On a recent Wednesday evening, residents gathered in a community space in the heart of False Creek South, to learn how to bring their unique 45-year-old community into present-day Vancouver.
That new version envisions an additional one million square feet of housing and commercial space, to be realized within small pockets of density added along W. 6th Avenue, on city-owned parking lots, and as part of a potential redevelopment deal with the neighbourhood Broadway Lodge seniors facility.
In a rare move for a residents group, they have taken the extremely proactive step of urban designing their way forward – and they’ve done it all without any input from city officials.
They have created maps, drawings and renderings, as part of a highly polished draft plan. All that remains is to see how it goes when the City does finally arrive at the table – which should be soon.
On Wednesday, Scot Hein, who was an urban designer at the City for 20 years, laid out the comprehensive plan for False Creek South (FCS), and even areas beyond that have room for more density.
Mr. Hein has been working with the group since the fall on a volunteer basis. But there are already many well-versed professionals working on RePlan, as they call it, including former city planner Nathan Edelson, as well as architects who live at FCS, including Richard Evans and Graham McGarva. Mr. McGarva had helped plan nearby Olympic Village.
Mr. Hein was instrumental in the 1980s design of the former Carling O’Keefe brewery lands that became Arbutus Walk, widely considered a desirable example of density. Mr. Hein helped oversee the design on behalf of the neighbourhood and it was embraced by the city. It led to him giving up his architecture practice to take a city job as urban designer. FCS residents hope his vision will inspire the city again. And as Mr. Edelson pointed out, their plan already fits with several guiding principles established with the city staff many years ago.
Mr. Hein, who knows current senior members of city staff, says their high-level work should be helpful, especially as Vancouver embarks on an official citywide plan.
“I think it’s probably overwhelming for staff to figure out how to go in there and commence a new process,” Mr. Hein said in an interview. “We have gone a long way in the last few months. So at least the work is organized to advance [them] towards a refresh of the urban framework – that’s what I was hoping to help them with, getting it understood in a way so that we could break it down and start to chip away at it in a more pragmatic way.”
While Vancouver has experienced growing pains the past five years, FCS has been immune to market forces. The site of mostly city-owned land is a mix of incomes living in co-op housing, leasehold strata title apartments, market rental and non-profit rental housing – and for 40-plus years, many residents have enjoyed a highly livable existence, raising kids and entering their senior years, within a cocoon of central, secure, affordable housing. The trade-off for their bit of paradise was the significant equity gains of home ownership.
There are nearly 6,000 residents in the low-scale, dense and diverse neighbourhood along the water. Eighteen per cent of households earn less than $30,000 a year, almost all of them seniors. One quarter are families with children, and one third are immigrants.
But they worry that way of life is at risk now that many of their land leases are coming due, and they don’t yet have new deals made with the city of Vancouver. It’s a pivotal time for the residents, because after nearly a decade of trying to negotiate, communication with the city had proven fruitless. The anxiety has been tremendous for people whose futures hang in the balance. For example, lease agreements are crucial because it’s pretty impossible for anyone living on leasehold land to borrow money in order to do necessary repairs to their buildings. Some residents have already left because they couldn’t deal with the uncertainty.
In less than two years, the Marina Co-Op’s lease comes due. Creekview Co-Op expires in 2023 and many others expire between 2036 and 2037. The owners of the strata condos have formed a group to negotiate their own deals with the city. Ideally, the co-ops would like 99-year leases that enable them to do long-term planning, to continue to upgrade and maintain their buildings and provide subsidized housing, co-op committee chair Nancy Hannum says. They want their low-scale buildings to stay intact, which they say are in good shape and well maintained. The retired librarian says they paid $2-million to put new roofs on her own co-op’s eight buildings. Co-op members in FCS have borrowed millions over the years to do upgrades, including rain screening.
Ms. Hannum waited five years to get into her co-op and she pays $1,100 a month in charges for a two-bedroom.
Some people who’ve been shut out of the housing market resent the fact that the FCS residents have enjoyed their affordable housing for decades. But the idea is to expand the model they’ve used, not to throw it away, she says.
“My answer to that is co-op housing really works and we want more,” Ms. Hannum says.
Ms. Hannum says their affordable housing model isn’t costing the city anything because of their self-financing autonomy. Her building also voluntarily subsidizes about one-third of its residents, who are low-income and kept anonymous, through a third-party property manager.
Residents say the worst-case scenario for FCS would be redevelopment, especially the kind of affordable housing built elsewhere in the city – where tiny non-market housing units are shoved to the bottom floors of a mid-rise or high-rise tower filled with market-rate units.
In FCS, the multifamily housing complexes face courtyards, with playgrounds, gardens and pathways. Although it’s low scale, it’s far denser than it appears because there aren’t roads, which take up a lot of city space.
Another fear is that the co-op leases expire because they can’t reach a deal with the city.
“It’s pretty hair-raising – they are very stressed,” Ms. Hannum says. “If the lease runs out and there is no negotiation in time, what happens to them?”
After many delays, the City recently released a discussion paper that outlines options for new co-op agreements throughout Vancouver. That discussion paper won’t go before city council until early summer.
It’s too early to determine what the details in the paper mean for them in terms of financial viability. But more importantly, there is hope in the air. The city promises a two-month consultation period.
At FCS, the residents are as ready as a group could ever be. Judging from the meetings they’ve been holding with area residents, they have their support, even as some residents get up to speed on the situation.
At Wednesday night’s presentation, a woman raised her hand and asked about the purpose of all the work. She also asked if the City been involved at all.
RePlan chair Richard Evans told her they hadn’t talked with the City yet. They’d been working “in a vacuum,” he said.
“We need to dialogue with the City – and this is a way of getting their attention.”
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