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Debate over social-housing tower comes to Mount Pleasant

January 21st, 2010 · 69 Comments

There’s been a lot of concern in my neighbourhood over the planned social-housing project at the corner of Broadway and Fraser, just the latest of what seems like an ongoing series of neighbourhood unhappiness over density, towers, or social housing.

Cheryl Rossi at the Courier has done a story here on what the active neighbourhood group has to say. This is the first of the social housing projects coming to ground outside the Downtown Eastside, so it will be interesting to see how this conversation evolves. It will for sure give everyone an idea of what the conversation might be like for the project at 16th and Dunbar.

It’s easy sometimes for planners and housing groups to write off all opposition as just ignorant NIMBYism. And there is some of that going around in this neighbourhood, for sure. But that’s not the end of the story.

I went to a very thoughtful thesis defence in SFU’s Urban Studies department this week, where the thesis writer looked at the way a closer analysis of opposition to projects shows that, while NIMBYism can and usually is present at the fringes, there is also some very laudable citizen vigilance that is well rooted in concern for the community that happens in these cases.

That’s what I heard when I dropped in on the open house last night for the Broadway/Fraser project. As is always the case with “public consultation” these days, the open houses are always designed to split people up, rather than have a big open meeting, so that the angry ranters don’t get a chance to dominate.

That’s good, but I was struck by what I noticed in the conversations I had, which was a tendency among the explainers (city planners, architects, housing groups) to take on a tone of “but you just don’t realize the facts and I’m now going to explain them to you.” Very annoying, as it felt like I wasn’t really being listened to. (Something that made me pause, as I realize I’ve likely frequently been guilty of that in the past myself.)

In the small groups I eavesdropped on, it sounded as though others were having the same experience and not being persuaded by it. One explainer said the neighbourhood didn’t have to worry about problems with the project because there had been a housing project built on Fraser and everyone had been worried about that, but it was completely unnoticeable now that it was up. But, said the woman listening, that project was much smaller, only 30 or so units, and this was is 100. And the people accepted there were people who’d gone through rehab; this one is for people who still have a lot of problems that aren’t going away any time soon.

There’s another whole group of people who completely support social housing and are willing to be persuaded that there will be enough staffing to ensure the project doesn’t become a magnet for trouble, but they hate the form of the building — a 10-storey tower on a stretch of Broadway that is one or two storey — mini-malls, 1930s-era apartments, 1960s-era apartments and the like. Again, the explainers kindly informed me that this is a form that’s much preferred in Vancouver so that people’s views can be preserved (really? you’re kidding me) and that as Broadway develops, everything will rise to that kind of height.

Also wading into the discussion is a group that has set up a Facebook site in support of the project. I’m pasting in the email I got from them below, but before I get to that, I’d just like to express a perhaps naive and idealistic hope that all groups here could actually listen to each other, not just label each other as “hippy dippy bleeding heart who owns no property and doesn’t realize the impact that is going to have” or “heartless homeowner who only cares about his/her property values and would rather see people die in the street.”

Pretty much everyone who lives in this neighbourhood realizes there are quite a few homeless or marginally housed people around. Many just try to get by. A few cause some real problems. We’d all like to see people living indoors rather than in our alleys. If everyone could start from there.

In the meantime, here’s the email from “the other side.”


This past Sunday myself and a few friends created a Facebook group to support the Broadway Youth Resource Centre and the expansion of its facilities. We were disappointed to receive a leaflet in the mail recently from a group opposing the BYRC project and wanted to show our support. Since Sunday we’ve had more than 200 people join the group and I’ve been contacted by countless people wanting to get involved to stand up for the BYRC.

Many folks speak highly of the amazing work that the BYRC does for youth in our community – including counseling and peer support, helping youth to find employment and housing, holding high school classes onsite to help youth get their high school diploma – these are just a few of the amazing programs run by the BYRC.

