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My first exposure to the City of Vancouver's planning process came some time in the mid-1980s. I was a relatively new arrival to the city, and a community television volunteer.

The story that day was a controversy over a retail development proposed for the corner of West 4th Avenue and Alma Street. I recall very little of the debate, beyond the fact that local residents had dubbed it "condom corner" for the tall, tubular awnings included as part of the design.

I also recall the palpable anger of the citizens who had gathered in a sweltering City Hall committee room to oppose the project for being too tall or too bulky and not fitting in with the character of the neighbourhood.

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It is a pattern that has repeated itself decade over decade, development after development.

It is, in fact, how the game is now played.

Is 25 storeys too tall for you? Don't worry; miraculously, and if you yell loudly enough, the developer will be able to knock off five storeys, make a tidy profit and still have enough money left over to make a substantial contribution to the ruling civic party's re-election efforts.

So when red-on-white "No Tower" signs started showing up in my neighbourhood of Grandview-Woodland some time ago I thought, "Here it goes."

And go it did. The project in question is a dense cluster of buildings proposed for the corner of Commercial and Venables, the tallest of which is 12 storeys and – surprise – not the 15 storeys originally proposed. The project would provide new space for the Kettle Friendship Society – an established and important social service hub in the neighbourhood – as well as 30 units of housing for the Kettle's clients.

The rest would be market condos – roughly 200 of them – and some retail space at street level.

Community opposition gelled into the No Tower Coalition. Petitions were drawn up and signed; a rough, Styrofoam model of the development was constructed and put on display atop a folding table in Grandview Park on weekends. The Web campaign grew with anti-tower quotes cherry-picked from media interviews and the voices of anyone who dared support the project summarily squashed.

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On the other side, Boffo Properties, the project's developer, started its own dedicated website, recruiting support from neighbourhood stalwarts like the Cultch's Heather Redfern and Judy Graves, the city's former advocate for homeless people. Renderings were released that studiously avoided a street-level view of the development, instead showing the building's inviting amber glow from the point of view of a soul ascending to heaven. The developer's deep family ties and roots in Vancouver were presented as the new narrative.

The battle rages still, but that's just how things work in this town.

Architect and community activist Sean McEwan is certain there's a better way.

Twenty years ago Mr. McEwan and his like-minded Kitsilano neighbours faced a similar battle when the city rezoned the Carling-O'Keefe brewery lands near 12th Avenue and Arbutus Street.

The project was on a scale many times larger than the Boffo project, but some of the issues were the same. The plan called for a number of towers popping up between low-rise buildings – towers the neighbourhood could not get behind.

"There is an idea in the developer's mind a lot these days that you have to go high to sell views to make units more valuable, and I think that in a lot of communities the tower form isn't appropriate and people react to it in a very negative way," he told me in an interview this week.

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Concert Properties built the Arbutus Walk development without the towers, and according to Mr. McEwan, "did very well."

Today, the Arbutus Walk neighbourhood is lauded for its human scale, its green space and its pedestrian-friendly feel. That, according to Mr. McEwan, is the result of the developer listening to the community and the city facilitating that discussion. In a radical twist, the developer and the city listened to the people who knew the neighbourhood best.

Mr. McEwan has an idea that he insists only sounds radical. "My suggestion would be that we ask citizen groups to do the planning – and this is not a far-fetched idea; it happens in major U.S. cities, notably our neighbours in Seattle and Portland. In the 1990s Seattle basically found the funds for a large number of neighbourhoods to hire their own planners to prepare their own development plans for their specific neighbourhood plans."

But the key, he says, is entrenching those plans in zoning bylaws.

That would avoid the spot zoning that is at the heart of so many of these conflicts.

At this point though, with both sides as committed as they are to following the very familiar developer-versus-citizen script, the battle will no doubt continue.

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But seriously, there has to be a better way.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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