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Renderings showing the size of a proposed development at 2538 Birch St., Vancouver, in relation to its surroundings.

Stephen Bohus/Stephen Bohus

Claire LeLacheur is suffering from a case of rezoning fatigue. Ms. LeLacheur lives near Commercial Drive, in the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood, which underwent an exhaustive neighbourhood plan a few years ago.

A citizens committee was struck and thousands of residents were consulted as part of a plan that took several years and more than 100 public events to create.

She thought the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan (GWP) would be the blueprint going forward for the neighbourhood, which already provides much existing affordable housing for residents. But since the plan was finished in 2016, Ms. LeLacheur has seen several applications to rezone for higher buildings and greater densities than were stated in the plan.

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She now wonders if there was a point to the undertaking, which took considerable effort by residents.

“I thought the GWP was just that, a plan that developed guidelines for the development that’s going to go on in the community. We are seeing lately is that they are not adhering to the plan at all. It’s not even a guideline anymore. I don’t know why they spent the money on it and asked public opinion if they aren’t going to use it at all, really,” says Ms. LeLacheur, who is a realtor and board member of the Grandview-Woodland Area Council, a community organization.

“It feels like all of a sudden all of these public hearings and spot rezonings have been fast forwarded.”

Ms. LeLacheur also questions why those hearings are happening now – amid the slow days of summer, at a time when citizens are distracted by a pandemic, financial stresses, and a generally unsettling year. Since May, they have been conducted online and by telephone, without the benefit of seeing the councillors and City staff face to face. It’s a big ask, she says. Ms. LeLacheur also wonders if resident concerns are being heard.

“It feels like it’s a bit subversive and coy for them to have this ridiculous farce of a Zoom city hall meeting that’s just going to be pushed through anyway,” she said.

Most respondents to a city survey support virtual hearings.

Stephen Bohus/Stephen Bohus

“It’s incredibly exhausting.”

Spot rezonings occur when a developer applies to rezone a site for another use, or greater height or density, than what is currently allowed. A rezoning requires a public hearing, at which residents are invited to express any concerns to staff and council, or to support the project. In March, all public hearings were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In their place, the city began “virtual” public hearings.

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City staff said in an e-mail that they had surveyed more than 3,000 people on the city’s online public engagement site about virtual public hearings. The majority of respondents said they were in favour of virtual hearings throughout the pandemic (84 per cent) and between 67 per cent and 80 per cent said they would be likely to participate.

But some residents question the need for virtual meetings.

“If we can go to the pub and social distance, we can go to council chambers and social distance,” says Scot Hein, a well-known urban designer who worked at the City for 20 years and who now works as a consultant with developers and citizen groups.

“Looking at councillors as they stand up and talk about why they are going to vote a certain way, that needs to be intimate experience, and is a part of holding them accountable,” he said. “There is such a distance in a Zoom relationship that doesn’t allow for that. If people are passionate, they deserve an in-person experience when decisions are being made.”

Mr. Hein has been working with Mount Pleasant residents who are facing a similar predicament as Grandview-Woodland, dealing with rezonings that would seem to contradict a recently crafted neighbourhood plan.

“All of a sudden it’s spot rezoning everywhere, and you have to relight the torches – and that’s just not fair,” Mr. Hein says. “It’s frustrating to watch all these good people who spent thousands of hours and contributed social capital over many years to now find new policies come in that trump all of that.”

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South Granville residents Ian Crook, left, and Sean Nardi, right, oppose the planned 28-storey development at a site at 2538 Birch St.

Kerry Gold

One such passionately debated public hearing was held last week for several days for the site of an old Denny’s restaurant at 2538 Birch St. at West Broadway. Jameson Development has applied to build a 28-storey tower that, if built, will dwarf all buildings in the vicinity. In 2018, the developer had already been approved for a 16-storey rental tower, containing 158 rental units, which didn’t cause much concern. The developer got four extra floors and more than double the floor space ratio than allowed, and people felt it made sense given the need for rental. But the developer then applied to build 28 storeys under the City’s new Moderate-Income Rental Housing Pilot Program, which waives development levies in exchange for purpose-built rentals with 20 per cent of the floor space reserved for households earning between $30,000 and $80,000. The program is encouraging rezonings in neighbourhoods throughout the city.

At the Birch site, 55 units out of 258 will be for moderate incomes.

The application sparked neighbourhood backlash and a frenzy of debate. The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, representing 27 residents’ associations, opposed the project. Proponents argued that the city is far too desperate for rental housing to worry about an unusually tall building. They said it’s slender form fits with other towers and the size is economically viable for the developer. Opponents argued that the tower would set a precedent for more towers, driving up land prices and giving relatively little back to citizens in the process. They said it doesn’t make sense to approve the massive tower outside of the Broadway Plan.

A July 9 hearing went on for five hours, then continued into Friday and this week. In order to engage, residents had to familiarize themselves with jargon-loaded City planning reports, take time off work, and sit through dozens of speakers.

Mr. Hein, who as a planner with the city worked on such high-density towers as the Woodward’s building, the Independent in Mount Pleasant, and the l’Hermitage downtown, is opposed to the Birch Street tower. He says there is a trend of “rezoning our way to affordability,” which is detrimental to urban design principles that make a city livable.

“This issue with big spot rezoning is every site is trying to go for as much as it possibly can pack on, and it’s being rationalized as an affordability discussion. But it’s overreaching,” he says.

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Mr. Hein argues that we need to rethink how we use zoning and land for the greater good, and how we can develop housing that is better, faster and cheaper than the prevailing concrete tower.

He spoke out against the Birch Street project along with Ray Spaxman, who was the City’s director of planning for 16 years. Mr. Spaxman earned a reputation for his advocacy of public engagement and thoughtful approach to planning.

Mr. Spaxman said new policies are impacting existing neighbourhood plans.

“The intention of zoning was to give people a sense of comfort; that if they moved into an area that is what they would expect to happen, including those areas zoned for change. But times are changing so much, and our values shift all the time, and what councils tend to do when values shift is move to another policy, like a rental housing policy or a non-market housing policy.”

Another factor is the community amenity contributions, which add significantly to the city’s capital budget.

“I’ve worked on several schemes with citizens, and mostly the citizens lose, because somehow or another, the City has got locked into its formulas, which are different from the old formulas that included aesthetics and architecture and urban design and neighbourliness, things like that. Now, it’s, ‘don’t you realize this is worth several million dollars and adds to the capital budget?' We rely on that capital budget even more so now.”

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As for the fact that the process is now requiring more from its citizenry, he agrees that it’s often just too much. He thinks the system needs an overhaul.

“I agree it isn’t fair. In fact, it goes back to so many examples of the last 10 years, where citizens have suddenly found themselves going to a public open house for example – and I’ve been to some of them, and you have a presentation from the architect who’s paid by the developer to talk about good things.

“There are two elephants in the room, one is the developer, and the other is the City, with all their resources – and you’ve come in from washing the dishes after dinner, or working in a store, or even done an operation on somebody, and suddenly you are faced with all this complexity, without anybody there to help you.

“When I was director of planning, I insisted we put the pros and the cons down so people could judge. We shouldn’t hide that just because we have a city policy.”

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