Vancouver’s chief planner says her staff is so overwhelmed by development applications that she is asking city council to allow her to focus on the ones that are most likely to be built first and that provide the most-needed kind of housing.
But the proposal, which is going to council for debate Tuesday, is being criticized by developers who say the decision-making process would be subjective, inefficient and ultimately worsen the city’s housing shortage.
Theresa O’Donnell’s request follows a report last week on Vancouver’s housing progress that said the city is approving record amounts of housing, but that only two-thirds of what has been approved since 2017 has been built.
“I’d rather be moving those cases that turn into units. We want people who are ready to build,” said Ms. O’Donnell in an interview, noting that her staff are now dealing with about double the normal number of rezoning applications that can be processed in a year. There are currently 120 rezoning applications and 100 rezoning inquiries in the system.
Ms. O’Donnell said she wants to be able to focus staff resources on key sectors of housing such as market rentals and social housing, as well as projects that appear to have their design work and financing well under way. If her concept is approved, there’d also be priority given to projects that provide job space, that leverage money from the provincial or federal governments, and that “advance climate action through complete communities.”
Many in the development community, however, say Ms. O’Donnell’s “prioritization framework” is problematic because the planning department would be making subjective decisions about who is “ready” to build and who isn’t. Critics also says the department wouldn’t be so overwhelmed if there wasn’t such a fixation there on controlling every small detail of future construction.
“We don’t think there’s any justification to subjectively rank applications,” said Jon Stovell, chief executive officer of Reliance Properties Ltd. and chair of the local Urban Development Institute. “That doesn’t seem like an appropriate role for staff.”
The CEO of Homebuilders Association Vancouver, Ron Rapp, echoed that view: “How do they decide who’s ready? Who is the gatekeeper?”
He was also concerned that the city report seemed to be recommending a focus on below-market projects and social housing at the expense of regular housing likely to be bought by middle-income households. That would exacerbate the housing shortage if the thousands of homes needed for people moving to Vancouver from the rest of the country and the world get put at the end of the line, he said.
The debate over Ms. O’Donnell’s proposal is the latest in increasing tension between the city’s planning department and the development community. For several years, developers have been complaining more than usual that the city is so prescriptive and controlling that it’s killing projects. City planners argue back that they’re not prepared to let developers simply do whatever they want unless there’s a proven benefit to the city.
Mr. Stovell and others in the development community said once again, in response to the report, that the city could get housing built a lot faster if the planning department didn’t force almost every project beyond a single-family residence or duplex into a time-consuming rezoning process.
“They can’t let go. So, of course they’re overwhelmed,” said Michael Geller, a development consultant and architect who is currently involved with two rezonings along Cambie Street. That’s an area where the city spent years coming up with new rules to allow condos in the one-time single-family-house-lined street, but it still requires rezonings for each parcel developed.
“They have had 35 or 40 rezonings even though the city did a detailed plan,” Mr. Geller said.
Many involved in the development community say one of the reasons a third of the projects approved didn’t get built is that it took the city so long to issue the final development and building permits the last few years such that the projects had become financially unworkable, as construction costs and interest rates rose.
But Ms. O’Donnell said she thought the city could make some big advances in producing needed housing by giving priority to certain sectors, especially rental buildings that are being planned for the many primarily detached-house neighbourhoods out of the central core.
“In my mind, the big win for Vancouver is south of 16th Avenue,” Ms. O’Donnell said. She said those areas are rich in amenities such as schools, community centres and libraries that can serve new residents.
“There are underutilized assets out there.”