What’s wrong with CityPlan?
That’s what a handful of the city’s most energetic urban activists will gather to talk about today in Eleanor Riddell’s living room.
CityPlan, the process meant to design a future for Vancouver that would be carried out over the next 30 years, has been 26 months in the making so far.
Twenty thousand people participated to come up with what appears to be the final conclusion, at least as it shows up in surveys and questionnaires: Most people in Vancouver are willing to take in the 160,000 new residents calculated as the city’s share of the growth predicted to the year 2021 for the Greater Vancouver region. And if they have to take them in, they’d rather have them absorbed by building up about 20 urban villages in the city, rather than using up industrial land or spreading them out through Vancouver.
Now, in theory, Vancouver city planners will fill in the details of that vision for the city and the 20 neighborhoods will begin deciding how they want to absorb the 2,000 to 3,000 housing units that is their share of the growth.
The burr under the saddle here is people like Riddell, Charles Dobson, Mel Lehan, Jan Pierce, Ron Hawkes, Gillian Watson-Donald and others. They’re worried about how fair the CityPlan process was and, more important, how much control neighborhoods will really have over development.
As they prepare to start pushing for changes, the city is considering what strategies to use for neighborhoods that don’t want to take in any more housing — strategies like putting them at the bottom of the funding list for community services.
Some, like Pierce and Riddell, feel railroaded by the city. “There’s some concern that CityPlan was driven by projections that Vancouver would have to absorb a certain number of people,” said Riddell, who got involved with city planning through her neighborhood group, the Cartier Hudson Athlone Team. “I sat in as a facilitator at some meetings and certainly at the end of it, there was a feeling that we were driven to absorb more than what some people wanted.”
Pierce is bothered by the choices the city gave people: no growth (clearly not an option); using industrial land for growth; spreading new people out through the city; or putting them in urban villages.
“I feel there’s a fifth option that wasn’t presented,” says Pierce, a Kitsilano resident. “It’s a future where neighborhoods try to look at their own needs for housing and decide what to develop. Yes, we densify, but we do it based on what neighborhoods need.”
Others are less concerned about the past of CityPlan than the future.
“The big difficulty everybody’s had is deciding to what degree the city will actually allow citizens to make decisions,” says Charles Dobson, a longtime advocate from Mount Pleasant who believes in stronger neighborhood participation in city government.
“They got the message loud and clear from the discussion groups that everybody is interested in more neighborhood governance and that doesn’t appear anywhere.”
Dobson predicts that if neighborhoods don’t feel that they have a genuine say in what’s going on, “there’s going to be serious opposition all over the place.”
It’s going to be especially intense on the west side of Vancouver. “I think when developers go in and try to densify the desirable parts of the city — the west side — people will be up in arms. The areas of the city where people would like to see change, on the east side, developers aren’t interested in them.”
Activists like Dobson, Pierce and Riddell are often dismissed by city councillors as not really representing average city residents.
But they can be powerful in mobilizing opposition when those average city residents don’t feel they’re listened to.
Ann McAfee, the associate director of planning who has been overseeing CityPlan, admits the city could face serious problems if it doesn’t find ways of including neighborhood opinions and finding new processes for listening to those people most directly affected by development — the people who find themselves with transit lines going through their front yards or apartment buildings appearing across the street.
“If we don’t come up with some way of making sure those people aren’t hurt by something that’s for the general good, we’re going to have strong negative responses.”
But McAfee also doesn’t show any sign the city is willing to let neighborhoods totally control Vancouver’s growth.
She doesn’t think that works.
“We’ll pretend we’re taking a share of the growth, but when you add it up, nothing’s happened. I’m more comfortable saying, `Let’s set a target of two or three thousand in a neighborhood and work to that.’ ”
Neighborhoods will have the choice, through a local planning process, of how they want to spread that extra housing out — towers, townhouses, secondary suites — but the target will stay.
What happens if they decide not to go along with the plan? “The thinking here now is if a community says no, we’re not going to take anything, then when budget time comes, they’re not going to be in the front of the line for community services.”
In spite of that, McAfee doesn’t see any crisis brewing. For one, the region’s projections for the population Vancouver needs to take have already been lowered.
Second, all of this is a long way away. Although a report will go to council Jan. 17 that puts some flesh on the bones of the urban-village vision, McAfee expects any real change to be a 30-year process.
Vancouver already has the capacity for 70,000 new housing units in the downtown area and along the major arteries. The 30,000-40,000 units that are supposed to go into the neighborhood centres won’t be needed for a while.
It’s worth taking the time to make sure that everyone is comfortable with development, she says. “I don’t think we should compromise a long-term vision to get a couple of buildings on one corner.”
Credit: VANCOUVER SUN