Vancouver has proposed a new city plan that envisions the disappearance of zoning exclusively for single-family homes with yards, to be replaced instead with zoning that allows for all kinds of low-rise residences and provides for even more intense levels of dense new housing around neighbourhood centres, villages and transit corridors.
The plan has a strong emphasis on what it maintains is an effort to create an equitable city, with low-cost housing in every neighbourhood, along with the need to include Indigenous perspectives in all decisions and to preserve and enhance the city’s green spaces and ecology.
It’s sure to once again stoke the continuing debate in Vancouver over how to incorporate enough housing for another 260,000 people expected by 2050.
If adopted, the plan would require city residents to face difficult choices about how to achieve its objectives, including how to make the city more affordable while still finding ways to pay for needed community services for the new people, say city councillors of different political stripes.
For example, the plan heavily emphasizes rental housing as a way to create some lower-cost options. But favouring rental housing, which sometimes requires concessions from the city to make it viable, reduces its ability to extract the community amenity contributions that Vancouver’s condo developers have shelled out for in the past to pay for everything from daycares to parks and libraries.
Rentals could generate more profit – and potentially some money for community services – if developers were allowed to build much higher. But that often generates neighbourhood opposition.
“The plan does put forward the difficult decisions that are out there,” said Green Party councillor Michael Wiebe. “We’re now asking the public to discuss those trade-offs. We’ll have to have real dialogues.”
Independent councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung also said the coming debate about those decisions and trade-offs will be the biggest influence on the final version of the plan.
“We see a lot of projects coming already with no [community amenity contributions]. That’s where it’s going to get hard,” she said.
The plan, which has been three years in the making and has cost millions of dollars, is likely going to also generate heated debate over many of the proposals for how to increase both job and living space in the city.
Those proposals include a baseline of what is allowed for housing in every neighbourhood that is more than just the current limit of main houses with basement or laneway suites: the new multiplex zones. The draft plan also proposes more sites for neighbourhood businesses, more mid-rise and higher buildings around existing commercial clusters throughout the city, and a new metropolitan town centre around what was the Oakridge Centre mall. (The mall itself is now a major redevelopment that will bring thousands of residents to a large commercial centre with hundreds of parking spots.)
The city’s planning director, Theresa O’Donnell, said it’s going to be important to add housing especially to areas that already have rich community services but declining populations. “That represents greatly underutilized assets,” she said.
The idea of having a multiplex zone is going to alarm some people, Ms. Kirby-Yung acknowledged.
“Yes, we will have some people freaking out,” she said.
But Ms. Kirby-Yung said she doesn’t see that Vancouver has a lot of other options than to follow the path laid out in the plan, given how restricted the land base is, how many people are likely going to move here in the future, and how expensive current single-family housing is.
She said she and her husband, a senior police officer, were only able to afford a townhouse in the central city, and that’s going to be the norm in the future Vancouver. “It’s the way that the world is going.”
The sweeping plan, which also includes a heavy emphasis on protecting the ecology of the city, providing a more comprehensive system of green space, and integrating Indigenous perspectives into all planning decisions, doesn’t have any legal force yet.
That would only come after much more public consultation and the adoption of something like an official community plan – a document that is required in every other municipality in B.C., but which Vancouver has never had.
As well, it would require working with dozens of existing Vancouver plans, policies and visions. There are 14 neighbourhoods that have their own official development plans, which would need to be legally changed to fit with the plan.
However, Mr. Wiebe and Ms. Kirby-Yung said that doesn’t mean that nothing different will happen in the next two years, contrary to what some critics are saying.
“It will start to influence the type of project that might move forward,” Ms. Kirby-Yung said.
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