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Construction workers build homes on a lot in Vaughan, Ont.Mark Blinch/Reuters

Four years ago, the City of Vancouver, the governments of Canada and British Columbia and the regional transit authority were ready to build a $2.8-billion subway along Broadway, just south of Vancouver’s downtown. The two higher levels of government would pick up most of the tab; the city promised to transform zoning along the subway’s route.

Land on and near Broadway, most of which was low-rise, would become “a focal point for higher density housing,” according to the so-called supportive policies agreement Vancouver signed. This would include “a significant new supply of affordable housing.” A lot of the new housing would also be purpose-built rental, given the citywide need, and the fact that three out of five area residents were renters.

The subway is now under construction, with completion scheduled for 2025. The rethinking of the area’s zoning, known as the Broadway Plan, has almost as long of a timeline. It’s been three years in the making. This Thursday at city council, there’s supposed to be a final vote.

The ideas in the plan are good, even if they’ve been somewhat watered down. Over 485 city blocks, the plan would allow a variety of new buildings – from around 30-storeys near subway stations to six-storey apartments in nearby neighbourhoods of what are now mostly detached homes. At stations near City Hall and Vancouver General Hospital, the plan allows office buildings of up to 32 storeys.

This is what Vancouver – or any big city – should allow to be built along a high-volume transit line, especially one in the heart of a metropolis. And the Broadway Plan’s goals for growth are in fact relatively modest, despite arguments from a loud minority that it is all much too much.

From 2001 through 2016, the Broadway area’s population grew by an average of 1.4 per cent a year, to about 78,000 people. The plan forecasts another 50,000 over three decades, for an annual growth rate of about 1.7 per cent – far from outlandish, considering there’s a subway coming. The plan also forecasts 42,000 new jobs in the area, on top of the 74,000 already there in 2016.

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Yes, there are important questions of neighbourhood-building at stake, including making sure the area has enough parks and schools for residents. But the overall plan does not need more study. It’s ready to go. Pass it.

The struggle to approve reforms like the Broadway Plan is emblematic of a million big and little political battles around housing, across Canada. In Victoria, city council had been moving ahead on allowing new density in neighbourhoods of detached homes but then, in late May, suddenly made a U-turn and exiled the policy to the Siberia of more study and consultation – this after years of study and consultation. In Toronto, work on allowing multiplex homes in low-density neighbourhoods has been plodding along since 2019; a final report had been slated for this month. But Toronto also has an election this fall. So nothing may get done before then.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s government last winter commissioned and received a bold report on how to overhaul housing policy to get more housing built in established neighbourhoods. But with an election approaching, the government decided it was politically prudent to mostly ignore those recommendations.

Vancouver faces a similar political squeeze. There’s a civic election in October.

The Broadway Plan, which was in motion before the 2018 election, looks as if it will get passed, if not Thursday, then at least soon. That may not be the case for a bigger, citywide zoning reform, known as the Vancouver Plan. Council embarked on that process after taking office in late 2018; nearly four years later, it’s still in gestation. A final vote was supposed to happen this month. Council’s bogged down debating the plan for Broadway.

The citywide plan has big and broad strokes, and even though it’s just a blueprint, it opens the door to new density. Can this council get it passed? Not doing so would be a profound failure.

Vancouver needs more housing. So do all Canadian cities. The country’s population is growing, and that growth is almost entirely in the biggest urban areas. Unless zoning allows cities to grow up, they will have to grow out, forever. A lot of people want to live near transit, in a walkable neighbourhood.

What’s standing in their way? Zoning.

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