Urban Age Futures Conference

November 13, 2014

For those with an interest in such matters, the Urban Age Futures conference starts on the 14th.

The programme is full of cutting-edge discussions on governance and urbanism in wide-ranging settings.  And the list of speakers is equally diverse.  Good for the big thinkers who can focus.

It might help to shake ourselves free for a moment or two from the minutia of our parochial election-time concerns.

You should be able to watch live here at the appropriate times.

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The Coming Of The Towers: Political Interference

November 13, 2014

It began, of course, very early in June 2013 with the publication of “Emerging Directions“, the City of Vancouver’s draft community plan for Grandview-Woodland.  This was the first time any of us in the neighbourhood was allowed to see the planners’ ideas on what they wanted to do with land use and zoning.  In particular, this was the first time anyone had ever mentioned to us the possibility of a dozen high rise buildings at Commercial & Broadway.

The publication of “Emerging Directions” with its towers immediately catalyzed an opposition to the process that had been developing for months in advance.  The uproar was so great that, within a month, the residents of Grandview had chased the Plan off the table and City Planning was in disarray; they wouldn’t get another plan or process together until the end of September (with yet another four months’ delay until even that got re-started).

More importantly, the local planners were embarrassed by “Emerging Directions“; it was obvious it was not their plan.  Over a coffee with me and a number of GWAC Directors in June, Deputy Planning Manager Matt Shillito made it clear that the towers were not part of the local plan, but he would give no details on how they had appeared.

At the end of June 2013, Charles Campbell wrote a long piece in The Tyee which included the following paragraph:

I asked several city planners who attended a June 6 open house at the Princeton Café on Powell St. — the last of three open houses in early June to reveal the plan — where the tower heights came from. “It was a collective decision of the planning department,” they said repeatedly. The event felt vaguely like a public flogging, and the carefully worded answer had the faint whiff of something prearranged. I rephrased the question: “Can you introduce me to one person, in the community or at city hall, who thinks towers at these heights are a good idea, and will tell me why they are a good idea?” The preponderant silence that generally followed was a little uncomfortable …

Jackson responded by email, a little obliquely: “All of the emerging plan directions were developed collectively by staff in the planning department and other city departments.” He added that the tower heights proposed reflect “longstanding city policies”

In July 2013, I was approached by a planner who insisted on great secrecy and a meeting well away from City Hall.  Over coffee at a Starbucks, the planner explained the basic story — that the local planners had submitted their draft plan to Brian Jackson and City Manager Penny Ballem. The Plan included two towers at Commercial & Broadway, but the senior managers, the planner told me, insisted on the Plan being changed to include 10 or more towers.

This was juicy gossip and clearly describes political interference in the process.  However, the planner w3asn’t willing to go public and their was no other proof; so we were obliged to let this lie.  But the questions surrounding the towers continued to rumble.

A month or so ago, Riley Park activist Ned Jacobs was approached by another, different, planner, who told a wild story of meetings involving senior bureaucrats and the Mayor in which the number and size of towers at Commercial & Broadway was agreed.  Ned Jacob’s insider admitted that they had not attended these meeting, and they were reporting was being said about the office. This story went public and created a stir.

Once again, the insider wasn’t willing to come forward and confirm the rumours.  But with the talk becoming public and the complaints getting louder, former senior Planner Scot Hein (who has left the City’s employ, along with Matt Shillito) has stepped forward to tell us the real story.

We imagined a series of related, modestly scaled low and mid rise buildings in this scenario …  Otherwise, we believed that the appropriate approach to intensifying an already relatively high density community, of what must be seen as “special urban fabric”, was in transitional mid to low rise form.  We absolutely did not support towers outside the focused “Safeway Precinct”.

We were instructed to put this plan (in our view based on thoughtful urban design best practice) in the drawer never to see the light of day. We were then “told” by senior management to prepare a maximum tower scheme which we produced under protest as we declared we did not support such an uninformed approach for the GW neighbourhood.

Our next plan yielded 20 towers which was advanced to the decision makers (I cannot confirm who saw this plan). We were then told to produce a third plan which cut the towers in half down to 10. We prepared this third plan, also under protest, which was taken out to the community. The public process imploded soon thereafter.

Scot Hein’s mention of a “third plan” that reduced the number of towers tunes in nicely with the reports from Ned Jacob’s insider that Mayor Robertson himself intervened in the process after senior bureaucrats had gone overboard with a huge number of towers.

I’m not sure that everyone involved is now happy that this has come into the public light where it belongs. The story shows direct interference in the work of local planners, interference that directly benefits the developers and builders of large high rises, interference behind closed doors. This kind of imposed development, the autocratic top-down arrogant “we-know-best” attitude of Vision Vancouver and their minions who decide in private with their cronies what our neighbourhoods should be like must be stopped.

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods has produced a fine planning Principles & Goals document that opens up to the entire planning process to the benefits of daylight.  We need to get this in place as quickly as possible.  Luckily, every party running in the municipal election — other than Vision, of course — have endorsed the Principles.  Make this a part of your decision on how to vote.

Do you want the City designing your neighbourhood with their developer cronies?  Or do you want to have a real role in how your district evolves?