Value of a Physical Plan
The intention to undertake a Physical Plan is important and timely. Up until recently, the City of Vancouver had the luxury of deferring redevelopment outside of the downtown core as brownfield sites like Concord and Coal Harbour absorbed the demand for denser downtown residential development. For the outer neighbourhoods, CityPlan was aspirational, focused on values and goals, without maps showing locations of future land uses. The CityPlan-based Community Visions set directions without the benefit of design explorations that could assist the public to envision a future for their neighbourhoods that was substantially different from the present.
The net result of the Community Visions was generally to accept some additional density through redevelopment along arterials, typically the neighbourhood shopping streets. These sites were often already available within existing commercial zones in any case. The Community Visions also set in place policy directions that often discouraged developers from considering rezoning applications in most locations south of 16th Avenue, for example, setting a maximum height for development of four storeys in my neighbourhood of Riley Park South Cambie was an indication that a rezoning for higher densities could be a difficult and rancorous process.
Not the Baby with the Bath Water
Community Visions did do a number of things right. They had a strong component of public education, making available research by staff into demographics, trends, and economic implications. They engaged residents in conversations about what they value in their neighbourhoods. They tested public opinion with statistically defensible surveys, to see if the people who attended workshops and open houses were skewing input with respect to the entire population. However, the legacy is a challenge now: how to move away from Community Visions without the public feeling that past efforts were meaningless?
Managing the Where and When of Development
The City’s current thinking is that density should be promoted. Downtown Vancouver, and the dense cores of other cities, have smaller ecological footprints, higher rates of walking and cycling, lower car ownership, more people living close to work, parks, cultural institutions, daycare etc. Therefore it is extrapolated that increasing density is the answer to addressing climate change.
Vancouver has achieved its dense downtown by a combination of policy and luck. Key policies included: bringing residential to Downtown generated by the City responding to then GVRD regional plan that adopted the model of a network of regional town centres, moving away from the Vancouver-centric status quo of the mid-1970s; promoting Expo and the 2010 Olympics as drivers for residential development along False Creek; setting percentages of housing for families with children; and mandating some social housing, daycares, and new schools.
The luck was that it was so much easier to develop in the downtown that the rest of the City was allowed to remain low density and suburban. This is now changing with the completion of the development of downtown brownfield sites. This dichotomy was so strong that the Expo SkyTrain line was planned with stations in areas where there was no plans to move away from single family development. Even the Canada Line was planned this way. The Cambie Corridor planning brought a TOD lens after the fact, triggering concerns about capacity assumptions.
Without explicitly intending to, the City caused development over the 1980s and 90s to concentrate on the downtown, with the benefit that it was achieved quickly and without the lingering empty sites that plague other big cities.
Addressing Affordable Housing and Housing Choice
It is commonly accepted that Vancouver is not an affordable place to live. It is also a place with a very narrow range of choice in housing types: single family homes in established neighbourhoods, sleek new condos in the inner ring, and a sprinkling of new townhouses where approvals could be achieved.
More research is needed to inform the upcoming Physical Plan to understand where the affordable housing is today. It is in low rise rental apartments; the City has acted to try to protect these units. However, these apartments also represent areas where redevelopment to much higher densities might be most readily accepted by property owners, both of the buildings themselves and of the adjacent single family homes. It is much easier to redevelop rental properties that are in one ownership versus condominiums where every owner must be convinced to sell. Areas of condominiums are probably the most difficult places to redevelop – Fairview Slopes, for example.
Affordable housing is also in basement suites, large old houses operating as rooming houses, and houses bought to be shared by friends, and people living in garages or mobile homes in backyards. We need research into where affordability exists in our single family areas before we propose blanket redevelopment. Old buildings are where affordable housing, as well as our heritage register stock, is. This is also a sustainable and Greenest City issue: ‘the greenest building is the one already built.’
Right now most residents of Vancouver’s single family neighbourhoods believe that the status quo will continue as evidenced by the tremendous amount of redevelopment occurring in these neighbourhoods. My immediate few blocks has seen over a dozen new homes or substantial rebuilds and half a dozen laneway homes. Very serviceable existing homes are torn down and replaced with bigger houses that often house fewer people than the old ones did. If people thought their neighbourhood was slated for redevelopment, this would not be occurring to the same level.
Vancouver needs to have a more complex and varied strategy for affordable housing that is coordinated with the Physical Plan, with projected demographic shifts, and with strategic choices that balance retention of existing buildings with targeted redevelopment in places that have been studied and identified to warrant it. Some neighbourhoods would then be identified to be phased for later change and then be able to provide stable places to reinvest and to provide affordable housing through suites and laneway houses, perhaps with an intensification of these programs to increase densities.
Not Forgetting Economic Development
The Physical Plan should also research and address the future of work and the workplace, including a review of the demand for industrial land in the context of anticipated industrial activities of the future. Developers are eyeing the remaining brownfield sites, including Marpole and False Creek Flats. Non-traditional economic areas like Main Street and Venables in Grandview-Woodland should be studied to understand jobs and job creation, spin off from cultural institutions, ‘creative class’ implications, and jobs that retain young people in the city.
The Physical Plan should look at building typologies that make for job attraction. Vancouver does not have the traditional early 1900s industrial buildings that are favoured by design and digital firms except in Yaletown and the recently transformed Gastown. This wave of gentrification is now noticeable on Hastings Street and in Chinatown. This Plan is an opportunity to ask what are the new and adaptive reuse alternatives to old warehouse districts that we might renew or create with workplaces that would keep creative and cultural jobs growing in Vancouver.
Marta Farevaag is a partner of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, a Vancouver-based consulting firm in Planning, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture with award-winning projects across Canada and internationally. Marta participates in many of the firm’s multidisciplinary urban design projects as the urban planner on the team, often with a role in community consultation and communications. Her areas of expertise include major park and university campus master plans, downtown and waterfront redevelopment, cultural and heritage landscapes, and public realm strategies.
Marta has been active in urban issues including roles as a Director of the Vancouver League organizing free public lectures by noted designers; a member, and Chair in her last year, of the Vancouver City Planning Commission; and a member of the Vancouver Urban Design Panel and the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee. She is currently the Chair of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.