Vancouver city council has approved a new plan that includes the prezoning of broad areas of the city to allow four- to six-storey apartment buildings in areas that currently only allow detached houses.
It’s part of a major new push by city staff for more rental developments at a faster pace. At a marathon council meeting on Nov. 26, after hearing from many speakers, council approved several staff recommendations, with some amendments. The plan includes a two-year pilot program to allow rezonings for newly built rental apartment blocks in large parts of the city that are zoned for detached houses. Up to six storeys will be allowed on major streets in these areas, and four storeys on side streets, but not far from major streets and near schools, shops and parks. Twenty per cent of units in the six-storey apartment buildings on major streets must be below market, meaning they would be affordable to those making less than $80,000 a year. The four-storey buildings on the side streets will be market rate, because the economics of affordable units in low-rise buildings didn’t work for developers.
The plan would cover areas where big houses have already been converted to multiple units.
The plan also includes the allowance of up to six storeys on commercial zoned streets, with all five storeys of residential units for market-rate rental. Many commercial zones affected run along Kingsway, Fraser and Main, and along some west-side streets, such as Dunbar and West Fourth Avenue. The applicants would not have to go through the lengthy rezoning process, which would normally include a public hearing. The city says this part of the proposal would not affect areas that already have a community plan.
Council’s decision came after an all-day meeting that heard from many industry members who spoke in favour of the new prezoned rental zones. It is an attempt to shift development away from condos and toward rental, and city staff say the rental-only changes will likely not result in a spike to land values. However, several residents and housing experts disagree. They say the city is again relying on the market to save us with more market supply, instead of addressing the true needs of diverse neighbourhoods.
“We are not replacing old units with new for the sake of investment or whatever,” said Gil Kelley, the city’s general manager of planning. Mr. Kelley said he is concerned that Vancouver is about to experience the rapid growth of San Francisco, where he was director of citywide planning. “It’s not just about moving the pieces around that are on deck right now, but thinking about the tsunami of the new economy arriving here, and it’s coming here in a hurry. Even two years ago you could say it’s a far-off phenomenon. Now it’s clear that those folks are coming … and there’s a huge pressure on the existing rental supply. And if we don’t get out ahead of that, frankly we are going to be in the same situation that San Francisco and to some extent, Seattle, have found themselves.”
The proposed zoning changes, which will affect most of the city, will go to public hearing some time in the spring of 2020, possibly April.
The move startled some housing experts and citizen groups who wondered why the city would launch a broad rezoning plan when a citywide land-use plan is under way. The coming citywide plan is supposed to be a collaborative process between the city and residents, who give their input on how they see their neighbourhoods and city shaping in the next 30-plus years. Critics of the rezoning say such a major change should go to the public first, not after. Some are certain that the changes will increase land values, and cause more displacement.
Andy Yan, a planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, is concerned that the proposed policy will only push working class and minority groups from their neighbourhoods. Developers will focus on the eastern and southern areas of the city, where land costs are lowest. Those areas are also significantly high in visible minority demographics. Visible minority populations are between 67 per cent and 84 per cent in Marpole, Oakridge, Sunset, Victoria Fraserview, Killarney, Renfrew-Collingwood and Kensington Cedar Cottage neighbourhoods, according to a map he created, based on the city’s Open Data Catalogue.
He says the city must analyze where the developments will land, and the impact on neighbourhoods according to demographics.
“Without [that analysis], the proposed policy becomes a form of ‘spray and pray’ zoning,” Prof. Yan says. “The proposal threatens to deepen historical spatial injustices as it does not deal with the affordable family-sized rental that the people of the city need,” he says.
“People will be caught in the crossfire and become collateral damage in the city’s experiment.”
Paulina Mikicich is a planner for the City of Mississauga, and a former Vancouverite who also read the report. She is not giving her opinion on behalf of her employer, but as a private citizen.
“Private market developers will still ‘want to be made whole’ because, after all, they are not a charity,” she says. “It offers no protection for existing residents nor ensures that it will house those most in need.
“A more gentle approach to density could look at how many rental units could be created on a 50-foot lot and still respect the architectural and landscape heritage – that was the beauty of laneway houses. Granted, even they are no longer affordable. But is it right to displace so many residents already living in more affordable second units? And will they have the opportunity to come back?”
Mr. Kelley and Dan Garrison, assistant director of housing policy for the City of Vancouver, do not believe there will be significant enough response to the pilot program to transform residential neighbourhoods. They say big developers are more interested in the six-storey commercial developments.
“With the requirement that it be rental only, and the limit to four stories [on the side streets], these aren’t going to be hugely attractive to all developers,” Mr. Garrison said. “To be honest, we haven’t really projected the number of projects we think will happen because we do think it will be a fairly modest take-up.”
Mr. Garrison and Mr. Kelley said the proposal dovetails nicely with the citywide plan – dubbed the Vancouver Plan – because it is a kind of test run to see how new density in these low-density areas will go. At the request of council, Mr. Garrison’s department is going to take a closer look at potential displacement of residents.
“Whatever take-up there is, it will be a learning thing, for all of us, for the community, the council and the staff, as to how we might shape so-called gentle infill going forward, which will be the topic of the Vancouver Plan,” Mr. Kelley said.
“Likely it will be mostly the east and south parts of the city [affected], and again, we didn’t do a deep demographic study about who might likely be affected by this. But I would say it’s something we want to observe during the process. And again, we will probably only have a few cases to do that testing with, in reality, but it still will be informative for us as we do the larger policy work on the citywide plan.”
Dorothy Barkley, co-chair for the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, took issue with the fact that council and community groups were only given a few days to read through the 236-page report before the council meeting.
“There wasn’t enough time for the council to go through it and absorb it, much less members of the community. It wasn’t fair, for something so profound that will have so much impact on the city. There should have been a lot of consultation especially with [impacted] neighbourhoods,” Ms. Barkley said.
She says she believes that introducing new market rentals into neighbourhoods will lift land values. She says she also believes that the proposal will replace affordable rental units with unaffordable market-rate units.
“We’re not entirely convinced that there is a real understanding by the city as to what the issues are. They approve housing developments, but it’s never the right kind. It’s either luxury condos or market condos, or market rentals, which are too expensive.
“Also, we are supposed to be working towards a citywide plan, and that citywide plan is going to be based on neighbourhood consultation. Well, this would appear to render that moot.”
A few months ago, Rob Fisher and other residents near Commercial Drive had fought a six-storey development that, once built, would remove four old houses filled with affordable rental suites on Grant Street. The developer originally wanted to build condos, but they decided to do market rentals that allowed them to build to six storeys. In the end, the allowed height was five storeys. But a big market-rental building doesn’t fit the neighbourhood, says Mr. Fisher, a business owner who wants to see more affordable rental units as opposed to market rate. He had a petition signed by hundreds of residents, but he says he doesn’t feel the city was listening to their concerns.
“If it’s all market rental, you are squeezing out the neighbourhood. That’s part of what makes the Drive marvelous is its diversity, and not just ethnic and cultural, but economic groups.”
Mr. Garrison said that, “in lower-density forms at four storeys, it just wasn’t financially possible to require affordability.”
But Mr. Fisher doesn’t buy that developers can’t offer some affordable units in the new four-storey rental buildings that are being proposed for large swaths of the city.
“The bottom line right now is they are making a pot full of money. So you know what? They are going to make a smaller pot full of money.”