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Pedestrians walk along Broadway street in Vancouver on Feb. 16. Jennifer Gauthier/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver’s plan to remake Broadway has prompted a wave of proposals for 20- to 30-storey towers, including several that will displace more than 200 tenants, and is driving a debate about whether the scale of growth proposed for the busy east-west corridor is too great.

The flurry of development is connected to Vancouver’s Broadway Plan, which city council approved in June, 2022. It allows for significant new density on 500 blocks near the planned Broadway subway line, which will be built from Clark Drive in the east to Arbutus Street in the west.

Building applications reviewed by The Globe and Mail show 21 new rezoning applications within the Broadway Plan, all for towers ranging from 18 to 29 storeys. Two are for office buildings and one is for a condo project, while the rest are rentals. In contrast, there are no proposals for smaller developments such as multiplexes, small apartment buildings or even larger mid-rise projects.

The Broadway Plan has received pushback from housing and renters’ rights advocates, as well as from people living along the corridor, which is currently a mix of detached homes, low-rise apartments and commercial buildings.

The city’s very vocal pro-housing groups continue to say the massive wave of Broadway Plan development is much needed in a city that has built up a housing deficit for decades. But there are growing – and mobilizing – opposition groups urging the city to reconsider some of what they describe as damaging effects of the plan’s policies, including the displacement of hundreds of tenants.

Vancouver Tenants Union representatives say the group is getting calls from panicked renters across the city who have discovered that their buildings are being pitched as future towers.

“There’s generally mass confusion and anxiety,” said union representative Ben Ger. “It’s a complete disaster.”

According to application information on the city’s website, the proposals would result in slightly more than 3,900 new rental apartments, about 650 of them to be leased at “below market” rates. The Broadway Plan envisions 50,000 people in new housing by 2050.

Some of the biggest proposals are on commercial sites that won’t displace existing tenants. For example, they include 524 apartments at the former site of Mountain Equipment Co-op, 524 units on what is now a parking lot near Mount St. Joseph Hospital and 260 units on a vacant lot in the west side of the city near Broadway and Arbutus.

Transition to a denser Vancouver has some renters worried

But six of the current proposals, if approved, would involve demolishing nine older, low-rise apartments buildings with a total of 230 units. The city’s list doesn’t include many other projects that do not have a formal application in yet. City staff presented council with an update in February that indicated there are 140 total inquiries about development.

Another group of advocates, including some former Vancouver city planners, have been raising the alarm about out-of-scale proposals popping up on side streets – ones relatively far from transit stations – that had previously been single-family and duplex neighbourhoods.

“I have called for a moratorium while we look at this,” said Michael Geller, an architect and development consultant who participated in a recent neighbourhood meeting of west-side renters and homeowners alarmed about the massive amount of change that seems to be on the horizon. “We’re beginning to realize that there was a mistake.”

Councillor Mike Klassen of the ABC party, which has a majority on council, said council will have the ability to give quicker approvals to projects that won’t displace existing tenants.

But he doesn’t see a problem with the larger towers on side streets that some residents have been complaining about.

“It’s a shift but it still allows for retention of most of our residential neighbourhoods,” he said.

Vancouver put in some of the strictest policies for renter compensation in the province with the Broadway Plan, saying existing tenants have to either get a generous lump-sum buyout or be guaranteed housing during construction and in the new buildings at the same level of rent they were paying before.

But tenants’ union representatives say there has been no clear information about how that will work, what they might get, who is eligible, whether they will get to move back into apartments the same size as what they had before and whether they can count on any of it.

Union member Tintin Yang said there are situations in which renters may get nothing – for example, people who are subletting or tenants who live in a shared place where only one person’s name is on the lease.

“It’s having quite a devastating effect on a lot of people who rent,” she said. “It’s going to cause such chaos in the city.”

The lack of proposals for multiplexes and low-rise apartment buildings is likely the result of several city restrictions.

Although Vancouver was the first B.C. city to propose allowing multiplexes of four to six units on any residential lot, they aren’t allowed in the Broadway Plan area.

Even in the areas where they are permitted, zoning rules only allow those buildings to have as many square feet as a single-family house would have on the same lot. That’s two-thirds of the space that the province has said it will allow when it passes legislation permitting multiplexes in every city with a population greater than 5,000.

For small apartment buildings, Vancouver’s zoning rules would typically require two lots to be assembled. The city will also now allow only a single exit staircase for smaller buildings – a popular new design idea that could make such projects more feasible.

Plan for 19-storey tower kicks off Vancouver density push

Former city planner Scot Hein said Vancouver has effectively forced most new development to require big land assemblies, concrete buildings and provisions for lots of underground parking – all of which makes those projects more expensive per unit in the end than smaller, wood-frame developments on single lots.

“The scale and the amount of density, it’s so jarring that it’s obviously completely wrong,” Mr. Hein said.

Like several others, he said that, because the city also subjects smaller projects to rezonings, it makes such buildings unattractive to developers: They have to go through the same expensive and lengthy process as if building a high-rise, but with less revenue available at the end.

“It’s the same pain and you come out at the other end with a four-storey building instead of a 20-storey building.”

He says the city could achieve a lot of new housing faster and at a more affordable price if it did more to even the playing field, allowing projects that could provide as much as 12 apartments on a single standard lot.

“It’s not as much density as a tower, but it’s a lot more supply that’s affordable.”

Even the city’s pro-housing activists, who generally have no problem with the wave of towers, say the city could do more to encourage some smaller builders and allow more variation in the type of development allowed.

“It’s a good discussion to have,” says housing researcher Jens von Bergmann, who helped advise the province on its recent proposed changes to housing density in cities. He said that there’s likely strong support for making small developments more viable and that creating a place new companies specializing in that kind of project.

In the end, though, many of those in what is called the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) camp say that this massive increase in development was inevitable after Vancouver suppressed new housing for so many decades.

“It’s working out the way it’s intended – to fill a massive multidecade deficit,” said Bryn Davidson, the owner of Lanefab Design/Build, a company that specializes in laneway homes, duplexes and multiplexes. “It will feel pretty shocking at first but, 10 years from now, no big deal. Just because it feels jarring doesn’t mean it isn’t what we need.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Broadway Plan envisions 50,000 new apartments by 2050, and that parking minimums had not been reduced. The plan is for new homes for 50,000 people, and there are no parking minimums. This version has been updated.

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