Transcripts of the audience discussion at the SFU City Conversations event on October 15, 2015. The public conversation shared ideas about the relationship between politics and planning in the City of Vancouver, and about the challenges ahead for the new director of planning to follow the retirement of Brian Jackson at the end of 2016. The panel transcripts can be found here.
NOTE: Transcripts have been edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the videos.
1. Bob Ransford: We need a planner who can say ‘no’ and explain why. And that will tell us what ‘yes’ means.
I think Francis made a really insightful comment when she said we don’t know how many times planners say ‘no.’ I think the measure of a really good planner is to be able to articulate ‘no’ in a reasonable way with a rationale. I think the kind of planner that we need in Vancouver right now is someone who has a vision for what to say ‘no’ to. In the last few years, we’ve been saying ‘no’ to a lot of things as a reaction to what we are hearing from neighbourhoods that have never had to deal with change before.
It was really easy for Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee because they were transforming Vancouver at a time when people want to see a rebirth of the city. They were developing brownfield and port-related sites at the edge of the city where there were no residential neighbourhoods, and Downtown South where most of the residents had left. No one was feeling threatened by that. We’ve run out of that kind of land now. And we’ve seen continuing growth in waves in since the 1880s that come every 15 or 20 years, and we’re in another wave now. We need a planner who can articulate a vision based not on design but on how we manage growth and where we put growth in the city.
You don’t know how many times planners say ‘no’ even under the existing policies. Vancouver has a unique system in that basically all of the planning decisions are discretionary. There are many conditional uses in most of the zones, and there is a lot of discretion that is delegated. If you go to Delta or Richmond, Council is involved even in development permits. They are not delegated to staff or to a development permit panel. So Vancouver has a unique situation. We need a planner who can say ‘no’ and explain why. And that will tell us what ‘yes’ means.
2. David Grigg: Review the terms of reference of the Urban Design Panel and Planning Commission.
My question relates to the advice given to the director of planning by the Urban Design Panel, which is not required to have a planner, and the Vancouver City Planning Commission, which is not required to have professionals. Should their terms of reference by reviewed by the new director of planning, or should that be left to Council?
Panellists: The Planning Commission is expected to represent citizens, not planners and the director of planning; and has no real authority over the director of planning. The Urban Design Panel has a bit of moral authority; there is a reluctance to go against their decisions. Changing the terms of reference would be the responsibility of Council.
3. Trevor Boddy: We need to question our mythology about the power of city planners.
In the 1950s, Roland Barthes wrote a book called Mythologies, which is the stories we tell ourselves. There is a mythology that’s grown up in the city about the importance, role and power of city planners, and I’d like to seriously contest it. This has been one of at least three sessions devoted to the search of a new planner.
Planners have a role here like movie stars do in LA or philanthropists and bankers in New York. I think we need to question this as part of the discussion. I think we had one truly visionary planner in Ray Spaxman, and we had a superb communicator in Larry Beasley. We have a landscape now where no matter what the CV of the individual, I don’t think we can have success equal to the expectations… We should try to get the story right and question the mythology or it will be hard on the planner who gets that job. History will tell the truth eventually, such as the role of architects like Jim Cheng.
I think we should instead be having a talk about how we’ve evolved a city that has a evolved a developers’ party of the right and a developers’ part of the left, and why the city has a very passive media environment where things go unquestioned. I’ve been in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton and see more debate about decisions. The search for the super planner is a fool’s game. Having said that, my vote is for Jennifer Keesmat in Toronto… she’d be as close to perfection as I could propose.
Panellists: The planner has as much leeway as Council and the City Manager give that planner, and Larry used to get reigned in from time to time. I see the focus on the planner is part of the huge interest that Vancouver has in design and planning. This is the only city where I think you’d get 600 people out on a June evening to listen to Andres Duany talk about the ecosystems of suburbanism versus urbanism. And part of that is investing a bit too much magical power in a planner. (Bula)
You are talking about how things look like, not how they are. Vancouver works and always has. Somebody needs to know what happens as we change it, I think that a director of planning can know that. Certainly Ray Spaxman understood how cities work. Vancouver works. It may not always work. We have 50 percent of the population living in highrises. Will we have the same city? We don’t know – not I and undoubtedly not Council. But we need to understand before we actually do it. (Ford)
4. Frank Ducote: We haven’t talked to neighbourhoods about their share of regional growth.
Francis made an interesting point. CityPlan came along before we had regional context statements where municipalities set out their share of the growth of the region – the jobs, the population. Had they been reversed, there would have been a real opportunity to say that we have this growth potential in jobs, people and housing units, but we don’t know how to allocate those.
