By Ned Jacobs
The Vision Vancouver-dominated city council was elected last fall based on a platform of citizen engagement, openness, improved process, community consultation, and grassroots neighbourhood-based planning. To date, the Vision mayor and councillors have reneged on all of these promises.
Council continues to disregard the community in favour of the development industry. Public process is not improving; in fact, it is getting worse. During the election campaign and at the beginning of the term, citizens were assured that they would be included early and often in the decision-making process. Instead, staff reports are made public with even less time for review and comment than under the previous council, and “block” voting by Vision Vancouver sends a clear message that decisions have already been made behind closed doors.
This is a huge problem because governments and their “experts” are often wrong. A prime example of this is the Strathcona community’s successful effort in the late 1960s to block urban renewal and a highway through their neighbourhood. Consequently, Vancouver is one of the few cities in North America whose downtown is not burdened with an expressway. These actions, inspired in part by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, led to saving the heritage districts of Gastown and Chinatown, and to the “city of neighbourhoods” bottom-up approach to community planning—major reasons that we are internationally lauded for our livability and sustainability.
In 2002, planning staff proudly showed Jacobs the recently completed “Arbutus Walk”, but neglected to explain that this neighbourly and architecturally diverse redevelopment of a former brewery site was the result of action by the community to stop a dismal towers proposal. Civic battles are wasteful of everyone’s time, energy, and resources. Timely and meaningful public input is essential for a successful planning process. When it is absent or disregarded—which has recently been the case in Vancouver—the development industry and other influential special interests inevitably gain control, trust deteriorates, and planning becomes fractious and over-politicized.
For example, council passed the Short Term Incentives for Rentals program on June 18, 2009, without adequate public consultation. Vision councillors announced that their civic “partners” were the development industry, declaring that there was no need for further public process because “the consultation was the election”. Only COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth (David Cadman was away) and the NPA’s Suzanne Anton opposed STIR, due to lack of public consultation, lack of affordability provisions, and many other concerns. Such disregard for civic democracy and due process is shocking and demonstrates the urgency of implementing meaningful campaign-finance reform.
STIR waives development cost levies, relaxes parking requirements, and potentially uses city-owned lands for new market rentals, at rates that most renters cannot afford. Because DCLs currently subsidize affordability and pay for the public amenities that help make Vancouver livable (especially for those with low or moderate incomes), this amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Height and density bonuses would undermine heritage incentives and the Heritage Density Bank and preclude local area planning. The temporary rentals could even be sold as condos after only 20 years. Because rate of change policies that protect existing rentals do not apply in commercial zones, the Downtown Eastside, and the heritage districts, STIR projects in those areas could actually result in a net loss of affordable rentals
The suggestion that STIR will provide affordability by increasing supply is inaccurate, as the number of rentals produced over the two and a half year program would have little impact on vacancy rates. But it establishes problematic precedents (such as waiving DCLs) that developers are lobbying to make permanent. Vancouver never should have allowed strata-only developments in the first place. We should take corrective action through inclusionary zoning, successfully adopted in many cities, which requires some purpose-built rentals (usually 10 percent to 30 percent) in all new developments—without special incentives.
Meanwhile, council has not followed through with numerous promises made to the community. The city is continuing with the CityPlan Vision Implementation Review, which undermines the neighbourhood-based planning that Mayor Gregor Robertson and his party supported during the civic election. The unsupported EcoDensity initiative, primarily a greenwashed grab-bag for developers, is still policy. EcoDensity’s one-size-fits-all, top-down planning is being used to override approved community visions, which allow for increased housing options and density, including laneway infill, through a community-supported process.
The public have clearly indicated that they want council to respect neighbourhood character and community voice rather than handing the city over to the development industry. Vision Vancouver may be counting on their development “partners” to pay off their campaign debt, but they would be wise to remember that it was voters who put them into council seats.
Ned Jacobs is a founding member of the Riley Park/South Cambie Community Vision Committee and Community Advocates for Little Mountain. He was at the mayor’s roundtable on rental housing representing the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network. Ned assisted Jane Jacobs with her last book, Dark Age Ahead.