By Ned Jacobs
In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs wrote on page 153 about the need to base zoning and planning decisions on “performance”:
What are actually needed are prohibitions of destructive performances. To attend hearings on zoning and planning conflicts is to learn that feared changes are not actually about land uses, densities, and ground coverage but rather about dreaded side effects.
She identified six broad categories of destructive performances, among them “Destruction of parks, beloved buildings, views, woodlands, and access to sun and sky” and “Transgressions against harmonious street scales”.
When I viewed the site for a proposed 22-storey apartment building at 1401 Comox Street (presently occupied by St. John’s United Church) and considered its surroundings, those destructive performances immediately came to mind. As Jacobs explained:
Scale is not merely a matter of aesthetics and taste, although how things look is important. Scale connects with many other aspects of performance; these connections are often really at issue....For example, height affects the access of streets or neighboring buildings to sun, sky, and views. Big buildings cast big shadows.
A big building that would cast big shadows across Gordon Neighbourhood House and its plaza is unacceptable. Much consultation and thoughtful planning went into creating this lovely and useful public space, which interrupts Broughton Street between Comox and Nelson streets. Though small, it contributes greatly to the beauty, heritage, livability, and neighbourliness for which the West End is famous.
Vancouver has been prominent in its use of “discretionary zoning”, which can provide flexibility, creative solutions, and sometimes public benefits, but only if it is firmly rooted in performance principles and not corrupted by special limited interests, a planning philosophy that accepts and promotes harmful “trade-offs”, and a process that lacks transparency or disregards the legitimate concerns of those who will have to live with the consequences. As Jacobs observed on page 217:
Discretionary zoning seems ideal, provided that its intents are practical and supported by a politically engaged citizenry. But I have serious reservations about it because it could be a disaster when administered by corrupt municipal government, or if planning is dominated by appeal bodies not responsive to citizens. Planners like discretionary zoning because of the opportunities it affords them to refine and fine-tune their visions. In Vancouver residents have raised complaints about standardized results and have objected that citizens are brought into the process at too late a stage. These reservations raise the root question: Who has the discretion?
Discretion for this rezoning application primarily rests with the city’s director of planning, Brent Toderian—though ultimately with city council. Toderian has allowed that the Comox proposal “needs more work”. This could mean tweaking the design, or it could mean reducing its scale to remove the shadowing problem and the claustrophobic effect that a large tower at this location would have on a neighbourhood already crammed with buildings of all sizes, some with considerable heritage value. I expect he means the former.
When the United Church announced that it was seeking a buyer who would put the property to “community use”, area residents were delighted because, for its population, the West End has few public spaces. Not only have these hopes apparently been dashed, West Enders are faced with an oppressive rip-off of the existing public realm.
Worried by growing opposition, Westbank Projects has been approaching local community groups with offers of free space if they will support the project. Such promises are not reliable. In recent years, developers and governments have promised neighbourhoods everything from ice rinks to parks to 20-percent social housing, only to renege on their commitments or indefinitely postpone the benefit while development proceeds. Divide and conquer morphs into bait and switch. Groups that fall for this ruse will only gain a reputation as back-stabbers and chumps.
This proposal falls under the city’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing program, which offers density bonuses and waives amenity contributions, plus other incentives, in return for market rentals at rates that few Vancouver renters can afford. When STIR was first announced, I anticipated that it would be used to justify the overriding of local area planning and responsible performance. It also appears to be enabling windfall profits. A far better approach would be an “inclusionary” policy to require purpose-built rentals in strata projects throughout the city, not tied to density bonuses, waiving of municipal levies, or other incentives. This would also help deter speculation and constrain land prices.
When Westbank and its partner, Peterson Investment Group, bought the church, they should not have presumed they could exceed the “outright” height limit of six storeys. Nor should the city rubber-stamp this proposal. Responsible planning does not allow function and form to be held hostage by finance. The objections of area residents are well-founded. Approving this project would be injurious to the neighbourhood and disrespectful of a community that for many years has worked in good faith with the City of Vancouver to make the West End a great place to live.
Like his mother, the urbanist Jane Jacobs, Ned Jacobs has opposed freeway expansion and car-oriented development, and supported lively, pedestrian-friendly affordable neighbourhoods. Ned has been active in many grassroots initiatives, including lane reallocation for the Burrard Bridge, and currently serves as a spokesperson for the Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver network of community groups.