Jason Forsyth: Urban planning without planners

Why the mayor of Vancouver’s “new plan” for False Creek South is a recipe for disaster and how First Nations, residents, and the city planning department can save it

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      By Jason Forsyth

      Last week the City of Vancouver released some significant updates for the False Creek South planning process, one of the major urban planning projects occurring in the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm/Musqueam, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh/Squamish and səlilwətaɬ/Tsleil-Waututh Nations. For those literally watching this space, such as residents and local planning groups, the sudden release of a so called development plan was shocking.  

      Some of the key jolts in the “development plan” include:

      • rapid demolition of most of the affordable family housing (Co-ops, non-market rental and senior care) with no financial commitment or funding plan to replace this housing;
      • an over 500 percent increase (from 818 to 4,370) in the amount of new market units for strata/rental, mostly built on the former sites of co-ops and nonmarket housing;
      • in addition to the environmental and climate impacts of demolishing well-maintained housing and building afresh, the plan also calls for the removal of the existing rail line that both Granville Island and the Squamish Nation’s Sen̓áḵw project have planned on for green rapid transit and to reduce vehicle congestion in the community.

      Putting these shocks of the “development plan” aside, the other key reason this is such an emoji-scream-surprise moment stems from the fact that the formal planning process for the community has been on a pause since May 2018. This planning deferral was approved by city council to allow some time to gain greater clarity regarding the various land leases that underlie the community.

      This pause came after city planning department staff launched a very successful Phase 1 of the neighbourhood process.  This phase of initial community engagement was very positive and resulted in the development of the Vision Statement and Guiding Planning Principles. This work involved, and was completely supported, by residents, neighbourhood planning groups, city staff and eventually city council. 

      This was a fantastic start to the innovative prospect of revisioning, redesigning, and eventually redeveloping parts of this world-renowned neighbourhood. To be clear, residents and our planning groups are in favour and excited about the opportunity to refresh the neighbourhood. We welcome the opportunity for more housing, especially affordable nonmarket housing, increased diversity, and well-thought-out increases to density. 

      Since 2018 there has been significant progress on resolving land lease issues in the neighbourhood. For example, earlier this summer the city approved a new framework for co-op land lease renewals. At that time many of us in the community were ready to discuss what hitting the play button on the planning process again would entail. However, what we did not know was that one department at the city never took the pause that was agreed to in 2018.

      Indeed, as articulated in the recently released staff report from the city’s real estate department, significant work has continued in crafting development plans for the neighbourhood.  This work was all conducted behind a cloak of confidentiality and in-camera meetings. We now know that the city’s real estate department commissioned consultants to prepare several neighbourhood development concept options. Not only was all this work done without any community input, zero consultation has occurred with local First Nations or even other key city departments like: engineering, parks, arts and culture, finance, and oh yeah, the city’s own planning department! 

      Now clearly this cannot be a proper planning process. How can a City that has specific and robust planning requirements for all other landowners and developers, be seemingly giving themselves a free pass? This is particularly troubling as the city is both landowner (from a Crown government perspective) and regulator.

      The real estate staff report does try to address this by highlighting that the recommended development plan is to be only used as “landowner input” into an upcoming planning process. However, the city’s communication about the report has many Vancouver residents confused about the actual weight the “development plan” carries.

      Unfortunately, Mayor Kennedy Stewart added to this confusion by publishing a commentary article shortly after the staff report's release. Mayor Stewart’s article enthusiastically touts details of the “New Plan” for False Creek South and that “It starts by approving a new co-created vision….” and that “…City staff have worked with local residents for the past three years on a new path forward…”. 

      With all due respect to the mayor, much of this article is simply inaccurate. There is no new cocreated vision in this development plan, as stated above, council already approved the vision in 2018. Similarly, it is not true that city staff have been working with local residents on this development plan, as this plan was confidential until last week and the community planning process has been on a formal pause for over three years.

      Given that what is really before council later this week is described as “input” for the neighbourhood planning process, Mayor Stewart’s public endorsement certainly gives the public the impression that it is a done deal. Planning in private and then consulting with First Nations and Vancouver residents on a pre-approved plan is a recipe for disaster. 

      That’s why so many residents, planning experts and academics have been sounding the alarm on this process.  We all know that False Creek South is an incredible, award-winning community that many other jurisdictions around the world study and to try to emulate. Despite missteps and misunderstandings, we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us to revise and refresh this successful neighbourhood.

      So, before we hit play again on an official, transparent, and robust neighbourhood planning process, let’s rewind the tape a bit. Instead of the real estate department receiving city council direction to advance their recommended “development plan”, perhaps a wiser approach could be to direct them to release all their conceptual asset management planning work to the city’s planning department so that multiple options can be given full consideration.

      Hit play again, but this time have the city’s planning department leading an innovative and inclusive process in partnership with First Nations and the community. Let’s take a deep breath, reset, and then get down to the business of refreshing a world class neighbourhood with the world-class planning process it deserves.

      Jason Forsyth is the president of the False Creek Housing Co-op and a neighbourhood resident for over 16 years.