Common Ground Magazine – October 2020
by Elizabeth Murphy
Midway in the civic election cycle, Vancouver continues the policies of the decimated Vision council in spite of the current Council’s attempt to steer a new direction through a city-wide plan. The Vancouver Plan has been hijacked as a COVID recovery program to advance unrelenting spot rezoning for the foreseeable future, without proper planning.
Housing affordability is the main issue in Vancouver. But staff ranked it as the fifth of ten goals in the Vancouver Plan, based primarily on input from special interest groups. The first goal is reconciliation through decolonization, even though reconciliation is a federal responsibility.
Start perhaps with decolonizing the American takeover of city hall.
Gregor Robertson was an NDP MLA installed as the Vision mayor in 2008 by American investor Joel Solomon and the developer lobby. Senior city staff have since been dominated by American recruits, such as city manager Sadhu Johnson.
The major turnover of staff in the last decade has resulted in loss of institutional memory. This has been particularly problematic in the planning department, as the formerly renowned high standards for urban design and liveability are being targeted and dismantled as impediments to unlimited redevelopment.
An example is our built heritage, which is most of the older more affordable buildings. As these are demolished and replaced by more expensive new construction that displaced people cannot afford, it inflates land values, which in turn increases unaffordability and homelessness. Redevelopment also increases the ecological footprint.
Current policies will exacerbate affordability and environmental issues as heritage and character buildings are now being framed as part of a colonial past to be conveniently eliminated for more unimpeded redevelopment.
While staff are stalling on data requested by Council to recalibrate the housing targets as part of Vancouver Plan, available census data shows there has been more new dwellings produced than household growth since 2001. There are enough new projects in application for the next decades of projected population growth to come. Therefore, there is no legitimate reason for the city’s current rush to rezone without proper planning.
Population growth has been about one percent per year, or 5,500 people. That would justify 25,000 units per decade. However, the city’s aspirational housing targets are 72,000 per decade, almost three times actual growth rates.
All of this rush to overbuilding is increasing the city’s greenhouse gases. A 2017-18 study by UBC professor Joseph Dahmen concluded that “The average carbon dioxide emission payback period of 168 years for a typical high efficiency new home renders it unlikely that emission savings will be realized before it is replaced.” This reflects how much redevelopment affects the environment.
In order to address the climate crisis, it is important to consider how we can do more with what we have. That includes the three ‘Rs’ of reduce, reuse and recycle our largest consumer item of homes through adaptive reuse.
Ann McAfee, former City of Vancouver director of planning, has identified that it is “time for cities to pause and pivot”. Major planning initiatives that are impacted by COVID-19 and fiscal constraints at the civic and regional levels, should address working from home that has had a dramatic impact on housing, office and transportation needs for these plans to reconsider. The pack-and-stack model of SkyTrain, with tower development at stations, is looking like a typology of the past.
However, controversial rezoning public hearings have set a record pace through this COVID period. This included the 28 storeys at Birch and Broadway that was approved, and rezoning all neighbourhood C2 shopping areas city-wide that was referred to this fall. Also this fall are other rental incentive spot rezonings for arterials and side street transition areas, as well as large rental buildings such as the 14 storey tower at Alma and Broadway with a public hearing coming within weeks.
The NDP’s “independent” Mayor Stewart proposed a spot rezoning policy for multiplexes citywide as a surprise amendment, similar to what former mayor Gregor Robertson did right before the NDP’s civic Vision party were wiped out at the last election.
Except Mayor Stewart personally promoted his proposal election style. Through his personal Nation Builder software campaign website, it mined personal data from the public, had a letter generator form to lobby Mayor and Council, and asked for donations. This website was even being promoted by the City Clerk’s staff.
Rather than politicizing and undermining the planning process, the city should be doing proper neighbourhood-based planning through the Vancouver Plan. Genuine meaningful involvement of the local community in each neighbourhood would allow for accommodating growth, based on real data, that suits the scale and character of each neighbourhood. Urban design and livability are an important part of sustainability and should not be sacrificed for expediency.
While the NDP mayor and Vision city staff continue the policies set by the former council, many involved in Vision are now in other positions of influence. Former Vision councillor Geoff Meggs is now the Chief of Staff to NDP Premier John Horgan. Raymond Louie lobbies for developers to Mayor Stewart. Andrea Reimer and Joel Solomon are on the UBC Board of Governors advocating for subway extension to UBC. Others are in Ottawa.
After a decade of increasing the affordability crisis, homelessness and the city’s environmental footprint, they are still at it.
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.
Common Ground Print Edition October 2020 – Page 6