Rezoning concepts from Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Task Force on Housing are more likely to put existing older units at risk of demolition
By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun
Map by: courtesy , Stephen Bohus BLA – (Originally submitted to the Sun but not published.) The City of Vancouver’s identified “arterials” and projected 100 meter potential transition zones of 3.5 storeys for the Interim Rezoning Policy that will allow up to 20 projects.
Improving housing affordability and building rentals are important priorities. However, rezoning policies resulting from the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability will not provide affordable housing. The policies will instead increase inflationary land speculation, which is the main cause of the affordability crisis in Vancouver, and will put existing older affordable rentals at risk of demolition.
Vision’s Mayor and Council approved the city-wide rezoning policies on October 3. They were immediately implemented without any public consultation on these specific initiatives. (The policies were opposed by Councillors Carr, Affleck and Ball after Carr’s motion to delay for public consultation was voted down by Vision.)
This reckless approach demonstrates an absence of understanding of the complex issues at stake. Mayor Gregor Robertson is continuing Sam Sullivan’s NPA policies despite election promises to the contrary. Robertson’s current rezoning policy is essentially Sullivan’s EcoDensity rebranded falsely as an affordability initiative.
The rezoning policy is so poorly conceived that it cannot work effectively and is creating public backlash by overriding community planning processes. It is the worst of all scenarios.
The rezoning policy has two parts. One stipulates the affordability provisions, the other outlines locations where rezoning applications would be considered. Both are vaguely worded and neither gives sufficient detail for transparency.
The affordability provisions require projects to be 100% market-priced rental housing (which we know from the City’s Short Term Incentives for Rentals, STIR, program does not result in truly affordable rents), or allows housing to be sold at 20 per cent below market price (which has been tried before but proved unworkable).
Former mayor Gordon Campbell, and later BC Housing, tried demonstration projects for purchase below market housing. The idea didn’t work then and is less likely to work now.
Twenty per cent below current market prices for multi-family new construction is approximately the same cost for a unit in an already existing older building without the same restrictions. With many other options available, especially in a softening market, purchasers will look elsewhere rather than projects built under this new policy. Eventually the projects will likely fail, so then be converted into market strata.
Locations where rezoning applications will be accepted are vague and problematic.
The report describes a transition zone of “within approximately 100 metres of an arterial street (i.e. 1.5 blocks), groundoriented forms up to a maximum of 3.5 storeys …”, which will likely be stacked townhouses based on economics.
Projects will also be considered if fronting “on arterials that are well served by transit and within close proximity (i.e. a five-minute walk or 500 metres) of identified neighbourhood centres and local shopping areas, mid-rise forms up to a maximum of six storeys.”
The staff’s written report to Council contained no map, and no definition of neighbourhood centre and local shopping areas.
It was only under pressure that a map (an incomplete one at that) was presented to the meeting. The City’s map interprets “arterials” to be not only commercial streets, but also many streets that are purely residential, some even without transit. The “transition zones” were not identified on the map, nor were the areas where proposals would be accepted for 6 storey buildings. The Vancouver Sun later showed a map that added the transition zones of 100 meters but not showing the six storey areas. This map was confirmed accurate for potential transition zones by staff at the City’s Oct. 17 information session.
Although the policy is limited initially to only 20 projects, it is expected that additional applications would continue to be approved. Even limited to 20 projects there will be major impacts on land costs, character, and livability on the surrounding properties, while setting precedents for other sites.
Many of the areas this new policy puts under development pressure have existing older more affordable multi-family space, including apartments, conversion dwellings, secondary suites, duplexes, triplexes, rooming houses and infill. Most of the heritage buildings and existing rentals have no protection from demolition.
Anticipated population growth could instead be housed by adaptive reuse of existing older buildings and new infill where appropriate. It is more sustainable and affordable to reuse existing old-growth wood-frame buildings than to replace them with new construction that requires many forests and other resources to be harvested.
Additional major new construction should be concentrated in specific areas determined through a comprehensive neighbourhood process, not scattered everywhere across the city.
Existing zoned capacity needs to be evaluated in context with future growth before significant changes in zoning should be considered.
Staff confirmed that the Task Force was provided with this information, yet staff are withholding it from opposition council and the public, contrary to council directions February 2012.
The “thin streets” concept — building housing on half the road width at the end of north/south streets, should not even be considered.
This would block the view corridors of the mountains, eliminate boulevard green space and trees, interfere with underground and overhead utility services, reduce street parking, reduce cycling lanes, and require hefty financial compensation to owners of end lots who would be affected. This policy has been inserted into the community planning process when it should have been dismissed as unfeasible immediately.
Overall the Mayor’s Task Force recommendations are thin on logic and full of bold steps in the wrong direction. City Hall needs to apply more wisdom, broad discussion, and genuine consideration of the public interest.
Elizabeth Murphy is an urban affairs commentator. She was a former property development officer for the City of Vancouver and former senior development officer for BC Housing; and private sector project manager.