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Maria Roth, an artist who is vice-chair of the South False Creek Neighbourhood Association, says that updating South False Creek is an 'incredible opportunity to rethink what this community could be' but that it will depend on focusing on efforts to keep families and low-income households.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The grand experiment of building a utopian new neighbourhood on city-owned land, with a mix of incomes and family types on former industrial land, put Vancouver on the map in the 1970s. It was a bold initiative that paid off as South False Creek became a model internationally for affordable housing, minutes from downtown, that was planned as an equal mix of households with low, middle and high incomes.

Now, as planners and politicians struggle with a never-ending housing crunch, city staff have proposed updating South False Creek for the 21st century by tripling the number of homes in the 32 hectares and allowing towers – at least one up to 500 feet, or 152 metres – in a neighbourhood that is mostly stacked townhouses and low-rise apartments.

“Vancouver is in a very different place in 2021, so we’re looking at how we move on from 1976 and leave the founding principles in place,” said Chuck Brook, a consultant who has worked extensively with the city over the past several years to come up with a plan.

There’s another reality: “The city is looking to address the housing crisis,” said deputy city manager Karen Levitt. She said it’s confidential information whether the redevelopment would make the city any money, break even, or cost it extra.

The proposal would need several levels of public planning consultations and council approvals before it becomes a reality. It more than doubles the amount of additional floor space that a group of residents, which worked for years with professional planners to come up with their own proposal, had envisaged for the area. Their RePlan concept suggested a million square feet could be added to the existing 1.8 million.

The city’s report, which will be discussed next Thursday at council, proposes as much as 6.6 million square feet of housing in the neighbourhood by the end of a redevelopment process, likely to take more than 20 years. That means increasing the number of homes to almost 6,500 from the current 1,850.

And the original mix of one-third each of high-, middle- and low-income housing is now defined as one-third each of strata condos, market rentals and subsidized housing.

The city proposal would see an increase in the number of subsidized and co-op units, to about 1,500 from 1,031 now, but the proportion overall would decline. At the moment, 56 per cent of the apartments and townhouses are subsidized or co-ops, the legacy of the 1970s and 1980s when the federal government was still putting a lot of money into subsidized housing. If the plan becomes reality, the proportion would become less than a quarter.

Residents are concerned that, given the size and pace of development, along with the changed mix, the original concept of the neighbourhood will be lost.

“If you tear down existing housing without good models, does that produce affordable housing?” asked Maria Roth, an artist who is vice-chair of the South False Creek Neighbourhood Association that primarily represents the co-ops. “We’ve got an incredible opportunity to rethink what this community could be.”

But that will depend on focusing on efforts to keep families and low-income households, she said, not just looking at what is the maximum density that can be packed in.

Her argument gets support from people like Cameron Gray, the former housing director at the City of Vancouver, who says South False Creek is a huge success that, for some reason, the city seems to think is too good for the people now living there.

“This really isn’t a report about rejuvenation,” he said. “It’s about redevelopment of the social housing. And why would you go in and redevelop housing that is expensive to replace?”

Mr. Gray said a better approach would have been one that was more incremental and didn’t introduce such wholesale change to an established neighbourhood.

Others say, however, that a prime central-city neighbourhood like South False Creek is an obvious place for the city to try to find a place for more housing.

Retired head city planner Ann McAfee also thinks it is time for change. Ms. McAfee wrote a report 10 years after South False Creek was built concluding that it could have accommodated a lot more housing.

But, in the 1970s, as the plan for the area was being proposed, many people worried it would turn into a slum. The area was planned to be denser than single-family housing of the time, with an average of 123 homes per hectare of developed land on average, compared to single-family areas at 30 per hectare. Later, the north side of False Creek was developed at about double that density.

“We certainly found we could have gone much denser. We realized there was quite a bit we’d left on the table,” she said. “But, at the time, we were breaking all North American boundaries.”

As downtown living got more attractive everywhere, and False Creek changed from a polluted former industrial dump to a prime city neighbourhood, the low-density South False Creek neighbourhood became increasingly an anomaly.

Mr. Brook said the plan, if approved, would be to rezone and build on many pieces of empty or underused land in the neighbourhood – a parking garage, a berm that was built up to separate the neighbourhood from Sixth Avenue, and an empty lot near the Olympic Village Canada Line station.

When that was done, by about 2028, people living in older social housing could move to those apartments and then those older parcels could be rebuilt with more units, said Mr. Brook.

At that point, people in strata condos, whose leases would be coming close to the end of their term, could also choose to move into some of the new housing. Then the private stratas could be redeveloped as bigger buildings.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect housing density numbers. This version has been corrected.

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