Elizabeth Murphy: Son of STIR rising at Vancouver City Hall
By Elizabeth Murphy
Two related controversial reports are to be considered by Vancouver city council today: the Secured Market Rental Housing Policy and the 1401 Comox Street rezoning. Both should be referred back to staff for public consultation and amendments.
The Secured Market Rental Housing Policy—or the Son of STIR—is a new program which would replace the recently cancelled Short Term Incentives for Rentals Program (STIR). There has been no public consultation on this policy.
However, unlike its predecessor STIR, the new policy will not be a temporary stimulus program, but will be a permanent program that is eventually written into a number of zoning bylaws affecting neighbourhoods citywide. It includes broad discretionary power to be given the director of planning. Large increases in density could be allowed without requiring rezoning.
There were many problems with STIR, most of which will not be addressed by the new policy, Son of STIR. In an article earlier this month, I covered this issue to show how the Son of STIR will be even worse than its predecessor.
In January 2012, Brent Toderian, then-director of planning, outlined three problems with the STIR program.
• STIR did not create much rental.
• Huge height and density increases were necessary to secure very few rental units or amenity contributions.
• STIR unit rents were high.
In contrast, the city report declares STIR "results to be in-line with the objectives". That is not in fact the case.
The Son of STIR report recommends developments of 100 percent rental, rather than mixed with strata. But this does not address the STIR issues about lack of affordability, loss of amenity contributions, or the scale of rental developments. It will result in a loss of older rentals such as the RT zones on arterials, which have larger family-sized units in heritage buildings that could be replaced with units as small as 320 square. feet.
The zones impacted are broad in scope and do not avoid existing rental buildings other than some limitations in RM apartment zones and CD-1 zones. All existing rentals in RT heritage zones, commercial areas, industrial areas and Official Development Plan areas are not protected. The increased density and height for rentals would put more development pressure on heritage and character buildings, which already have some of the most affordable rental and ownership options in the city.
The other report refers the strongly opposed 1401 Comox Street West End project to public hearing, which was applied for under STIR in 2009.This project comes forward even though the West End Community Plan process is starting.
Although 1401 Comox is 100 percent rental, it is a huge tower that is vastly out of scale with the area's character. It will only provide market rentals at rates the market will bear, which tends to be high, and provides no amenity contributions.
Cameron Gray was the former managing director of social development and long time manager of the Housing Centre in charge of the City of Vancouver's housing policies and initiatives. Gray commented on 1401 Comox stating, "Building new market rental housing is certainly important but it seems to me that a building at over 7 FSR will be too big on that site and that the right balance between urban design/planning and affordability is not being struck."
However the staff report on Comox states, "staff have concluded that the application...meets the RM-5 Design Guidelines and represents an acceptable urban design response to the site and context."
That is not the case, This is an example of the scale of development the city is prepared to approve while misrepresenting the facts.
The community group West End Neighbours, with help from a resident planner, has done a detailed analysis of the Comox report and has a chronology of events since 2009 when STIR and the Comox project originated.
The proposed building is surrounded by a mix of building types. The majority of these are low-rise buildings ranging from three to four storeys. Some towers nearby are in the range of four to 10 storeys. A minority of buildings in the vicinity are higher towers above 15 storeys. None of the examples of towers in the report are of similar density.
Building rental housing is indeed important to the long term sustainability of the city. But the increase in floorspace for 1401 Comox is an unreasonable density bonus, which does not match the community context, for the proposed "community benefit" of market rental housing.
Nor has the city struck the right balance in creating a way to increase rental housing with community fit or affordability in either the STIR program or its proposed replacement program. Further the new program will put existing rentals at risk where rate-of-change policies designed to protect existing rentals do not apply.
The proposed Secured Market Rental Housing Policy, Son of STIR, works against protection of existing rentals, affordability, heritage, liveability, and the city's environmental objectives. There are so many issues that have not been thought through, neither with this newly proposed policy, nor with the project at 1401 Comox. These two policy reports should be referred back to City staff for further consultation with the public and other stakeholders.
Elizabeth Murphy is a former property development officer for the City of Vancouver's housing and properties department; senior development officer for B.C. Housing; and private sector project manager. She ran for councillor with Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) in the 2011 Vancouver civic election.