Mayoral candidate Hector Bremner’s supply-side housing fix includes revisiting Bartholomew's vision for Vancouver
One of the 20th century’s great urban planners, Harland Bartholomew, left a lasting mark on Vancouver.
He prepared the city’s first comprehensive town plan in the late 1920s, making recommendations for the streetscape, parks, schools, and zoning. His plan also incorporated Point Grey and South Vancouver into the urban framework, setting the stage for the growth of these single-family neighbourhoods.
It’s a blueprint that served Vancouver well in the 20th century, but now one of the city’s mayoral candidates says it’s time for a radical rethink to prepare residents for “the next 70 years”.
According to Yes Vancouver’s Hector Bremner, the reluctance of previous councils to seriously amend Bartholomew’s plan is at the root of the city’s housing-affordability problem.
The Yes Vancouver standard-bearer likens it to driving around in the 21st century in a Model T, because the type of housing does not suit the needs of the public.
Plus, his housing platform shows that the city has not seen as many units developed for households in recent years as in previous decades.
“It’s unequivocal that we’re building less housing today than at any time in the last 40 years,” Bremner tells the Straight during an interview in the Gallery Café. “And our population has been increasing steadily the whole time. Economic prosperity has also been increasing the whole time
"That means that a higher number of people have had more buying power," he continues. "Yet we’ve had less housing choice. That’s directly led to this housing crisis.”
Bremner has prepared a detailed plan to respond, one that is rooted in sharply increasing the supply of homes in Vancouver.
He thinks city politicians must think boldly about how to integrate services, jobs, recreation, and affordable housing into neighbourhoods. He emphasizes that this isn’t going to be accomplished by simply adding more duplexes, though he suggests that’s a step in the right direction.
“We need to be looking at a model that looks more like Paris than Saskatoon,” Bremner says.
Paris is home to more than 21,000 residents per square kilometre, making it one of the densest big cities in the world. But it maintains spectacular livability, due in part to its extraordinary public-transportation system and its thin streets, which leave more land available for housing.
As a result, the city isn’t filled with skyscrapers, yet the streets are bustling with commercial activity. Bremner applauds what Paris has accomplished, but he stops short of taking dramatic steps to reclaim road space, including boulevards along Cambie and King Edward, for more housing.
However, he is calling for 50,000 to 75,000 housing units to be approved within the first three years after he’s elected mayor. This, he adds, would include a nonprofit component in every building.
Broadway rental applications could resume under Yes
City council recently imposed a moratorium on rezoning applications over a large area of land extending from Clark Drive to Vine Street and from 16th Avenue north to 1st Avenue. The only exceptions are 100 percent social and supportive housing projects and community-care facilities.
This "Broadway Study Area" is the subject of a consultation process leading to implementation of a new approach by 2021, at the earliest.
The Straight asks Bremner how he could get so many housing units approved when the city has sterilized most residential development over such a huge swath of land.
The Yes Vancouver leader responds that if his party forms a majority, its commitment is to "modify that".
"I would allow the exception of rental-only in the area," he says, adding that not all the new housing in his plan will go in that part of Vancouver.
On False Creek Flats and elsewhere, Bremner would like city-owned land to be leased for 99-year terms with no strata-title ownership.
He thinks more small businesses can be encouraged if the city can persuade the province to allow split assessments, which would value commercial spaces at lower rates than condos for the purpose of taxation.
Moreover, he wants to name a senior bureaucrat who can work across departments to ensure that social-housing projects get through the system with a minimum of fuss and no fees.
“We’ve been told I’m attacking the character of neighbourhoods,” Bremner volunteers. “Character is not the spindle of a porch or the slope of a roof. It’s defined by the people who live there.”
To him, character is building housing to accommodate seniors close to their families rather than forcing them to move to a suburb. But he insists that this isn’t happening.
“We force you out of the city you’ve known and built your entire life,” he says. “And I think that affects our character. We need to be thinking about how we keep grandparents closer to their grandchildren.”
To accomplish all of this, Bremner’s housing plan is anchored in the idea of “four storeys and a corner store in every neighbourhood”.
By four storeys and a corner store, he’s talking about looking through previous plans and examining where it’s possible to add density “in a reasonable way”.
Then, he hopes, council will pass a zoning plan for the entire city based on this research.
When asked if that means four-storey buildings on all streets, he demurs, saying this would be determined after public consultation.
Citywide zoning would end developers negotiating for density
Ultimately, he hopes to end spot rezonings, in which developers negotiate density in return for community-amenity contributions (CACs). Instead, they would know the rules in advance and would build accordingly.
Bremner acknowledges that this could present financial challenges for the city, which has become heavily reliant on CACs to fund operations.
“We’ve got a practical problem and an ethical problem,” he says of CACs. “A practical problem is one-third of our budget is CACs. But we have an ethical problem in that we are doing this illegally.”
That’s because, according to Bremner, taxation cannot be a subject of negotiation, which is what’s taking place now between developers and the city in return for additional density.
“What we need to make sure is that the flat-rate CAC is put into place that accurately projects and is regularly reviewed, based on our needs,” he says. “It generates the revenue and captures the land lift to a point that’s fair.”
Independent mayoral candidate Shauna Sylvester declared earlier this month that she would provide city-owned land to co-ops to "mobilize their capital" to create more housing. It's part of her plan to make Vancouver the North American capital for co-ops and cohousing.
Bremner, however, disagrees with her approach.
"[City] staff will do everything they can to stop that because that is handing over billions of dollars of public wealth to a very, very small group of people for not the highest and best use," he claims.
He adds that "there is a reason why federal and provincial governments got out of co-ops".
As an assistant to former B.C. Liberal housing minister Rich Coleman, Bremner says he knew of people living in three- and four-bedroom townhomes by themselves in subsidized housing projects at the same time he was trying to find one-bedroom apartments for refugee families of four, five, or six members.
For Bremner, who spent his teen years in poverty, this was tremendously frustrating.
"On a general housing side, that [city-owned] land has a tremendous amount of value," he says, "and we need to make sure it’s got the highest and best use for everybody."
He also says that there's a lot of talk about an empty-homes crisis in Vancouver, but in fact, he sees it as more of an "empty-bedroom crisis". That's because sometimes one or two people are living in 4,500-square-feet houses, which again is not the "highest and best use", according to him.
"We need to have a city plan that focuses on function, not form," Bremner says.
As an example, he cites how the third phase of the Cambie corridor plan was not linked to economic imperatives. Rather, the emphasis was on the types of buildings—two storeys in some areas, four storeys' in other areas.
"It had nothing to do with the function of the community."
As mayor, Bremner would like to change the conversation into how to "rehumanize" communities.
"Fixing housing is not about building buildings," he declares. "It is about housing people. It's not about the housing itself—it's about the people that live in it and our neighbourhoods....It's got to be formed around the function of our community."More