Government’s lack of transparency has become a glaring issue in the past couple of weeks, particularly around housing.
At the Vancouver municipal level, False Creek South community members and advocates have recently discovered that the City has been exploring in-camera plans for major changes that won’t be divulged until late October.
About 3,200 residents live on 44 hectares of city-owned land at False Creek South – which includes several parks, rights of way and vacant land – between Cambie and Granville Island. As lease expirations approached, in 2010 the residents began discussions with the City on what changes should be made. After council agreed on a set of guiding principles in 2018, the group came up with a comprehensive plan to double its density by adding infill buildings, without displacing residents.
But in the past year, the City hired consultants to come up with different plans for the area – including an option to significantly increase density, which would transform the area.
Details aren’t known, and won’t be until October. That lack of transparency has left planning and urban design experts shaking their heads, including former director of city planning Larry Beasley, who decided to weigh in on the issue because of his growing concern. He has no vested interest, other than a long-time admiration for the project, which was developed in the 1970s, as a uniquely livable and affordable neighbourhood with an equal mix of rental, co-op and leasehold strata tenure.
Much of the land was leased to tenants for 60 years, so the time has come to look at options to add density to False Creek South amid a housing crisis. But, Mr. Beasley asks: why so much secrecy?
“What really got me fascinated was when they did this plan for the future of the area with different options done by several consultants, and it was completely privately done, not one ounce of involving the public. I have never seen that happen,” Mr. Beasley says.
“One of the principles should be that everything is transparent. That is city-building at its most fundamental. Everything is public except for negotiation of specific leases. This community should have a plan, and that plan should be done using the normal processes of community planning, which are public and inclusive, and all of that. It should in fact, be a plan that in principle wants to preserve that wonderful mix, and also think about the character of that neighbourhood. And the third principle is everyone gets guaranteed security.”
When asked for details about the False Creek South plan, the City responded that it is “balancing the interests of current neighbourhood residents with those of all Vancouver residents on whose behalf the City stewards these lands.”
City staff are preparing a council report with recommendations on the future of the neighbourhood, which will go to council in late October, the City said in an e-mail. Reports made for council are made public five days prior to the meeting, at the latest, said the City.
“Until the report is made public, we cannot comment on the contemplated density associated with the various options that will be presented to council.”
Architect Sean McEwen, who worked on another highly praised example of an affordable mixed income community, Mole Hill, in the West End. Mole Hill is a group of heritage houses on city-owned land that were restored and repurposed. Mr. McEwen says the problem is that the City is approaching the land with an eye to maximizing its monetary value, much like a developer would.
“They’re like the private sector, saying ‘we have to maximize return otherwise we are letting down our fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens of Vancouver.’ And I just don’t buy that. Life is about more than money.
“I’ve always thought that [False Creek South] was a very successful development, especially socially. And the efforts the folks down there have made to try to look for opportunities to share density and their neighbourhood are exemplary.”
Another example of government secrecy that impacted housing policy is the case of Little Mountain, a social housing project at West 37th Avenue and Ontario Street. An agreement made between BC Housing and developer Holborn Developments had been shrouded in secrecy since it was entered into in 2008. Those details are now coming to light.
A freedom of information request initiated by former NDP member of legislative assembly, David Chudnovsky, recently exposed a key detail; that government gave Holborn a $210.9-million mortgage, interest free until 2026, courtesy of taxpayers. The 700 or so low-income residents living in 224 units were forced off the 6.2-hectare social housing site by 2009, with the exception of a handful of residents, including an elderly blind couple. The group refused to leave, and ended up living in one building while all others were demolished.
Mr. Chudnovsky says the original deal was an interest-free mortgage until 2021. He says that when those residents refused to go, and public interest in their situation was mounting, Holborn agreed to build a 53-unit social-housing residence on the site. The elderly couple died before it was completed, in 2015. The remainder of the site has remained empty.
In return for that one building, Mr. Chudnovsky discovered that the developer was given an extension on the interest-free loan to 2026. “What is important is we understand that they finally started to build this building they were pushed to do, by these wonderful heroic people who refused to move. And [the developer] got paid off with an extra five years.”
What rankles him greatly is not only did they destroy a community, but they also took 224 units of social housing out of the system during an affordability crisis, without replacing them. What he would like to see is Little Mountain returned to a model social-housing project, with a far greater number of social-housing units than originally stood there. That, he says, should have been the original intention.
“If government decided they wanted new parks, they wouldn’t sell off Queen Elizabeth Park so that they could build other parks somewhere else. But that’s exactly what government said they were doing with Little Mountain – they were going to privatize that huge piece of land and use the proceeds they said to build other social housing in different places. As it turns out, that was all smoke and mirrors, because there was no money.
“If government has a commitment to social housing … then government should budget for that social housing. It shouldn’t rob Peter to pay Paul and it shouldn’t be privatizing an asset that belongs to the public.
“What has happened over the last several decades in Vancouver and many other places, is that our attitude toward housing has changed – from one of housing is about homes for people and communities, to housing is about speculation for those who are most able to speculate. That is a sea change in the way we think about things.”
Traditionally, transparency is the norm when devising a neighbourhood plan, says former city planner Nathan Edelson, who did a lot of work on the downtown eastside plan. He sees parallels between False Creek South and Little Mountain in that the government approach was to redevelop existing non-market housing instead of adding non-market development on available vacant land, which doesn’t result in displacement.
Mr. Edelson has heard that the City has plans to redevelop the co-op non-market housing buildings at False Creek South.
“The thing that ties Little Mountain with False Creek South are proposals that initiate redevelopment of public housing rather than expanding public housing,” says Mr. Edelson, who has been working as a consultant for many years with False Creek South residents.
“There’s the environmental waste alone, of tearing down buildings that have decades of useful value while you have quite a bit of land available for redevelopment,” he says. “Residents are concerned that the City will demolish many perfectly good homes, and they will be replaced by much larger buildings that will fundamentally change the area’s highly livable character.”
University of B.C. geography professor emeritus David Ley wonders if the current City staff are even aware of False Creek South’s special legacy. Prof. Ley has studied the neighbourhood and given talks on its success.
“The City’s view is that they don’t have a lot of land and this is a high proportion of the land they do have. And if they are interested in densification and affordable housing, this is an enormous resource that they need to make use of. That is a valid starting point. But the issue becomes, is there something there that’s worth preserving that will be destroyed if you put too much density?
“I think this really is a wicked problem because it is a showpiece project … it’s one of the best examples of public-directed urban development, and is regarded as such.
“I do not know to what extent the City is aware of that.”
He is critical of the City’s lack of transparency around its plans, and its unresponsiveness to renewing co-op leases, and the anxiety it has created for those residents. The City’s delay in renewing co-op leases has been a heated issue because those lessees are without secure housing. It’s difficult to get a lender to finance high-cost repairs, for example, without a lease.
“There ought to be the capacity here for a compromise that would preserve as much as possible of what is an excellent city project. You’d think they’d want to advertise the fact of how well the City has done.”
Mr. Beasley said he doesn’t understand the need for non-disclosure around a matter of public policy. He finds the approach so far a top-down one, rather than a collaborative process with citizens.
“I continue to worry that the City, because it owns that land, and is also the approval authority, is essentially all powerful over their future. I can’t imagine we would let a private developer unfold their situation this way, so why would we let a public developer? Why wouldn’t we hold a public developer, I would argue, to an even higher standard?”
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