Ned Jacobs: Little Mountain housing quagmire—forcing form to follow finance
Form should not be forced to follow finance.
When this axiom of community planning is discarded, the result is substandard urban design and loss of livability, frequently with deleterious social and financial consequences. The Little Mountain redevelopment is a tragic example of what can go wrong when this axiom is unheeded.
A real-estate bubble seduced B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman into regarding this public land as a cash cow to fund supportive housing, an essential piece of the social safety net that his government had long neglected in favour of tax cuts and spending priorities such as freeway expansions and a retractable stadium roof.
Because providing a “blank slate” would fetch a better price, a fine community—monetarily poor but rich in social capital—was needlessly uprooted, resulting in at least a seven-year loss of 220 affordable dwellings and millions of dollars in lost rental revenue to B.C. Housing.
In 2007, BCH officials disingenuously told the tenants they could expect to return to their new homes in 2010. Coleman and BCH officials erroneously assumed that because parts of downtown and False Creek had recently been developed at extremely high densities, the same could be done in the Riley Park neighbourhood, without concern for its overall context, character, or the site, which is adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Park and the Ontario and 37th Avenue greenways.
City council, understandably eager to reduce the homelessness resulting from unchecked real-estate speculation and government neglect, approved a flawed memorandum of understanding, and BCH made an undisclosed deal with a relatively inexperienced developer based on building forms and densities that more prudent and experienced developers knew were not appropriate.
In the fall of 2009, under pressure from Coleman, the city agreed to let the Little Mountain dwellings be demolished, even though it was by then clear that without a plan in place, phased redevelopment would not proceed for years. The policy planning, which should have been completed in about 12 months, dragged out to 30 because the BCH/Holborn public-private partnership refused to work within the principles developed for the site and insisted that the city subsidize the woefully inadequate number of proposed social housing units (234) by foregoing development levies and amenity contributions that would normally accrue from a major rezoning.
The Little Mountain Community Advisory Group (CAG)—which includes architects, social workers, teachers, and a social-housing expert among its homeowners and tenants—concluded that due to a number of interrelated factors (which I won’t go into here) the optimum built density for the Little Mountain site is about a gross Floor Space Ratio (FSR) of 2, with most buildings ranging from four to six storeys and none greater than 10 storeys or 100 feet.
Above these limits problematic trade-offs emerge and are compounded by each incremental increase in height or density.
This, as it turns out, is precisely what was proposed in 2007 by development consultant Michael Geller, but rejected by Coleman and BCH as insufficient to meet their financial objectives.
In response to the staff report, which recommends up to 2.5 FSR and 12 storeys, Geller recently blogged: "I fear this is yet another example of how a development that is much too big for the site and context may be approved because of financial considerations. In other words, the building form and density is being determined by payments to the city, not what will best fit in. This is not the right way to plan a city.”
CAG participants were caught in a bind for several reasons: we support replacing and expanding the social housing, the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House needs more space for their excellent programs, and there is a severe deficit of daycare in the area.
The cost of a new neighbourhood house and 69-space daycare (insufficient to serve the anticipated population), plus transportation improvements to mitigate impacts from hundreds of additional cars, is estimated at more than $20 million.
Burdened by Olympic-related debts and downloading of costs by “senior” governments, city council has grown increasingly reliant on providing amenities by capturing a portion of the “lift” from land rezoning. Even so, development-derived revenue and the expanded tax base are failing to keep up with population growth.
Recreation facilities, such as the pool, fitness centre, and ice rink at the “destination” Hillcrest Centre are already at or above capacity, with thousands of new residents expected in the next decade, not only at Little Mountain, but along the Cambie, Main, and Fraser street corridors.
Faced with this dilemma, the CAG, through compromise, agreed to support density to a maximum of 2.2 to 2.3 FSR, or about 1, 475 dwellings. (For the complete CAG recommendations see appendix D in the June 19 city staff policy report.)
According to market analysis, 2.2 FSR can provide the key amenities, and 2.3 FSR could yield 65 to 70 additional nonmarket homes, which would exceed the City’s objective of 20 percent. The province would need to kick in $4 to $6 million for construction of these units.
The city’s Little Mountain planning team deserves credit for resisting, to an admirable degree, immense pressure to endorse the inappropriate building heights and massing that Holborn kept insisting were necessary to make their deal financially viable. Even so, the CAG was dismayed to learn that staff would be recommending density up to 2.5 FSR, and that this figure had been imposed by officials who had not engaged with the community. (See “Moment of Truth—a 7-minute clip”.)
Who are these officials? Do they belong to the ruling faction on city council? No one will say, and we are left to speculate about backroom financial and political machinations that have plagued this initiative from the start, and apparently continue to dominate the planning process.
As expected, city council approved the staff recommendations at the June 27 committee meeting. Coun. Adriane Carr’s amendment to reduce the maximum height to 10 storeys in accordance with the community’s wishes was supported only by Coun. George Affleck.
Meanwhile, Coun. Kerry Jang blew off the CAG, which had worked conscientiously with the architects and planners throughout the long process, as “just one group”, and dismissed the human-scale development advocated by the community as “stubby” and “ugly.” Holborn’s statement (see pages 17 and 18 of the policy report) indicates that if the BCH/Holborn P3 is prepared to apply for a rezoning under the approved policy, they will likely continue to try to chisel away public benefits and resist the requirement that all the replacement social housing be built in the first phase of construction.
Partial occupancy in 2016 might be feasible, but only if market conditions are advantageous for private redevelopment.
If condo prices slide from heights that probably are not sustainable, there is no telling when redevelopment of the six-hectare fenced-off lot might begin, let alone be completed.
Little Mountain is by no means the only recent example of form being forced to follow finance in Vancouver. Architects and planners, as well as neighbourhood residents, are growing increasingly alarmed at the scale and design of recent spot rezonings.
Urbanist Lance Berelowitz, a densification advocate, likened the massive Rize Alliance project in Mount Pleasant to “trying to squeeze a hippopotamus into a bathtub”. Council’s Vision majority approved it anyway on the basis of a $6-million amenity contribution.
On June 27, despite a 12,000-signature petition, an oversized tower was approved for a part of the West End known as “The Valley” that for important livability and urban-design considerations is supposed to remain midrise in scale. Because under the STIR program the city foregoes development levies and amenity contributions, pricey market rentals are the only “public benefit".
Ironically, it could actually contribute to driving up rents in the surrounding area.
The elephant in the Hall of course, is the dough that developers stuff into municipal election campaign coffers. Of our current crop on council, only Carr is not beholden to this powerful lobby.
Saving face has trumped facing problems. Coleman refuses to admit that any mistakes were made at Little Mountain or that selling off public land to fund construction of social housing—which makes about as much sense as selling your home to buy furniture—is a fatally flawed strategy.
The rezoning of Little Mountain will not be completed before the next provincial election, which means there may be a glimmer of hope that a NDP government could work constructively with the city and community to ensure a beneficial mix of housing types, costs and tenures on this site—but hopefully not by forcing form to follow finance.
Ned Jacobs serves on the Riley Park/South Cambie CityPlan Committee and the Little Mountain Community Advisory Group.