If you take a moment to go and visit the BYRC at Fraser and Broadway one of the first things you’ll see are the beautiful murals across from and kitty-corner to their building. These murals were a collaboration between local artists and youth from the BYRC and represent the diverse backgrounds of the youths that access the BYRC and also serve to beautify our community.

I appreciate some of the concerns raised by the group opposing the BYRC project and think that some of these concerns need to be addressed. I often worry about the lack of support provided by the Provincial government to supportive and social housing and believe that more detox, treatment and counseling programs need to be available to assist folks dealing with addictions issues. But first and foremost people need homes to get healthy and that is often the initial step needed for someone to begin to deal with difficulties in their lives.

I also take the opposition group’s comments with a grain of salt. If you visit their website – the top link on their site is for a group called NIABY – which stands for “Not in anyone’s backyard”-

This site is encourages fear and negative stereotypes around people dealing with drug addiction issues. The quote on the top of the NIABY site reads “Drug treatment centers, halfway houses, and homeless shelters are facilities specifically designed for borderline populations that suffer from high criminality and drug uses and have been shown to attract drug market.”

Based on this information and some of the other links found on the site, I worry that the opposition group, while purporting to have concerns about the way in which the BYRC site is going to be managed (all of which can likely be addressed by the BYRC/Native Housing Society), they may in fact be more concerned with property values and crime issues. These kinds of points are often put forth by groups that oppose social housing projects, but more often than not, turn out to be false.

I will be at tonight’s open house (Jan 20th) at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House at 6:30pm with my friends and neighbours to show the City and our neighbours that we support the BYRC, that we support building more homes for the homeless, and that we believe Vancouver is for everyone!

Please feel free to contact me at or check out our Facebook Group called “Vancouver is for Everyone: Support the Broadway Youth Resource Centre” for more info.



Categories: Uncategorized

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    The cost of the charrette is always a tricky one to answer, and it is a point that is always raised.

    However, if we agree that the results are different—that the charrette-driven process delivers urban design whereas the planning process does not—then we also agree that we are not comparing apples to apples.

    The question then becomes, “What value do we get for the additional money?”

    If there are rendering artists on the team, for example, then there will be fees paid that are not included in planning process as practiced today.

    Those diagrams, as mentioned earlier, are more than window dressing. They play a didactic role. They “show” what the plan will build. And, they serve as exhibits whenever projects are coming on stream that stake holders may feel don’t meet the agreed upon vision.

    In the last five years I have seen Councils in White Rock and Nanaimo turn Community Plans up side down by changing just one word in just one night. Yes, by changing the maximum height limit—just that one word—and leaving everything else in the plan intact.

    That would not fly with an urban design plan. And, that may well be the reason to avoid it.

    But there is one more thing. In the planning process for the London Drugs and the Home Depot that would locate on West Broadway, near Arbutus, I watched our planning staff essentially have to do the planning process all over again.

    What was the cost the “do over”, compared to using the charrette/urban design process right from the start?

    We may never know. I am over simplifying, and I am not claiming to be an impartial observer, but in my humble the problem then and now is the lack of urban design in the planning.

  • MB

    Point taken Lewis. But the issue about process may be more about time and scale, not money.

    A charrette usually takes place over two or three meetings to conceptualize, explore options and define the preferred option. This process may be more appropriate to a neighbourhood or local streetscape (e.g. 6 blocks on Broadway near Fraser), and would involve several disciplines (hopefully!) working in concert with a neighourhood group and the city.

    But to apply this process to an individual site and proposed use, like determining the public acceptance of a 10-storey 100 unit addictions treatment centre vs. a 4-storey 40 unit centre seems unwieldy and out of sync. The parameters of the centre should have been determined as part of a previous exercise.

    In this case, the urban design charrette should have followed the neighbouhood vision, and would have concentrated on that particular quadrant of Mount Pleasant. It should have included references to uses / zoning, height limits, architectural and streetscape treatments and such.

    In other words, urban design charrettes may best be described as an intermediate step between the overall broad planning exercise and site specific detailed design.

