Vancouver City Hall staff shouldn’t ignore clear voter support to rescind flawed rezoning
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, Saturday, November 23, 2018
Character houses can be converted into multiple units rather than being demolished for more expensive new duplexes. Photo: Elizabeth Murphy
Although Vision Vancouver was wiped off city council in last month’s civic election, its influence is still being felt. Current policy approved by Vision is still in play as the staff who implemented it are moving ahead with that agenda. Although some effort has been made by the new council to correct this, staff are putting up false barriers to moving in a new direction.
For example, Coun. Colleen Hardwick recently put forward a motion to rescind the unsupported RS-zoning amendments implemented citywide without public consultation in Vision’s dying days. Although Hardwick supports duplexes in principle (she even lives in one), she recognizes there are many better ways to implement them than what was approved.
But when the new council asked staff for advice on how to proceed, the answer was spun to undermine the motion.
At first, staff misrepresent the way the zoning amendments were implemented. They claim that there was extensive public consultation when in fact there was none that was meaningful. The city consulted with the public on whether there is a housing crisis which, of course, they concluded there was. But the specific actions to rezone for outright duplexes citywide had zero meaningful consultation with the public, only with some industry input.
There are many different ways to allow for population growth and required services but the specifics of the RS zoning amendments are not in the public interest nor with public support. For context it must be remembered that even before this recent duplex amendment there has been no single family zoning in Vancouver since secondary suites were added in 2004 and laneway houses in 2009, so there already were three units allowed on RS-zoned lots.
A public hearing was held during the election period in September that had overwhelming public opposition to the proposed RS amendments. This was when only one incumbent of the Vision majority was running for election. The incumbent Greens’ Adriane Carr and the Non-Partisan Association’s Melissa De Genova voted against the rezoning. No Vision councillors were elected but both incumbents, Carr and De Genova, topped the polls, bringing several new councillors from each party with them.
Since the public hearing was overwhelmingly opposed and the rezoning played a central role in the election, there is clear evidence that the rezoning was not publicly supported.
Yet staff’s concerns over lack of consultation if the unsupported amendments were to be rescinded was comical, if it wasn’t so disturbing in its effect of misleading the new council. Obviously, all the city has to do is point to the prior public hearing and election results to determine that public opinion was not in support of these amendments.
The new council was looking for guidance from staff on timelines and costs to rescind the zoning amendments that were implemented only two weeks prior. Again, staff entirely blew this out of scale too.
Staff told the new council that it would require a full new public consultation process, taking four months and $200,000 to $300,000 in staff time. When Hardwick and Carr questioned the need for a full public consultation process, staff admitted that in fact it could be done in two months.
But staff continued to claim how labour intensive rescinding the zoning amendments would be to draft. This again is highly questionable since what is being proposed is to go back to the prior zoning bylaw and related guidelines before the recent amendments. They could just bring these prior versions forward with a new zoning bylaw number for referral to public hearing.
It doesn’t require a laborious deconstruction of the bylaw as staff proposed, unless the staff is also trying to leave in some of the changes such as the enlarged building footprint and reduced backyard setbacks. This is not the intent of the motion, which is to rescind the amendments entirely for a fresh start going into the recently approved citywide plan initiative. This is the bigger-picture issue.
Rescinding the unsupported amendments would give the public confidence, in both council and staff, that the citywide planning process will be different than what has been the city’s practice over the last decade. This is a small but important step to signal a change in direction.
The citywide planning process could subsequently take interim early steps to incorporate more units. For example, the city did an enormous amount of consultation and work on the Character House Zoning Review over the last few years. Although there was strong demonstrated public support for some form of RT zoning like Kitsilano’s RT7, RT8 or even the recently amended RT5, it was never implemented.
RT zoning would have allowed for multiple additional units, including duplexes, infill, strata and rental suites, while incentivising the retention of quality character and heritage houses through adaptive reuse. And it could reduce the demolition of 1,500 character houses that could be lost over the two-year planning process.
There is also need for more rentals, including in upper floors, that could be provided through the addition of more secondary suites as an incentive for character retention. This would help provide more rentals and more income to support the costs of ownership. A win-win for individual people, not only developers.
If an average of even one new secondary rental unit is added on each of the 68,000 RS lots, that could provide thousands of additional rentals with little negative impacts or increased costs.
This is the low-hanging fruit that can be achieved early on in citywide planning if the public has confidence in the process. And it also is more likely to allow for denser options upon further work with the public.
Where public support falls apart is when the city takes a cookie-cutter approach without considering the variety of neighbourhoods and their individual needs. All neighbourhoods are not the same character nor should they be. City objectives of affordability, inclusivity, equity and sustainability can be accommodated in a variety of forms and scales depending on context.
However, unless the city restores public confidence by rescinding the recent unsupported rezoning of the last council, moving forward on a citywide plan will be handicapped from the outset. Staff need to demonstrate they are willing to reconsider policy that they were central in implementing. And that means providing real facts rather than manufactured information to achieve a predetermined outcome.
If the city approves this motion to rescind the RS zoning amendments will determine if it is possible for Vancouver to do things differently while the Vision administration team is still in place. If not, the city will need more systemic changes before public trust is established ahead of a citywide plan.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private-sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Properties Department and for B.C. Housing. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun print edition November 24, 2018 page B3
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2018 all rights reserved.