We’re going to send the planners out into the neighbourhoods and make a plan that that will be driven by capacity analysis, vacant sites and other data. We never said to a neighbourhood that your share of the regional population growth is ‘y.’ It might be based on amenity capacity, school seats, and so on, and the neighbourhoods are not all the same. In the CityPlan process, people were able to say ‘no’ to 4-stories while having amenities. The missing piece is ‘share,’ and the question becomes ‘how.’
Panellists: That’s a good point. I think some of the angst about development in the region comes because we are going through a wave of growth, mixed in with some other factors that make people anxious. But it’s also due to the regional growth strategy that has specific numbers and allocated specific numbers to municipalities, some of whom argued for more. That has propelled some of the resistance. People sort of accepted growth when it was just happening, but suddenly when they feel like there is a quota, there seems to be more resistance. (Bula)
I would beg to differ with that because as you said earlier, just lay down the rules and we’ll work within them. I think if people knew this is what we have to do – it would be a very difficult discussion, because who decides which neighbourhood gets what? It won’t be the neighbourhoods, because they get to decide how they fit them in. (Ladner)
If it’s inevitable, people will ultimately accept it. They may resist at the beginning but people understand. All kinds of areas of Vancouver have now accepted laneway houses. That first laneway house created a riot. When our Council approved a small wedge of land in Point Grey where the land was strata and the houses were single-family, I voted for it and got hell from the Point Grey homeowners association because it wasn’t pure RS1. That wouldn’t happen now. People have accepted basement suites, laneway houses… It takes time. People need time to adjust to the idea. (Ford)
To Frank’s point, if we said Vancouver has agreed that growth inevitably is going to bring this many people, here is Vancouver’s part of it, here is how we are going to allocate it in the neighbourhoods, with the rationale for how we are going to allocate it – and then it’s going to be up to neighbourhoods how to accommodate that – only some neighborhoods have heard the magic number. (Bula)
I want to quote from CityPlan: “Even with growth, Vancouver will keep much of what gives its neighbourhoods their look and feel – trees and greenery, heritage buildings, distinctive area identities, generally low-scale buildings outside the central area.” CityPlan was constantly called up whenever some project came up in the neighbourhood, with people saying, “We already agreed on CityPlan, we are going to keep it the way it is, give or take a few Granville Island type amenities.” (Ladner)
5. Dorothy Barclay: Citizens have been crying out for context – how we fit into the city, what are the other neighbourhoods doing, what is the rationale for what needs to happen? We need a comprehensive plan.
I’m the chair of the Grandview Woodland Area Council. I sat on the Citizens’ Assembly and I’m co-chair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods. We’ve been focused on what’s been going on for a long time and disagree completely.
In the Citizens’ Assembly, everyone was crying out for context – how we fit into the city, what are the other neighbourhoods doing, what is the rationale for what needs to happen? We couldn’t get a number for what the densification would be. There was an underlying theme that we needed to take densification, generally involving a lot of height.
Regarding the Urban Design Panel, I would urge that there should always be someone from the neighbourhoods, because for the Panel it’s an academic process that doesn’t touch on their neighbourhoods. If I could ask for anything from the new city planner, it’s that the residents need to be consulted. There needs to be a comprehensive plan that explains how much growth we need to take and it is to be apportioned.
Panellist: This speaks to Patrick Condon’s point that Vancouver is the only city in the region without an official community plan. Why is that? Are we that special and different that we can’t come up with one? Everyone else has one. Then the rules are laid out and we know there will be growth here, density here and so on. And we don’t have all of these developer-driven initiatives that throw all the neighbourhoods into a tailspin, with the impression that a development proposal dropped out of the sky or headed into the sky, and now the neighbourhood has to adapt. (Ladner)
6. Adriane Carr, City Councillor: How does the chief planner balance the direction of the department with the will of Council, and with the greater power that citizens ask for?
I was a graduate student of Walter Hardwick’s when he was a City Councillor, and I heard endless complaints from him about staff, that this was a Council with lots of vision and staff had too much power. So with this last election, I think that planning did become political. What we heard from citizens is the concern that staff had too much power, Council had too much power, developers had too much power, but the citizens didn’t.
So in thinking about a new chief planner for the city, how would you frame the need to focus on giving the people some piece of that power that they are obviously seeking, and how does the chief planner actually balance the direction of the department with the will of Council? If Council are appealing to the people, how do the planners deal with Council and whatever Council wants in terms of public participation, if it’s different from what the people want or the chief planner wants?
