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A Skytrain, shown in Vancouver in June, 2016, is just one kind of transit that has contributed to urban densification. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)
A Skytrain, shown in Vancouver in June, 2016, is just one kind of transit that has contributed to urban densification. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)

BRITISH COLUMBIA

B.C. ministers won’t force municipalities to increase building around transit lines Add to ...

B.C.’s two top ministers handling housing and transit insist that they will not force or threaten municipalities to add even more density around rapid-bus or SkyTrain lines than what is already in growth plans.

But Housing Minister Rich Coleman and TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender say they plan to have energetic, collaborative conversations with cities and the public to get everyone to see how important it is to pay for expensive transit by encouraging more building alongside lines.

“If we’ve got to make multibillion-dollar investments, you need density along the line,” said Mr. Coleman, speaking in a joint call with Mr. Fassbender this weekend.

Mr. Fassbender added that, “We’re encouraging everybody to think out of the box. But we’re not threatening local governments. It’s how can we work together to increase the density and supply.”

The whole question of how to pay for the billions of dollars worth of transit improvements needed in the region has been a contentious topic for years, but it has especially heated up in the last two years.

First, a plebiscite that local mayors approved asking for a 0.5-per-cent regional sales tax failed massively two years ago, killing that as a possible source. Then, the Trudeau government swept to power promising huge transit investments, which has put pressure on the provincial and regional governments to figure out who will pay which part of the remaining share.

The mayors recently asked the province to permit them to charge a new kind of development cost levy on new construction, with the money – an estimated $15- to $20-million a year – going to a dedicated fund for transit.

Mr. Fassbender said recently he has been holding meetings with developers, business groups and cities to discuss the idea of a new “transit-supporting levy.”

As well, some people at those meetings have raised the idea of having the province step in and mandate higher densities along transit, a move that would generate more money for that levy.

It’s an idea that has been percolating in many places after California Governor Jerry Brown proposed last year that the state create a new law granting developers the automatic right to approval for housing projects that included a certain percentage of affordable housing and were near transit lines.

But Mr. Coleman and Mr. Fassbender insist they won’t go that route.

At the same time, Mr. Fassbender has repeatedly said that there is a problem with councils who are afraid of approving too much density because of the resistance they get from residents.

In an earlier interview, Mr. Fassbender said that having another authority other than city council set out density limits “takes the heat off of them with their local taxpayers or residents.”

The housing minister, a former mayor of the City of Langley, said local politicians will sometimes just stall projects to avoid the opposition. “When they get pushback, they send it back to staff for another report.”

Local mayors have strongly resisted the idea that the province should intervene in local planning, including setting density levels.

In the Saturday interview, Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Coleman said the province and cities need to do more to help the public understand the benefits of dense housing near transit.

“Some people will not want to see more density. We need to do an education job,” Mr. Fassbender said.

The province has also been circulating information about what they say is 100,000 units of housing that has been held up in the approval stage, exacerbating already dire supply problems in the region – something ministers believe is one of the major causes of recent skyrocketing housing prices.

That’s also been one of the main messages of the Urban Development Institute, the association that represents many local developers.

UDI president Anne McMullin said the association strongly supports the idea of having a stronger regional plan than the one developed by Metro Vancouver four years ago, called the regional growth strategy. She said Metro Vancouver doesn’t have any real power to enforce that strategy and that there are not enough specifics in it about ensuring that new density goes next to transit lines.

That regional plan would need to spell out, as well, exactly what kind of housing should be built near the stations, she said.

“There needs to be a certain per cent zoned for market rental, a certain per cent zoned for subsidized rental, a certain per cent for market,” Ms. McMullin said.

A Metro Vancouver study has shown that renters at all income levels are significantly more likely to use transit than homeowners at any income level, a finding that suggests cities should make more specific efforts to ensure rental gets built near transit stations.

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