Vancouver is a city of towers: That has been its image in international planning circles for years now. But this is, at best, half-true. Most of the city has remained an ocean of houses; though many people wish to live in the city, those neighbourhoods aren’t growing to accommodate them.
That could change this week. Starting Wednesday, Vancouver City Council will decide whether to approve the Broadway Plan, a 30-year proposal to reshape the corridor along the planned Broadway subway.
The region is expected to grow by a million people in the next three decades. In that context, the Broadway Plan would deliver much-needed new housing and community facilities, in a place where growth makes obvious sense. And yet – this being Vancouver – a loud minority insists it is too radical.
They are wrong. The plan would bring many more homes and jobs into the central city near transit and balance new housing with robust tenant protections. Council should ignore the noise and push forward as quickly as possible.
The plan has been four years in the making, and its logic is sound. The new subway will extend the Millennium Line by six kilometres, as far west as Kitsilano.
This is “a major city-building opportunity,” said Matt Shillito, director of special projects with the city’s planning department. “It a chance to address some of the challenges that we face.” These include making space for jobs; making space for new housing, especially rental; and allowing more people to use transit and cycling while avoiding cars.
The controversial part is the housing, which will include towers as high as 40 storeys. The city aims to favour rental, with a significant amount set aside for middle-income and low-income renters. Unfortunately, many of these towers would replace existing, aging apartment buildings. The houses of Kitsilano, apparently, are off limits.
But the plan would protect tenants who live in aging apartment buildings on that corridor, with enhanced rights to compensation and return to rent-controlled, below-market units. Mr. Shillito said that, according to the city’s analysis, “nearly all” tenants would be better off financially and also end up in new housing. Mayor Kennedy Stewart has proposed changes that would give tenants a right to return at the same rent they’re already paying.
And private developers will have to deliver those benefits. In exchange, the city wants to let those developers build tall – creating new housing for tenants and owners who can afford market rates.
Where’s the problem? It’s in the towers. Some Vancouverites very much dislike looking at tall buildings, and they deploy a variety of spurious arguments to conceal that view. Lobbyist Bill Tieleman is their spokesperson, even leading a protest at city hall which, he claimed, attracted 500 people. (CBC estimated it at 100.)
These folks have some familiar arguments. The new towers won’t be green or affordable, they say. “Gentle density” across the city, in smallish wood-framed buildings, would be better. The bad faith here is palpable.
It is true that low-rise and mid-rise buildings can support high levels of population density, as does Paris. But – and this is an enormous but – that model works when every single building is midrise. You’d need to tear down whole blocks of Vancouver houses and replace them with eight-storey slabs. Does anyone believe that the folks who talk about “gentle density” and “neighbourhood character” will cheer when the bulldozers come to level their neighbours’ houses?
It’s easy to go down rabbit holes with this sort of discussion. But they never lead anywhere, because the anti-development activists feel no obligation to put forward a coherent vision. And they don’t think that the city needs to grow. (Patrick Condon, the landscape architect and professor who has styled himself as an authority on land economics, recently noted that the city lost people in 2021 and asked for the city to “reassess” its population goals.)
Their goal is more talk and fewer towers. But Vancouver needs the opposite, and it’s as simple as that.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated regarding Patrick Condon’s views.
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