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New community plans in the early optimistic stages — but need to prepare for the Trojan horses

May 21st, 2012 · 31 Comments

My narrow-focus little Twitterverse has been filled the last few weeks with heart-warming blips of news about the community planning processes in Marpole, Grandview-Woodlands and the West End.

There are story-telling sessions and walk-abouts and more, as enthusiastic planners and residents go about imagining the future of these negibhourhhods.

It’s great you all are doing that, but a word of warning to all.

This is pretty much what happened in Mount Pleasant five years ago. The first of the older neighbourhoods to get a re-planning process, Mount Pleasant had months of community meetings where residents walked around the area with planners and made finely detailed plans about what interesting retail areas they wanted to maintain or expand, where the natural meeting and walking points were, what they envisioned for the future of their neighbourhood, based on its rich past.

It was a beautiful thing to hear about, as I did through various messages from residents and the city.

But, to many, that lovely fairytale castle of possibility became a smoking heap of ruins at the plans’ first test: the Rize project at Broadway and Kingsway.

In spite of considerable opposition from the community over many aspects of the project — the form, the height, the inclusion or non-inclusion of neighbourhood benefits in the building — councillors approved the tower, largely on the basis of what they said the community plan had established. Which was that the Rize project was on one of three sites where the community had said it was willing to consider extra height and density if it fit with the neighbourhood.

The problem that I saw arise at council over this was two-fold.

1. There seemed to be many different interpretations of what “willing to consider” meant. To people in the community, it meant that they got a kind of veto power over projects. A developer could come forward with something, yes. But, in their minds, the community had the right to decide whether it fit the neighbourhood. They would act, in a way, the way the urban-design panel does when considering tall buildings that exceed the normal zoning — a special panel decides whether that tall building is beautiful, sustainable, beneficial enough to be worth breaking the usual rules for.

Councillors and other proponents, however, seemed to interpret the community plan to mean: The neighbourhood said height and density were okay here, so that means we can put a tower in. Maybe with some adjustments, but they told us this spot was okay and we’re going for it. (I’ve also heard them say that since no one came out to object when the official Mount Pleasant community plan was passed, they must have been okay with it. But that doesn’t take into account that perhaps many of them felt they would have more of a say in any major projects that were proposed, so they didn’t feel a need to go to war over the plan.)

2. The process ended up putting the planning department at odds with the community. Because the whole community plan largely rested on the planners’ summary of what they heard from residents, incorporated into the plan, the fight in subsequent real-life rezonings becomes muddied with much blame put on the planning department for misrepresenting the community’s wishes.

And it’s hard to know, without more concrete language in the plans or an actual vote or a number count or something objective, whether it’s a case of the planners accurately reflecting what the community said at the time, but when the rezoning happens, only the opponents come out or whether it’s a case of the planners accurately reflecting what the community said at the time, but when the rezoning happens, there’s been a change of opinion because there’s a whole new group of people who’ve moved in. Or whether it’s a case of the planners not catching that the residents thought they would have more of a say in deciding whether a new building fits in.

In any case, if something isn’t changed about the community-plan process between Mount Pleasant and these other three now in the works, it’s stormy waters ahead.

I hope the residents in those three areas are vigilant about the language that gets used and what the outcomes will be from development ideas that they agree to “consider.”

Planners could help too, by spelling out exactly what the community plan can and can’t do when future rezonings and developments arise.



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