    Here we obviously have an anomaly being plunked down at a scale no one previously anticipated. It’s the scale that’s upsetting the neighbourhood, not necesssarily the philosophy of treating addictions and addressing homelessness and mental health locally.

    And we also have to admit that we can’t control everything. Senior governments can and do act against local government (hence local people) and sometimes it doesn’t matter how deep neighbourhood visioning is and how many design charrettes and detailed urban design plans are created.

    How many votes will the BC Liberals lose if they place a 10-storey addictions treatment centre in an NDP riding? Politics has the unfortunate tendency to intrude.

  • MB

    I just remembered an article I read a couple of years ago where an architect placed a 30-unit social housing and addictions treatment centre a stone’s throw from London’s Trafalgar Square.

    His idea was that small can be beautiful and income and zoning diversity in even horribly expensive neighbourhoods helps create a stronger society. He advocated dotting small and medium-scale social housing developments throughout cities, and was very keen on neighbourhood “fit”.

    Obviously a 30-unit facilty in central London wouldn’t be cheap, but it’s subsidized anyway and at that scale it would fit in and funtion well.

    There was no attempt on behalf of the authorities to lessen the construction cost per unit by building (or converting) a larger building in an attempt to recoup through efficiencies of scale. In the public sector often the most expensive costs are in long term operations, not in capital expenses.

  • owl

    This is a first rate dialogue with I think very astute, honest, & informed contributions. To me it comes down to exactly what MB zeros in on when he says
    “Here we obviously have an anomaly being plunked down at a scale no one previously anticipated. It’s the scale that’s upsetting the neighbourhood, not necesssarily the philosophy of treating addictions and addressing homelessness and mental health locally.”
    Over and over people have said that, we are not against the supportive housing aspect or the BYAC or Native Housing. Forget the NIABY website, forget the NIMBY accusations. Look up the list on the city’s housing website. It is there in black and white. Mount Pleasant gets way more than our share of the towers & numbers of units. Dunbar gets 4 stories, 51 units, Fairview gets 9 stories, 62 units in among four to five story buildings. All the downtown ones are either hotels already there or are towers where there are already high buildings. This is the aberration, a tower at the highest point in the landscape among two story buildings. This proposed structure is the same height as the Stella condos above the car dealer at 12th & Kingsway which is advertised for its view as the tallest. I won’t bore you with all the details of units heights densitys adjacent structures. Just believe me this is out of place, out of sync, and the excuse given by BC housing that the neighbourhood is going to grow up to that height along Broadway is a crock. Our historic neighbourhood deserves better urban planning.

  • owl

    -A Sense of Place
    -A Contextual Response
    -A High Quality Public Realm
    -Neighbourly Development
    -Recognizing our History
    -Architectural Distinction—–
    these are the principles guiding city hall according to their Urban Design and Development Planning Center which refers to the Urban Design Panel. Do these principles apply in the 671-695 East Broadway project? This panel met in August to review 2321 Scotia, The Elyce, next door to new OneKingsway community center. It was suggested they reconsider a green roof, an architectural expression more appropriate to Mount Pleasant, a stronger three story base. Of course the panel is advisory. But we still have to ask when is it a “done deal” really if it can be reviewed. But I’m done these big eyes are tired from all the daylight.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    MB we’re back to your earlier point, about how a discussion about a 10-storey building on Broadway & Fraser became a discussion about urban design, and charrettes.

    Should the horse be pulling or pushing the wagon?

    Charrettes are tools for creating urban design plans. Urban design plans are not employed in the City of Vancouver (the Fraser Lands is one exception). Urban design plans break down urbanism into its primary elements and address each one in the turn, including: human scale, neighbourhood footprint, block pattern, street type, building type, systems (like transportation), and finance. Owl does a fine job of distilling the essence of what this means in his bulleted list.

