In the past 30 years, Vancouver has added enough people to its downtown peninsula to fill up a city the size of Prince George or Port Coquitlam.
About 69,000 new residents moved into the towers and occasional row houses that sprouted everywhere after the city aggressively promoted a downtown-living strategy, more than doubling the area’s 1991 population of about 48,000.
That kind of transformation is about to hit Vancouver again – only bigger and more far-reaching – as city council prepares to approve sweeping plans that will remake many parts of the city in the next 30 years.
“It does feel like a time of generational change,” said Gordon Price, a former city councillor who was frequently the political advocate for the 1990s plans and continues to analyze city planning. “It’s building for a new generation in a new way.”
And it’s going to be even more of an adjustment for Vancouverites than previous remakes, Mr. Price said, because of how the plans will not confine new development to former industrial land or relatively empty pockets, as has been the case in the past.
Back then, he said, development was kept well away from the 80 per cent of city land that has been reserved for detached houses (except for, in recent years, a few small incursions such as basement suites or laneway houses). In a “grand bargain” that worked politically for many years, any new density was piled into developments in the other 20 per cent.
“We are going to move away from the grand bargain and see the transformation of the legacy city,” Mr. Price said.
The promise of such a big change is provoking a fierce debate. Many younger people who feel shut out of everything but dingy basement suites and overpriced studios are in favour of anything that seems to make more room for them. They’ve been joined by non-profit housing representatives, YIMBY advocates and organizations ranging from the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation to the local francophone association and business owners.
But the many plans for the city’s future have also generated a wave of discomfort, anxiety and outright opposition among others, including former premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt, former city planners and various resident groups in both the east and west sides of the city.
A new civic party, TEAM for a Livable Vancouver, is almost entirely focused on the issue, raising questions about how much new housing is really needed and what form it should take.
The city’s head planner agrees that the changes on the horizon are indeed a dramatic shift – a needed one.
“This is clearly a generational change. This kind of shift started when we became one of the most unaffordable cities, after the Olympics,” said Theresa O’Donnell.
The Broadway Plan, now being debated at council with a decision likely next week, envisions adding 50,000 new residents and office space to almost 500 already-dense blocks surrounding the central Broadway corridor, where a subway line is going in.
The Vancouver Plan, due to be voted on some time before the Oct. 15 civic election, goes even further, proposes a miniature town centre around the Oakridge mall and denser forms of housing in the many commercial high streets around the city, but also relabelling the detached-house zones as “multiplex” zones. It is planning for a population increase of 260,000 – about 70,000 more than the city saw between 1991 and 2021 – with as many as 210,000 new jobs.
All of that is in addition to the mega-projects being planned in various areas of the city, from Indigenous-led developments at Jericho Lands, Heather Lands, UBC and Senakw in the west to the BC Housing remake of Skeena Terrace and a real-estate investment trust’s redevelopment of the Safeway site at Broadway and Commercial in the east.
If the Vancouver Plan is passed as proposed, it could produce the kind of neighbourhoods often seen in the central areas of older North American cities – a blend of detached houses, row houses, duplexes, triplexes, possibly sixplexes and small apartment buildings.
All of that represents profound and, for some, uncomfortable change in Vancouver.
The streetcar lines of the 1920s created a housing boom and the city expanded rapidly, but that created little backlash because it was all on empty land.
The city councils of postwar Vancouver, with city manager Gerald Sutton-Brown at the helm, opened the doors to redevelopment of the West End, turning it from a neighbourhood of former mansions converted to rooming houses to a mix of towers and low-rise apartments. A few taller towers in other areas – West Point Grey, Kitsilano, Langara – were also allowed during that period.
The 1970s saw the new TEAM council, backed by activist neighbourhood groups, ban taller apartment buildings in residential neighbourhoods, which was widely approved by voters of the day, if not renters. At the same time, council introduced the novel concept of redeveloping industrial land for denser central-city living at South False Creek – again, land with no one on it or nearby who might complain.
And the post-Expo 1990s brought about the modern, condo-filled downtown peninsula, with a couple of megaprojects elsewhere, as well as some new options for four-storey apartments on commercial streets.
The ideas in the Broadway Plan and the Vancouver Plan are coming forward now because all the easier options have been used, said Dan Garrison, the city’s senior housing planner.
He and his colleagues see it as both a practical move and a more equitable one than those of the past.
“A lot of the growth before has been in the areas where low- and moderate-income people live,” Mr. Garrison said.
City planners say the housing needs to go to areas that are already rich with parks, schools and community centres and have been seeing their populations drop.
“You can’t let those neighbourhoods hollow out. It’s too big a part of our land base,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
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