The last time Vancouver tried to tackle its housing problems with a comprehensive plan, almost 30 years ago, nothing much changed in the vast swathes of land dedicated to detached homes on large grassy lots.
There was a small pop of development around the Knight Street and Kingsway intersection in the east, a few new townhomes and condo buildings along Dunbar Street in the west, and some apartment construction along select shopping streets here and there.
But mostly, the 150,000-some people who moved into Vancouver since CityPlan was approved in 1995 packed into the downtown peninsula and the central neighbourhoods of Mount Pleasant and Fairview.
“All of the growth in the city has been north of 16th. This small area of the city has been doing all this heavy lifting. None of the areas to the south have had substantial growth and all are hollowing out,” said the city’s head planner, Theresa O’Donnell, as she prepares to take a new plan for city development forward to council on Wednesday. “This will unlock the potential of all those neighbourhoods.”
The plan for the next 30 years envisions a hyper-dense “town centre” surrounding the massive Oakridge shopping mall redevelopment that is already underway in central Vancouver. There will be many more clusters of mid-rise apartments around neighbourhood commercial streets.
Unlike the recently approved Broadway Plan, the so-called Vancouver Plan won’t produce immediate change because it is a general concept, as opposed to a block-by-block rezoning. So far, only 27 speakers have signed up to support or oppose it.
Some supporters worry it will take too long to produce noticeable results. Opponents worry it will destroy Vancouver’s distinctive neighbourhoods with a one-size-fits-all, full-speed-ahead growth fixation.
Ann McAfee, the planner who steered CityPlan through in the nineties, said it’s a valid criticism to say the 1995 plan was too deferential to neighbourhood groups who wanted to spend time talking about every detail of every block, along with every other issue from culture to transportation to green space.
“It would have been more useful if we had skipped the community descriptions. We should have done the next step and focused on, ‘What are the primary services we want, what’s your neighbourhood centre going to be, and how is development going to pay for it.’ ”
But there was less of a sense of urgency then, said Ms. McAfee, who is long retired but still on the board of Canada’s National Housing Council. Planners, among others, felt that additional residents could be accommodated through redevelopment of unused industrial land downtown and new development of condos over shops along commercial streets.
She said the Vancouver Plan will still force all projects through a time-consuming rezoning – a process that has currently bogged down council so much that the city had to cancel a public hearing on a major development at Broadway and Commercial this week because there was no more room in the schedule before the August break.
Ms. O’Donnell said detailed implementation will come in the next phase of the Vancouver Plan when, if approved, it will then be combined with previously existing community plans and more neighbourhood consultation.
But critics of the proposed Vancouver Plan say they have little hope that will happen because the plan seems to be top-down, incorporating little of what residents would like to see in the way of new housing, as well as proposing tens of thousands of homes that might not even be needed.
Architect Brian Palmquist, who has examined city planning initiatives closely, said there is already enough housing in the pipeline at the city to accommodate a quarter-million people.
“We’re already there. We’re building in a gross over-amplification of what we need and we’re obliterating the city we know,” Mr. Palmquist said, as he listed the housing already on the way, from the ongoing boom in laneway houses, to big new developments throughout the city, from the Squamish towers near Burrard Bridge to plans for Concord Pacific’s land in Northeast False Creek.
Mr. Palmquist insisted that people in the city’s low-density residential areas have moved a long way in their thinking from the 1990s, when they opposed almost any new development.
“People have come around to six-storey buildings and densification. There is an understanding that we need to allow more opportunity.”
But, he said, this plan doesn’t give communities specific parameters to help them make suggestions productively.
“If you look at growth in the city and said, ‘You need 200-300 more homes per year in your neighbourhood, can you do that?’, then people start to think.”
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