    To the those who wrote in this string about not been heard, or feeling that the vision had not been respected, my suggestion was that many of the problems originate in the need to allow urban design to shape neighbourhoood planning, and that increasingly the old approach fails to address the critical issues.


    (a) If City staff had been talking in terms of urban design facts, the sense of “not being heard” may not have even materialized in the audience.

    (b) If the vision was coded as an urban design plan, we would not be having this discussion. It would be obvious to anyone that 10-storey buildings either were, or were not, in keeping with the urban design plan.

    c) Commitment to urban planning at the local level might take away much of the power of the Senior levels of government to “act against local government (hence local people)”. This is more likely when we consider that urban design methodology and urban design plans are going to need support from, and coordination with, the senior levels of government.

    (d) Ultimately, we called on urban design to make the point that opposing the “type” of building being proposed/mandated is not NIMBYism. Rather, standing to oppose “bad urbanism” is good community involvement pure and simple.

    The omission of urban design in community planning is a problem that our increasingly urban lives are bringing into sharp focus. We can resist a change in the planning paradigm all we want, but we cannot escape it.

    As regards what kind of facility is best for social housing, what I have seen reported from Boston’s Cabrini Green, and what I have seen first hand in Coquitlam, suggests that for recovery programs small groups are better than large, and sharing a house among a handful of individuals can in fact support treatment.

    Reports that I have seen about what type of assisted housing works best for families also suggest that housing “that just blends in with everybody else” is most desirable.

    Seamlessly melding into the neighbourhood seems to be a common theme. Of course that’s exactly what we feel the tower will not do.

  • MB

    @ Lewis, I think we are actually agreeing in so many words.

    My point is that, based on 18 years in the public sector, management may be a little loath to devote weeks or even months to urban design charrettes in each neighbuorhood on top of the planning processes already in place, and exercised by staff who are overburdened by the sheer volume of project-related work already in the pipe.

    This isn’t to say that urban design planning shouldn’t occur with neighbourhood charrettes. Just the opposite. But they need to find practical ways to introduce this layer during a time of staff layoffs and Olympic challenges following one of the most heated and busy development periods in our history.

    @ Owl, the ADP functions in a purely advisory role and they can have positive influence and issue insightful comments. However, I’ve also heard some very off-the-wall comments from certain individuals on the ADP when I was in the private sector, which really made me question their role, especially on mid-level projects.

    However, some cities don’t even have an ADP, which means that planners make comments on developments that are often biased or ill informed. It can be a mixed bag.

    I have a sincere respect for planners who have a design background — better yet, who have actually built something noteworthy.

  • MB

    “… management may be a little loath to devote weeks or even months to urban design charrettes in each neighbuorhood on top of the planning processes already in place …”

    Perhaps, Lewis, you’d say we need to consider replacing the existing planning processes? I would agree.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Yes, MB I see it as a paradigm change. Not one imposed from within planning per se, but just The Times They Are A-Comin’, or A-Running Out, you pick.

    I do not see how we can continue to intensify into urban neighbourhoods with the same methods and methodology that delivered the suburbs… which like it or not were a raging success, and are not going away any time soon.

    That doesn’t mean that we are not going to see a barrage of one-site-at-a-time planning approval in the coming weeks, months and years. But, against the grain of history, my sense is that we will look back at these projects and shake our heads.

  • just sayin’

    The height of the proposed building is completely ridiculous and totally out of reasonable scale for the area. Beyond that I don’t take issue with the proposed uses or function of the building site. Fraser Street needs more services for the underclass – they were there first. I just find it hard to believe the proposed use will get full follow-through. Call me cynical, but considering the direction most of these projects have taken in recent years (# of promised social housing units dwindling the closer the project gets to it’s budget limit), combined with the spectacular views from all but the first two floors of the proposed building, I think it unlikely that in the long run this project will lead to anything other than more high-rise condos, with increasingly expensive views, and less affordable housing along the Bway corridor. Grumpy home-owners take heart! The value of your property will likely increase as ramshackle 3-story stucco monstrosities are leveled to make room for gated townhomes.