Panellists: There is no science to this. You’ve almost have to make it up for each project. Each raises different issues. Different neighbourhoods have different levels of emotional involvement. (Ladner)
But I think you’ve got to be willing to hear from people and you’ve got to give them a chance. Larry Beasley was a phenomenally good local area planner when he was young. We had a huge committee in Little Mountain that ranged from Grace McCarthy’s constituency president to the local Marxist-Leninist candidate, and everybody came and everybody had a say and it went on for ages. But in the end, it transformed that community. It really made a huge difference but it took a long time and it took Larry knowing how to keep these people going and to hear what they had to say. I don’t think you can hurry it if you are actually trying to hear what people have to say. (Ford)
Perhaps they could go to Grandview Woodland and the Citizen’s Assembly and ask what lessons have been learned, because that’s been a very long, painful, and deeply thought out process. (Ladner)
After covering more awful public hearings over many years than I care to mention, my concern is that are so many people in this city we don’t hear from. What does it mean when you say you are listening? Does it mean you listen to the people who come to Council and start screaming, or is it other people who maybe never come to Council? There were a lot of people who crapped all over the City’s STIR Rental Program. Those buildings are now filled with very grateful people who get a chance to rent a new apartment near transit instead of a basement suite. They never showed up at meetings. They are just happy they have a place. There is at least a little bit more rental space available in Vancouver than there used to be. That is my concern about the whole public listening part. Who are you listening to? (Bula)
That raises a rhetorical question I’ve been asking: when we have public participation, people who come are the people who are already here. Who speaks for the people who want to be here but aren’t here yet –because they can’t afford or obtain housing – and therefore don’t have a voice? (Alexander)
7. Don Gardener: On including rented condos in rental stock & the end of a city plan.
Over 35 percent of the condos built in stratas are rentals, but the planners don’t include that in the rental stock. So they are giving away density and all kinds of things to build rentals that are already there. You’ve got to have the facts when you’re making decisions.
The second thing is that we spent five years developing the Mount Pleasant plan. There was density that had to be accommodated. We looked at options, but we were told that the only way you can do it is by putting in towers. We brought the community together, did charrettes, and proved that we could take all of the density without building anything over four storeys. That was completely ignored by the City.
So in hiring a new planner, you have to look at is whose city this is. The Vancouver Sun had an article on the current planner and talked about his city. It’s not his city. It’s our city, so we need a plan that’s going to listen to the community…
The Mount Pleasant plan wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. None of the community plans are because the City has so many diverse policies that they can say that a new proposal comes under the STIR 100 policy, so the community plan doesn’t apply. The City will do spot rezoning in that place and ignore the community plan. They’ve done that over and over again. So you need a city plan. The neighbourhood plan didn’t work is because the City overrode the plan.
Panellists: On the rental data, I believe that CMHC does now look at the rentals in condos, and that is factored into the City’s calculations of rental stock. (Bula)
I agree about the Mount Pleasant plan. When it was passed after years of work, residents said, “This is great, we really like it.” But when the first building came along, people started to disagree about what the consensus had actually been about. I think there was legitimate confusion on the part of residents who said, “Yes, we said we’ll take some density, but we didn’t say yes to a 26-storey tower at Kingsway and Broadway.” This is one of the reasons I’m not keen about developing a city plan. I’m not convinced that a city plan is going to solve problems. (Bula)
8. Andy Yan: How to allocate Vancouver’s share (120,000) of the regional population growth among the neighbourhoods?
I’m an urban planner as well as a member of the Planning Commission. Perhaps there is a saying: the Titanic was built by professionals, the Ark was built by amateurs. In your discussion of the next planner, how would you see the 120,000 new people coming to Vancouver by 2040, according to the regional growth plan, allocated among the neighbourhoods?
Panellists: Didn’t Patrick Condon he work that all out for the whole region? We could put them all down the corridors without that many big towers? (Ladner)
That’s if every single landowner on an arterial agrees to redevelop. That is like people saying there is all of this zoned capacity in Vancouver and we don’t need to rezone anything. The fact is that no matter what the zoning is, not every owner is going to build to the max. I can tear down my heritage house and build a duplex. I’m not going to do it. Many small owners on arterials are not interested in redeveloping, for whatever reason. (Bula)
A lot of them can be persuaded by developers if they have no other options. (Ladner)
Maybe we should start charging for people leaving buildings empty. Does anyone have an actual count as to how many empty buildings there are? The last I heard was 14? There is no data (Panellists)
Frank Ducote said if you are going to allocate it, you can’t just go by the square kilometers or whatever. You have to look at the amenities in the area and allocated that way. (Bula)
And what about listening to the communities? Maybe some might want to age in place nearby, and other won’t. Maybe there can be some happy medium. (Ladner)
One thing that has to be said about neighbourhood participation and citizen’s engagement is that than half the people in this city do not have English as their first language. They are not comfortable talking in public meetings and their voices are very hard to be heard. Somehow the new planner has to get them into the picture as well. (Ladner)