It’s time for Vancouver to pause and pivot
OPINION: Urban design and livability are an important part of sustainability and should not be sacrificed for expediency.
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, August 22, 2020
Construction cranes tower above condos under construction near southeast False Creek in Vancouver. DARRYL DYCK / PNG
Dr. Bonnie Henry said at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown “this is our time to be kind, to be calm, and to be safe.” In contrast, the City of Vancouver carried on with an all-time record for controversial rezoning public hearings in the month of July, sometimes multiple council meetings in a day, under virtual council with reduced democratic processes through the state of emergency provisions.
Meanwhile, recent data disclosed by city staff show that there has been more new dwellings produced than household growth since 2001, and that there are enough new projects in-application for the next decades of projected population growth to come. This shows there is no legitimate reason for the city’s current rush to rezone without proper planning.
July rezonings included the most controversial public hearing for the 28 storeys at Birch and Broadway, with about 1,000 written submissions, including three petitions of thousands in opposition, and multiple days of speakers.
Another controversial public hearing for rezoning all the C2 zones city-wide went multiple days, including hearing from speakers on a Friday night, which is generally avoided. Thankfully, a majority of council supported Coun. Adrian Carr’s amendment to refer the rezoning report to the Vancouver Plan process.
Rather than just implementing the arbitrary city-wide programs and policies of the previous Vision council that was voted out, it is about time that the new council reconsiders policy based on the new context and a new mandate.
A council-approved motion by Coun. Colleen Hardwick has done exactly that. It directed staff to provide data by July 31 for a recalibration this fall of the current housing targets.
From the data provided by staff, it confirmed the census population growth was about one per cent per year, or 5,500 people. At the census average of 2.2 persons per unit, that is 2,500 units per year or 25,000 units per decade. Compare this to the city’s current housing targets of 72,000 units per decade, at almost three times the actual census population growth rates.
Also of interest is the staff admission that the housing targets are aspirational and not a reflection of anticipated population growth. In fact, previous census figures show that there have been more dwelling units than population growth for households, with thousands unoccupied that may be converted to rentals due to taxes and market shifts. Current projects in-application are already enough for decades in further population growth, with over 36,000 units, of which 28,000 are condos. This growth doesn’t include secondary suites, laneway, infill or duplexes. Or any existing zoned capacity.
So this raises the question why the rush to rezone without first doing the proper planning required.
Standard planning practice is to have an interim rezoning policy to restrict major rezonings during the planning process that could set precedents or preclude options. But the opposite has happened as existing policy is used as direction to continue implementing the status quo.
Before analysis and recalibration of the housing targets can be considered, all the data needs to be provided so that planning is based on fact, not narrative. But much of the key data council requested is missing, such as the listing of market ownership developments, both for historical from 2010 and current projects, as well as existing zoned capacity. This should be readily available to staff, yet it was withheld.
It is also important to consider how the world is changing with the impacts of COVID-19.
Recent publications by Ann McAfee, former City of Vancouver director of planning, identified three major planning initiatives that are impacted by COVID-19 context and fiscal constraints: the City of Vancouver’s City-wide Plan, Metro Vancouver’s Metro 2050 update of the Regional Growth Strategy, and TransLink’s Transport 2050 Regional Transportation Strategy.
McAfee noted it is “time for cities to pause and pivot.” A shift to working from home has had a dramatic impact on housing, office and transportation needs for these plans to reconsider. It is likely that working from home is here to stay in the long-term, at least part-time.
The rush hour commute is likely to disperse more evenly over the day and in lower volumes. This makes major transit projects like the Broadway subway less viable than ever. The peak-hour ridership is likely to remain low enough that multiple arterial routes of electric buses, both rapid and local serving, could easily handle the volume while reducing GHGs at a much lower cost.
People are becoming more concerned about livability and having enough space to live comfortably when spending more time at home, including a quality home office, openable windows for fresh air, and outdoor space. Tiny condos or rentals, with bedrooms barely big enough for a bed and without windows, are not adequate. And most households have at least one vehicle that needs a parking space to allow for future shifts to electric vehicles.
High concentrations of people with many touch points in elevator-dependent glass towers, that require more heating and cooling with recirculated air, have become less desirable.
Urban design and livability are an important part of sustainability and should not be sacrificed for expediency.
Regional plans that have been focused around SkyTrain with tower development at stations are a typology of the past, like freeways and urban renewal towers of the 1950s and 1960s.
The City of Vancouver was designed to be transit-oriented prior to the common use of the automobile. It has 22 neighbourhoods originally connected to a streetcar system that ran along the arterials, that was replaced by the electric trolley buses we have today.
Each neighbourhood is designed as a complete community that is walkable within 10 to 15 minutes of arterial transit, a central shopping district, schools, community centre, library and parks. These amenities need to be enhanced to ensure that they are increased for already amenity deficient neighbourhoods and increased to meet ongoing population growth.
It is critical that development doesn’t get ahead of the funding for the amenities needed for complete communities.
Local businesses in shopping districts are struggling, mostly due to development pressures that are inflating land values and property taxes.
Excessive development growth beyond real population growth has consequences as we have seen over the last decade with related development pressure, demolition, land inflation, and displacement that cause the ongoing housing crisis. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
This is why we need the data in order to recalibrate housing targets for further planning based on fact not a narrative. COVID-19 has accelerated changes in behaviours with shifting needs that should be considered in both local and regional planning. It is not business as usual and we have time to plan properly without rushing.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Saturday August 22, 2020 – page B2
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2020 all rights reserved.