  • Megan

    MB and Lewis….I sure hope you plan to send in your comments to the City and/or speak at the public hearing. I was speaking with the Urban Design Panel rep. from the City at the Jan 20th open house. She was the only one who I thought was remotely interested in hearing concerns about the project in its current form. Her role as it was explained to me is : “The Development Planner is an Architect who is responsible for analyzing and responding to the proposed form and design of the building. The Planner will provide direction regarding form and design to be included in the report to City Council”.
    Anyway, she said that she will “consider” the comments that come in from the public when making her report to Council. (Hence my urging of you to send in something to the City). Give me urban design all the way from Main St to Fraser – what a wasteland that area is and has been for 20 years. Heck while we’re at it give me urban design from Clarke to Fraser too. Anyway, I digress…. When I asked the Urban Design rep. if she would be looking at the information the City already has from the 2.5 years of work we have already done in the “vision planning” process, she said she would look at this info but, as this information hasn’t been presented to, or ratified by Council yet, she doesn’t have a “framework” to go on at this point. I said so essentially the City can build anything they want….she repeated “at this point I don’t have a framework to go on”. What the…..!! Ok…, I sent in a request to Peter Burch at the City who has been heading the visioning process, to provide me with a time line for when this will be wrapped up and presented to Council…..not surprisingly, I haven’t heard back from him. Why are these two processes (i.e. vision planning and re-zoning of Fraser/Broadway) not being done simultaneously? It’s not a hard stretch to believe that the City is counting on this dis-connect between the 2 processes….it looks like Gasp is right…..the decision about this project was made long ago and the visioning process is just window dressing…. And one last comment ….”senior governments can and do act against local government (hence local people)”….. I asked the BC Housing rep at the open house whether BC Housing would still build the project, if the height and density were altered to be more in line with the visioning process. He said “yes”…they will build whatever comes forth from Council…, it looks to me that it’s not Senior government acting against the local government…more evidence to suggest that the City has decided long ago what they plan to build on the most neglected corner in the middle of the most neglected stretch of our neighbourhood…. Lewis and MB, please send in your well considered comments to the City….Lewis…you extended an invite to meet and discuss urban design issues to someone else on this blog. would you consider meeting with me?

  • Bill Lee

    Another example (bad) of the planning consultation.

    The northeast side just got an (English only!!) postcard, dated 22 Jan, received 26 Jan, about Development Application No. DE413600

    This is the “temporary” (ha!) stadium with a ‘time-limited permit’ as it says in the postcard, on the old Empire Stadium (another ‘Games’!) site.

    And however here it says that consultation means nothing at the 2 hour Feb 4 meeting at the Hastings Community Centre, for “Council endorsed the proposal to use this site… by resolution on January 21, 2010.

    So it’s F.U. East Van, you get 40,000 cars for fireworks and drunken sports every week. It’s already been decided.
    I would have thought that Susan Anton would have pushed to have Memorial Park West made the side to bring added business to the poor of Dunbar. It is twice area as you can see with the planimeter
    Empire Stadium site 4.341 hectares
    Memorial Park West 31st and Dunbar 8.095 hectares

    Go for it, Susan! Bring soccer to the West side masses.

