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The Vancouver neighbourhoods backlash continues

June 8th, 2010 · 82 Comments

For several years, there was an unprecedented ceasefire between developers and residents in this city. After a huge brawl in the early 1990s with the public over the development of the Arbutus lands where the old brewery had been, city planners worked to find another way to talk with the public and that seemed to succeed to those looking on. All was quiet. But ever since former mayor Sam Sullivan started talking about EcoDensity, little wildfires of community resistance started popping up. That’s continued and grown as the Vision Vancouver team introduced its Short Term Incentives for Rental program. The email below, from the group Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, is the latest testament to that movement.

It’s been perplexing to many people who’ve watched the city, where almost 100,000 people in new buildings got absorbed into the downtown with barely a bleat from anyone. And now, these little protests here and there about STIR projects, about social-housing projects, about this and that project. They were dismissed at first at fringe conspiracy theorists. Some of that may be true about certain players, but they are picking up steam here and there.

I’ve come to believe that what’s going on is that, for years, there was no problem because the growth was absorbed into mostly vacant industrial land on the edges of Vancouver. A few people mourned the resortification of the waterfront or the former grubby area around Granville Street but, by and large, there was little outcry. That’s even though there was far, far more density packed into the new Downtown South neighbourhood — heritage density bonus transfers, more density bonuses given for theatres and art galleries and Orpheum additions — than the West End will ever see.

But now the available downtown space is almost gone and developers are looking for other opportunities in Vancouver: the West End, the Cambie Corridor, various nodes along Kingsway. As well, as Housing Minister Rich Coleman has poured money into social housing, both philosophy and the city’s available land parcels have dictated that some of those 100-unit towers would be built outside the usual Downtown South/Downtown Eastside Bermuda triangle of cheap housing.

That means a lot more conflict with existing neighbourhoods. City council’s policies haven’t changed that much, really. Developers haven’t changed. Developer donations to civic political parties, whether NPA or Vision, haven’t changed. What has changed is the location of development into the established residential communities and that’s proving to be a much tougher go than plonking towers onto vacant land around False Creek. It will be a test of this council and future councils how they deal with that new reality. Just wait, by the way, for the insurgency that develops as people find out about the plans for density all along Cambie from 25th to 49th.

In the meantime, here’s the media release from NSM and Ned Jacobs

Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver

June 4, 2010

Open letter to Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver City Council:

A letter of May 18, 2010 from Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver to many members of our network stated: “City Hall is back on track!” Regretfully, we must disagree. To the contrary, regarding the planning and development of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods across the city, we see this Vision Vancouver Council hurtling forward in the same failed direction as the previous council.

Let’s start with EcoDensity. Upon election in 2008, at an event sponsored by Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV), Mayor Robertson singled out the EcoDensity initiative for criticism, and praised “the very, very intensive effort on behalf of all of you and the neighbourhoods to counter that effectively and to reframe the whole debate around what matters most.” Some Vision councillors saw a possibility to convert EcoDensity from a “policy report” to a “report for information.” This sounded like a solution, and we awaited an action that never came.

Prior to the election, Mayor Robertson and Vision Vancouver responded to a candidate questionnaire from NSV. The question “Do you support CityPlan and related neighbourhood-based Community Visioning as the primary basis for future planning in Vancouver neighbourhoods?” was answered “Yes” – with the added comment, “We need to do a better job of integrating other city reports with the CityPlan process.” We agree – and converting EcoDensity to a report for information would have accomplished that. Supported and worthwhile ideas or actions could still be brought forward for consideration and implementation. Instead, EcoDensity is being used to override CityPlan and our Vision Directions and has been written into the Greenest City Initiative as policy, which ignores your election commitment “to address outstanding concerns related to the EcoDensity Initial Actions.”

Another broken promise is the about-face on a Vision Vancouver election pledge to “oppose the transfer of density from the downtown Heritage Density Bank onto landing sites outside of the currently approved areas into communities across the city.” If allowed to stand, this reversal of policy will result in financial benefits to developers far beyond what is needed to protect heritage buildings, to the detriment of obtaining public amenities and affordable housing. Current provisions for heritage density transfer override the local area plans and Community Visions that you promised would be the primary basis for future planning in Vancouver.

The disregard of longstanding community-based plans for greening Hastings Park and instead approving PNE expansion, which includes construction of a large parking garage in the park (how “green” is that?), betrays the trust of the residents of Hastings/Sunrise. Furthermore, Councillor Louie’s role as chair of the PNE board puts him in a conflict of interest position, which Vision Vancouver has failed to acknowledge and address.

Abuses of public process that citizens objected to during the previous council’s mandate have continued and have even worsened. Reports are often rushed to council meetings with short or no notice – even for councillors. Vision candidates agreed with the NSV questionnaire that “there should be a larger role for scientific polling and referenda in determining the level of public support for major civic policy decisions.” These words have not been followed up with actions. For example, resident surveys were discontinued in the Norquay neighbourhood centre process because planners failed to obtain a “desired” result in June 2007. Ignoring the excellent community-developed plan for a village centre, the City grinds onward toward an ongoing rezoning of Norquay, which will mean mass displacements in a neighbourhood that is 32% low income. The community working group has continued to scrutinize the planning department’s extremely problematic and ever-shifting proposals, but to little effect.

The current Council passed the Principles for the Broadway/UBC Transit Corridor with no public consultation whatsoever. Only after much protest from the affected communities was any public input allowed. The City continues to sit back and let TransLink take the lead on public consultation on this huge corridor that will affect many communities, even though TransLink has the conflicted role of also using development to fund transit.

Following the election, huge incentives were created for Vision Vancouver’s development industry “partners” to build a few expensive rental units, allowing out-of-scale developments to override local area plans and sacrifice the amenities needed to serve future residents. The Short Term Incentives for Rentals (STIR) program would negatively impact neighbourhoods across the city, and especially the West End, where these projects will generate windfall profits while failing to provide affordability. Not only does STIR set a bad precedent, it is an unnecessary response to a short recession. When citizens questioned the wisdom of an “economic stimulus” (your words) for the development industry, and objected to the lack of public involvement in creating a rental strategy, Councillor Meggs retorted: “The election was the consultation—this is the delivery.” This does not match at all with Vision’s election pledge to “increase accountability, transparency, and access to City Hall with new opportunities for engagement, and improved outreach and consultation.”

We don’t believe that Council feels comfortable with this development industry “partnership”. However, all of Council, except Councillors Woodsworth and Cadman, continue to accept numerous large donations from the development industry. This practice creates public concerns about Council’s credibility on planning and development issues due to potential conflicts of interest.

The last election demonstrated voter desire for a change from what the previous council was doing – a change that has not come yet. We do not see a Vision Vancouver train that is “back on track.” Only through actions that demonstrate a genuine change in direction will you fulfill your election commitments to Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.


Ned Jacobs

On behalf of the Steering Committee
Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver

Group contact email:  [email protected]

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