Vancouver under the influence
By Elizabeth Murphy, Common Ground Magazine, July 2019
The same outside influences established under the former Vision-dominated council continue to drive Vancouver city policy
The results of the last civic election in October 2018 were a clear signal that the public wanted change, but what started out with so much hope has given us more of the same. The Vision dominated council was eliminated but their policies continue. Campaign finance reform has not removed the influences of the big money unions and developers, while the old Vision-appointed staff continue to guide the process.
The recent launch of the City-wide Plan is a case in point. The outline of the four year planning process was publicly posted only days before it went to council – with no prior public input. At the time of writing, the council decision was delayed, but the proposed planning direction was clear.
As outlined, the planning process is little more than a data-mining exercise while continuing the policies and programs established by Vision. Things are going in this direction because the same background influences driving the previous council are still in play, despite many good intentions to change this.
Although Mayor Kennedy Stewart ran as an independent, as a former federal NDP Member of Parliament he came with party ties and endorsement from the Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC).
Provincial campaign reform did not include adequate third-party restrictions for municipal elections, essentially creating the equivalent of US-style “super-PACs” that do not have to disclose political funding outside of the six week election period.
The influence of the development industry continues as well. Stewart has had a series of ten meetings with former councillor Raymond Louie and the major developers he is advocating for. These include Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects Corporation, Bruno and Peter Wall of Wall Financial Corporation, and Brian McCauley of Concert Properties. Stewart also had lunch with Bob Rennie and met with Ryan Beedie of Beedie Development Group.
Similar to former mayor Gregor Robertson, Mayor Stewart recently cited how the city is working with their developer “partners” on building new rentals. He then voted down a motion to protect existing rentals in commercial zones to discourage displacement through demolition.
Although Mayor Stewart doesn’t have a council majority, the Vision-appointed (largely American) senior staff guide the new council to continue with old policies.
The procedure bylaw and code of conduct rules are used to muzzle individual councillors, advisory committees, and even the public. Criticism of how city staff interprets the narrative, data, analysis, assumptions or intentions of city policy are met with hostility, censorship and reprimands that closes down full discussion.
While individual councillors must provide notice of their motions and submissions for comments from staff two weeks in advance, staff continue to bring major policy reports to council with little more than two or three business days allowed for the public and council to respond. The City-wide Plan is no different. It proposes major zoning changes throughout the city without any advanced input on the process from the public.
Rather than city residents determining the future direction of their community, city staff are driving changes to Vancouver that will be transformational rather than incremental. This is regardless of the fact that realistic provisions for growth would not require this. The city already has an enormous amount of zoned capacity – even when only counting the sites likely to be developed or in the pipeline – and has enough to meet actual growth projections well past 2040. The city is aiming for 72,000 units from 2017 to 2027, yet based on census data, only 26,000 units are justified. So the city is setting highly inflated growth targets.
As more new development is approved, more displacement occurs as affordable older housing stock is demolished and replaced with expensive new construction.
The City-wide Plan is also proposed to be coordinated and aligned with areas outside of Vancouver, including the whole region extending as far as Seattle and Portland in the United States.
Instead, what is needed is neighbourhood-based growth management for the people who live and work in the city, rather than the promotion and implementation of growth for vested interests well beyond our boundaries.
For any community planning process there is, typically, an interim rezoning policy to prevent spot rezoning or changes outside of the planning process prior to the completion of the plan. This prevents setting development precedents beyond current zoning. The City-wide plan doesn’t have this.
So the Broadway corridor land use plan continues to be implemented from Clark Drive to Vine Street, and 16th Avenue to 1st Avenue. It crosses multiple neighbourhoods that are broken up into sub-areas, that do not fully follow historic neighbourhood boundaries and are not part of the City-wide Plan. If a subway is extended to UBC, the Broadway corridor is proposed to include all of Kitsilano and West Point Grey as well.
The Broadway corridor continues the strategy of the Cambie corridor that imposed a subway land use typology that excluded neighbourhood-based context planning.
The current rental bonus density programs will continue while the City-wide Plan process is underway. This includes the pilot program that has tower spot rezonings that will set large scale building precedents. One example is the project at Broadway and Birch Street at the old Denny’s site. Since this is in the heart of Central Broadway, a 16 storey tower was previously approved. Under the rental pilot it is now proposed to go to 28 storeys with a floor space ratio of 10.52 – far beyond what is currently allowed in the area.
Another example is at developer Wesgroup’s site at Broadway and Alma Street. An application was originally submitted for a six storey market rental project a few years ago, and now is coming back with a new proposal under the pilot project for 14 storeys and 5.8 floor space ratio, setting a new precedent for the surrounding area of Kitsilano and West Point Grey that currently is mostly under four storeys. With staggered floors and orange in colour, it maximizes the impact.
These kinds of blockbusting projects are just the start, especially where corridor planning is implemented without neighbourhood context while setting development precedents that supercede the City-wide Plan. The city should be pressing pause on current policies set by the previous council to allow for a new direction.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private-sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver and B.C. Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Common Ground Magazine Print Edition July 2019, pages 6 – 7
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2019 all rights reserved.