  • owl

    Come on, Empire Stadium? West Side soccer? We have a major potential disaster at Broadway/Fraser. Let’s keep on topic on the off chance the words may be useful for our case. If this is about trying to get a less-high building, say five or six stories, and fewer high risk people brought to the corner, say 50 or so, and insisting on 24 marketable units of housing in the project, then as I see it we perhaps should make a sensible, economical suggestion for an alternative way of housing 50 or so at- risk- of -homelessness people that would have been in the tower in some other housing form, say adaptive re-use of nearby lowrise, or something city owned not nearby, or any other workable solution. A revolution of our urban design as applied to neighbourhoods is a great need. The dialogue on how to go about it is crucial in the long term & the commentaries by specialists on here & on other articles city wide is most necessary. But We do have to zero in. Right now we need to get the words & images of protest & alternative solutions in front of the faces of the people who have it within their mandate to make some changes to this one plan at 761-795 East Broadway. I know it is part of something bigger. I know there is something kind of unsettling about the two fires right down the street at Kingsway & at Main, I know the community plan is for all of Mt Pleasant, but right now we got to just dig in as a local group to save this corner. We have to hammer away at the folly of it. We have to not deviate. We shall not fail nor falter (Sorry, Eh?) We are gaining strength. We should be able to find a straightforward solution for mitigating the tower travesty. Remember it was people against rezoning that saved Strathcona from a water front freeway, it was the same to save Stanley Park entrance from becoming behemoth towers between Georgia St and the waterfront, @Megan, Bev Chew is calling CLG members. they are trying to get us back to CLG meetings starting early Feb. They are saying timeline next fall for having draft comm. plan before council. They are saying there are many other aspect to the plan beside the B’way/Fraser corridor. You kow what is going on, when you don’t hear from Peter Burch. Are you still intersted in attending the CLG.?@all, an idea would be to get CLG members to spread the word to everybody (any group or individual including the people who don’t use their names but organize by capital letters ) to sort of en mass delegate to the next CLG meeting at the Native Friendship center and make it another article for Frances Bula. Lots of young people please who have to live with these city decisions.

  • owl

    Confirmed. Thursday, Feb 4, CLG meeting Native Friendship Centre, 5th and Scotia, 7-930 pm. Also meetings coming up, Feb. 10, Mar. 4, Mar. 9. It would be interesting to see democracy in action & to have some inspiration from specialists like Lewis, MB.

  • Megan

    Owl – I will spread the word about the meeting on the 4th. Thank you for the dates as interestingly, I have not been informed of these.

  • owl

    Megan-This was in an e-mail from Bev Chew for Peter Burch supposedly to all CLG members. I also got a phone call a day or two earlier. I can say the feeling I get is they will not want to deal with this tower even though all their “community involvement” showed nobody wants it. They have gone ahead & illustrated it as a tower

  • mushroom.treatment

    I agree totally with gasp // Jan 21, 2010 and Joseph Jones // Jan 21, 2010. That’s also been my experience dealing with City Hall and developers in my neighbourhood. There is no meaningful consultation with the citizens of Vancouver at all. This is wrong.

  • Loo

    Just joined this group. I am totally in support of the BRYC and believe that expanding their space and services is long overdue. I also feel that social housing units in the GVRD need to be increased. Where I have questions is a) The height of the building b) The lack of mixed units. I am unsure of the value of concentrating people in social housing units. Let us remember that the the projects of Chicago were built with the intent to improve the neighborhood and provid social housing yet ended creating considerable problems. These projects have now been raised and replaced with mixed neighborhood housing. The Chicago projects were massive in comparison and the socio-economic reality very different but it does raise the question, is bigger better? Where are the mixed housing projects that were one of the cornerstones of the municipalities platform on social housing in Vancouver? As a Mount Pleasant resident and a supporter of the BYRC I hope that we can support youth and the communities challenges. At the same time I would like to question the scale of this project and I would like to ask the members of this group why they believe such a large scale project is necessary?

  • New resident of the area

    I am a new resident to Mount Pleasant and am curious to know what has been decided about this development. I agree that the scale of the development needs to be reconsidered. With the proposed development at Main and second, the numerous housing already in place in Mount Pleasant and this new one at Broadway and Fraser, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of supported housing in one area of the city. I too wonder what neighborhood changes will occur considering the concentration of individuals who are all struggling with mental illness and addiction issues. it seems that with all the research available regarding successful urban planning, that the city would listen. Instead it appears they just want to get more bang for their buck at the expense of the success of the project. sadly, in the long run, the expenses will likely be more when this social experiment fails.