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The number of applications to rezone properties in Vancouver has soared in the past decade and almost all of them have been approved, says a lawyer who specializes in land-use law.

So rare are rejections of rezonings that long-time housing experts could only recall two in the city’s recent history, including the 2017 attempt to rezone 105 Keefer St., in Chinatown to a mid-rise condo and the attempt on June 25 this year to rezone a single lot at 4575 Granville St., to a 21-unit rental townhouse development. Both cases attracted significant media attention because of the pushback against them, as well as the rejections themselves, particularly 105 Keefer. In that case, Chinatown activists and residents mounted an effort to fight market condos in the heart of a historic neighbourhood where many seniors are struggling.

These are well-known cases because it’s so routine for applications to go through that when the rare one does get rejected, the development community is understandably indignant. Why reject one when so many are approved? As well, a lot of preliminary discussion with the city is conducted long before the public hearing stage and developers usually get a sense of whether the project is viewed favourably.

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The Vancouver Hospice Society opposed the redevelopment of neighbouring 4575 Granville St. on the grounds that the project's size and scale were wrong and it would cause disruptions.Kerry Gold

In the case of 4575 Granville St., city planning staff had recommended that the project be approved. But city council voted 7-4 against it. The Vancouver Hospice Society had gathered thousands of signatures in a petition opposing the development on the grounds that its size and scale were wrong and it would cause disruptions.

Those in favour of the project said that its rejection sent a troubling message to other developers that they could waste a lot of time and money if they attempted to rezone. But lawyer Nathalie Baker says that when developers purchase property that is already scheduled for another use, they shouldn’t assume that rezoning is a given. Vancouver has made rezoning, or “spot zoning,” the new normal, when it should be the exception; it has created a culture of entitlement, she says.

“It’s almost like there’s an assumption to it, an entitlement to it – but there’s not,” Ms. Baker says. “It’s up to council to decide whether or not something should be rezoned. And it’s within their right to say, ‘no’ to the rezoning. When you buy the property and you know what is permitted, you buy it assuming the risk that you might not get to build a 15-storey tower, or whatever it might be.”

And rezoning applications are on the rise, she says. In 2007, there were eight residential rezoning applications and by 2018, there were 45 in the works. Because rezonings require public input, the number of public hearings also doubled in that time span. The City is proposing changes to the public hearing procedure that have raised some eyebrows.

“It’s not just the number of rezoning applications that have increased dramatically, it’s the scale of the proposals,” Ms. Baker says. “The buildings are sometimes really big and seem out of scale with the neighbourhood.”

University of British Columbia professor Patrick Condon says the reason the projects are often massive is because of the hefty tax the city receives from rezonings. Unlike other municipalities that have adopted city-wide plans, Vancouver is changing existing zones on a piecemeal basis. When a change is requested, the community amenity contribution tax kicks in, which is negotiated on a case-by-case basis. In this way, the city gets libraries, community centres, parks and other valuable amenities.

However, in many other North American cities, because of fears that spot zoning invites corruption, it has been made illegal, Prof. Condon says. Not only does the practice negate the zoning that has been established, he says, but it also allows those with a lot of money to decide how a neighbourhood is going to change and gives developers with deeper pockets an advantage.

Other B.C. municipalities governed by the Local Government Act are required to produce an Official Community Plan and update it every five years. Because Vancouver has its own charter, it isn’t required to create such a plan. Prof. Condon and others have been calling for one for several years, in part to stop the practice of piecemeal spot zoning.

“Normal cities have a zoning map that tells you what you can and can’t do, with little need for council authorized variances,” Prof. Condon wrote in an e-mail. “But Vancouver is not normal. The city has no plan and has not updated its zoning map in over 40 years. Almost everything that gets done is done by variance or ‘spot zoning,’ which is when the council intervenes to approve a change in zoning for one parcel. Why? Because if a parcel is spot zoned the city can negotiate for concessions mostly in the form of [community amenity contribution] taxes.”

As well, says Elizabeth Murphy, a private-sector project manager, spot zoning for bigger developments has a knock-on effect that doesn’t help affordability because it inflates nearby land values.

“If you set a precedent for scale as a spot rezoning, you are affecting the development expectations and land values all around it.”

At 105 Keefer, developer Beedie Group revised its plans five times, only to ultimately be rejected by the City’s development permit board – an extremely rare move. Prior to that decision, city council had rejected a proposed 12-storey tower that included 25 units of housing for low-income seniors. The developer submitted a revised plan, complying with zoning that allowed for nine stories. And even though it fit with the zoning, it didn’t pass design requirements. Planning director Gil Kelley said at the time that the developer needed to listen more closely and engage with the community.

Kevin Huang, whose group the Hua Foundation supported the effort, says the rejection of the 105 Keefer proposal was partly due to both the intensity of the pushback and the demographic of the people who fought it, such as Chinese elders and young professionals who’d never attended a public hearing before.

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Vancouver housing activist Kevin Huang says the intensity of opposition to the rezoning of 105 Keefer partly led to its rejection.Kerry Gold/The Globe and Mail

“This was such a big thing within Chinatown and the segments within the broader Vancouver community, the question became for the City that if we agree to do this, what would be the political cost?” Mr. Huang says.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program, says Chinatown citizens hadn’t organized themselves so powerfully since they fought a freeway proposal that would have destroyed their neighbourhood in the 1970s. It was considered a huge victory for the neighbourhood, he says. The last rezoning rejection he could find was back in 2006, but in that case, the project ultimately went ahead.

“The redevelopment application [on Keefer] on the surface seemed to be a slam dunk for the developers, but with a sizable and diverse community coalition against the project it became a 12-round existential boxing match about what kind of housing is being built, and who it’s being built for in one of the most historic and socially fragile neighbourhoods in the city,” he said.

Like Mr. Huang, Mr. Yan is also concerned about proposed changes to the public hearing process, particularly since people who don’t speak English are already at a disadvantage because they use interpreters.

The proposed amendments include cutting public speaker time from five to three minutes, only allowing one speaker from any organization, giving the meeting chair additional powers, expanding a code of conduct to apply to public speakers at council meetings, limiting the public from questioning city staff, as well as a pilot program that would not allow councillors to ask speakers any questions. Councillors would also have to give four weeks’ notice of motions they want to make, rather than the current one week. And staff reports on major policies could be submitted up to noon the day prior to a council meeting, which would make it difficult for many people to prepare a response. A city council decision on the changes has been postponed to the fall.

“This is about democratic practice in the city and changes like these are exceptionally serious,” Mr. Yan says.

Ms. Baker says the problem is not the hearing process, which has always worked, but rather the fact that the planning process is being overwhelmed with applications.

“This was not a problem 10 years ago,” she says. “There’s been an exponential growth in the number of rezoning applications that are being submitted and going to council… It’s already very difficult for people to comment and what this [proposed amendment] does is limit public comment and potentially prevents people from criticizing proposals that they don’t want in their neighbourhood.”

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