Streamlining the Public Out of Business

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City Council will today receive a report called Streamlining Rental Housing which has the stated purpose of reducing the time it takes to approve rental housing projects in areas of Vancouver not covered by Community Plans. It is an aggressive policy that forces through significant increased density across the city without any local context and which eliminates most opportunities for public discussion of the projects before approval.

This is a complex and over-arching policy decision that I have not been able to devote sufficient time to deconstruct in detail. Interested readers could do a lot worse than follow the discussion at CityHallWatch where highly experienced city planners, architects, and activists have tried to explain the devastating pitfalls that will accrue from this policy. See, for example, what architect Brian Palmquist has to say; and read the critiques by Elizabeth Murphy and Christina da Marco.

Former senior City Planner and current adjunct professor at UBC Scot Hein, who may be familiar to readers here for a number of reasons not least of which was the long conversation he and I had on similar matters earlier this year, is also opposed to the plan. In a letter to Mayor and Council, he poses a number of questions which I will reprint here with his permission (the original is at CHW here):

Good evening Mayor and Councillors.

I am curious why you would consider, and possibly approve, the following under the proposed “Streamlining Rental Housing” policy:

1) A policy that compels land assembly with the costs of land passed on in higher rents.

2) A policy that compels underground parking (at combined hard + soft costs of $70,000/stall) with these costs of parking by-law compliance passed on in higher rents.

3) A policy that compels underground parking in concrete suspended slab systems that generate enormous, and unnecessary, environmental costs.

4) A policy that compels unnecessary building heights, and related shadowing/view impacts, for the anticipated density and related forms (a four storey building only requires 35 feet, not 45 feet, to be economically viable and meet building by-law/fire fighting requirements).

5) A policy that compels less efficient (net to gross) apartment buildings with the costs of excessive circulation systems, including interior corridors, elevators and exit stairs, passed on in higher rents and related operational/maintenance costs. Note: A 100% efficient, compact, 3.5 storey building form would be a better response to housing needs, especially for families as they would yield ground oriented, larger units. Such buildings would also be more contextually compatible to off arterial contexts. Considering 4 storeys, vs 3.5 storeys, opens the door to out of scale apartment buildings on assembled flanking street sites.

6) A policy that limits more innovative missing middle building typologies that can provide similar, if not more, unit yield per site frontage. The policy before you defaults to conventional (uninspired, not innovative) housing form. There so many other approaches available to you for arterial development, including more contextually responsive building forms on unassembled lots that could be more dense, and even modestly higher, towards even greater affordability than the policy before you could motivate.

7) A policy that discriminates between neighbourhoods with community plans, and those neighbourhoods without.

8) A policy that does not enjoy the insight, and ideas, of local community that a CityWide Plan process might reveal. The False Creek South delegations, and your thoughtful response, are informative at this moment.

9) A policy that does not secure true affordability, while giving away land value to market speculation after you have approved, as recently evidenced by the article “Vacant lot rezoned by Vancouver city council for rental project flipped for $5 million” (Georgia Straight 29-Oct-2021).

10) A policy that puts the future of rental housing in the hands of only those familiar with the system when you could democratize market participation through a more thoughtful policy that could also motivate changes to the approval process currently plaguing builders of smaller housing projects.

Thank you very much for considering the above.

I urge readers who are able to follow the debate today at City Hall through the city’s website at vancouver.ca

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