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The promise of a new approach is damaged after sneak towers appear in Commercial Drive plan

July 16th, 2013 · 50 Comments

As I say in this story in the Globe and Mail, which comes in at the tail end of a debate that Frank Ducote introduced us to a little over a month ago, many observers in the community thought that the city was going to do things differently when it adopted a go-slow approach to developing community plans.

Although those plans have lots of good things in them (and represent hundreds of hours of hard work by planners who I know have been spending their nights at community meetings, on walks, at public gatherings), they’ve been skewered by the addition of a few elements that attract public anger and help feed the elaborate theories about what council is up to.

A shame. But, planning manager Brian Jackson says, these are just the first drafts. The proof will be in the final versions.

After a series of public rebellions against new developments in Vancouver the last four years, the city’s recently hired planning manager promised that things would be different.

Instead of getting embroiled in one-off battles over individual projects, general manager Brian Jackson said planners would develop thoughtful blueprints for four key neighbourhoods. They would listen to the residents. They would provide specific details about height and density so no one would be surprised by anything that came along. Their community plans would provide a model for future planning in other city neighbourhoods as Vancouver strives to accommodate more residents.


That utopian vision has taken a beating in the last couple of weeks after major uproars about two of the plans – one covering the city’s popular Commercial Drive area, called Grandview-Woodland, the other in the Marpole area near the Fraser River.

In Grandview, the community was outraged over the news that planners envisioned a 37-storey tower and a cluster of other smaller towers around the area’s major transit hub. In Marpole, the igniting spark was a city proposal to cut one street in half and allow houses to be built on the other half.

In both cases, residents said those weren’t their ideas at all, but concepts that seemed to come out of nowhere.

And activists in the two other communities slated for plans – the West End and the Downtown Eastside – say more public opposition is coming.

The city has now backed off the two most controversial ideas.

“Staff have heard loud and clear that the public was opposed to the heights,” said Mr. Jackson after a raucous couple of meetings in the Commercial Drive area last week. “We’re going to be reformulating how high density can be achieved there.”

Mr. Jackson’s staff went back to the drawing board last week at a new planning session, where residents were invited to use Styrofoam blocks to show what kind of building density they preferred. That showed that many preferred a lower, European-style approach to density, with clusters of eight- to 10-storey buildings.

But the uproar has demonstrated to many residents that the city’s political leaders and planners are still tone-deaf when it comes to hearing what kind of city people want.

And it’s demonstrated, one more time, to those same politicians and planners that inserting density into the city’s older neighbourhoods is going to be many times more difficult than it was to create the “Vancouverist” downtown of tall, slim towers that put the city on the map in the 1990s and 2000s.

One of the city’s most persistent critics, West End activist Randy Helten, said most people in the city understand new residents are coming and there needs to be new buildings for them to live in.

But he believes there’s now a huge level of mistrust about how new development will be integrated, because of the city’s poor approach to consultation.

“It’s quite clear from the city’s perspective that they want to appear to have consulted but they don’t want so much consultation that it causes trouble.”

Others say it appears to be more a case of bad management than deliberate deceit. Residents who have gone to the many public workshops that have been held say individual city planners are making a genuine effort to talk to the community and understand what people want. They have produced some good ideas in their draft plans that reflect what was said.

But those planners appear to be hamstrung by tight budgets and short timelines, which are fatal to successful community consultations. They don’t have the money to send out comprehensive mailings, with the result that many residents say they never knew a consultation was going on.

And those planners seem to be getting orders from elsewhere. Neither Mr. Jackson nor anyone else has been able to explain convincingly how towers came to be part of the Commercial Drive plan when no one had ever mentioned them in public meetings.

Mr. Jackson now says planners had decided to take “much more of a focused approach to high density” and that’s what led to the tower cluster. He acknowledges that “the community was caught by surprise.”

The four community plans are supposed to be adopted in the fall, which Mr. Jackson says gives everyone lots of time to thrash out the details of density.

He also says the city needs to do a better job of telling the overall story. That story? “The vast majority of the land base is not going to change. The values that they have come to like in their neighbourhoods are still going to be there.”

So far, that’s not what many people have been hearing.

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