Frances Friese, Jon Stovell and Safouh El Rayes come from very different worlds in Vancouver. They’ve never met.
Ms. Friese is a caregiver with a modest home on the city’s east side. Mr. Stovell is a major developer who oversees a portfolio worth hundreds of millions. And Mr. El Rayes runs a small pharmacy on the west side.
But they have all experienced a common problem at Vancouver City Hall: a system so tangled in its own bureaucracy and so contradictory in how it applies policies that it has caused each of them serious financial problems, enormous stress and a sense at times that the city is actively working against them.
It’s a morass that many business advocates, builders and regular citizens say has gotten noticeably worse in the past few years. And although there was a brief blip of speeded-up processing at the beginning of the COVID-19 restrictions, things are clogged again – the last thing any city needs in the midst of a housing crisis and a pandemic-crippled economy.
The problem is serious enough that both Mayor Kennedy Stewart and rival NPA Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung each brought motions to council last week aimed at prodding city staff to move faster on the approval processes for key priorities such as housing and small-business permits.
In an unusual move, Mr. Stewart asked the planning department to provide a full public inventory of every proposal that has come to them for buildings with rental units.
That’s after hearing through a recent telephone conference with builders that as many as 100 large projects are mired at the staff level. They’re being held up because of contradictory policies that no one has been able to reconcile, or because an area planning process has frozen all activity in one part of the city, or because of uncertainty about whether council will approve a project that doesn’t check every box.
“For me, this is about getting the information first and then finding out where the blockages are,” said the mayor, who is concerned that Vancouver needs to get its act together to compete with other cities for capital investment once the pandemic lifts. “These really shouldn’t die in the back rooms.”
Ms. Kirby-Yung’s motion directs staff to post easily available and understandable information on how long applicants will have to wait for a building permit.
She said she is dismayed by the time it is taking for city hall to improve its building-permit process – a project that’s been going on for several years but that has yet to produce any noticeable changes.
“I feel like there’s some stuff we need to prioritize. You can’t do everything at once,” Ms. Kirby-Yung said.
The efforts to cut through the underbrush of bureaucratic complication in Vancouver is something that many frustrated residents and business owners are likely to cheer on, people such as Ms. Friese, Mr. El Rayes and Mr. Stovell.
For Ms. Friese, the city’s policies resulted in her spending $75,000 and two-plus years on plans and permits to build an infill house for her parents in her backyard. Then she was told in late 2019 that the house she had designed wouldn’t be legally possible.
She had only gone ahead with the idea (she’d originally planned just a basement suite) because she’d received a notification from the city encouraging owners in Grandview-Woodlands to take advantage of the new zoning allowing for infills.
That was followed by many meetings with planners and other city staff who encouraged or required her to spend money on plans, an engineer to certify that she had no utility pole in her yard, and a lawyer to negotiate an easement provision with her neighbour.
In the end, she was informed, after fulfilling all the conditions in her nine-page, prior-to-final-approval letter except for one, that the fire department had decided her side-yard access was too narrow. She would have to pay for a sprinkler system for both her house and her neighbour’s to get permission to build. She tried to challenge it but, in the meantime, her existing “prior-to” approval expired.
At that point, she gave up. (A recent ruling from the provincial Ombudsman said the office would not investigate her case because there had been no “administrative unfairness.”)
“It’s been such a nasty experience with such huge consequences. There’s human repercussions to this,” said the 52-year-old Ms. Friese, whose parents ended up moving far from her to Vancouver Island after the failure of the infill plan.
On the other side of town, Mr. El Rayes spent seven months and $30,000 more than he had anticipated trying to move his 29-year-old pharmacy operation to a space next door on West Tenth, as he attempted to navigate the city’s permitting process.
It took 350 names on a petition and some personal interventions by former city planners along with assistance from department heads to ensure that, eventually, he got the permits needed to open his new store just before Christmas.
“It was a nightmare for me. I never really dealt with such things,” said Mr. El Rayes, who was baffled by how the city did not make it a priority to support a long-standing and much-loved business that is continuing to function in the vacancy-plagued West Tenth retail strip.
And Mr. Stovell said he – like many major developers in Vancouver – has rental projects with potentially hundreds of units stuck in a black hole at city hall. For his company, Reliance, the current count is 1,250, some of them conventional rentals, and some priced at lower levels for work-force housing.
Mr. Stovell, echoing the words of half a dozen other builders in the city, said planners appear overwhelmed by the task of trying to keep up with multiple – and sometimes contradictory – policy goals. These range from energy efficiency to tree preservation to shadowing concerns to neighbourhood fit for any new building proposed. And that’s when projects aren’t put on hold indefinitely while years-long community plans are still in the works.
“Every rule is equally important, so nothing gets done,” Mr. Stovell said. “Whatever you bring, someone digs until they find a policy to say why you can’t do it.”
He is enthusiastic about the mayor’s idea of a public list of lost projects.
“Council needs to send a signal that they’re willing to take risks to achieve a goal,” he said.
The double crisis of skyrocketing housing costs and the pandemic effect on businesses are making the problems all the more apparent, say many of those affected.
“There are increased frustrations. We are still experiencing huge delays,” said Teri Smith, the director of the business association for Robson Street, where two businesses that applied for business-renovation permits before the pandemic started are still waiting to open. Two others have cancelled their opening plans, one in part because of the permit delays. “Why are we not focusing on the areas we should be?”
Many of the critics of city hall processes are reluctant to blame staff for the problems, saying that each of them is only trying to do the job that they were told they were supposed to do.
But there is no one overseeing general operations to make sure projects and permits don’t disappear into a Bermuda Triangle of organizational dysfunction.
City hall is seeing a lot of internal change, with the departure of city manager Sadhu Johnston last month, continuing friction between the policy and the project-oversight groups in the planning department, persistent complaints about the department’s lack of action on housing, and massive turnover in some areas.
All of that has added to the complexity of a city that has decades of policy and planning goals layered into every decision.
The mayor and Ms. Kirby-Yung also blame some of the dynamics of city council as part of the general slowdown of operations, though they target different aspects.
Ms. Kirby-Yung said council is putting too much effort into various social issues and spreading itself too thin.
The mayor says the fractured council, in which none of the four parties has a majority, has made it more difficult to get things approved.
“It’s the Spanish Inquisition every time a proposal comes forward. It could be that big shift from a majority government to a less certain, fragmented council … has probably created some delay.”
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