home.

Despite the changed nature of the area, Venise doesn't want to leave her home of 50-plus years.

"I've got a lot of memories in this house. . . . I want to stay as long as I can."


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