Last night was the monthly meeting of the Grandview Woodland Area Council. The main speaker was architect and urban thinker Brian Palmquist who, with a variety of graphs, tables, and analysis destroyed the phony narrative that Vancouver is short of housing supply.
As many urbanists — those not in the thrall of the rampant real estate industry — have noted over the years (see, for example, here and here), Brian conclusively proved that over the last decade or more, we have already built and/or approved more housing units than we should need for any reasonable population increase into the 2030s at least.
Moreover, he explained in detail how the City and its planners have consistently refused to share the data needed to contradict the developers’ build-build-build frenzy. Rather, they have deliberately employed tactics of distraction and sleight-of-hand to obfuscate and confuse the public; and by these means have worked hand-in-glove with the development industry to create a situation where the average family in Vancouver, priced out of the market, can no longer even dream of owning their own home.
Palmquist was indeed the main speaker last night, but the meeting was heavily attended, and a great number of the participants added their own useful thoughts and comments. It was a lively and highly valuable couple of hours.
GWAC’s AGM in early April will feature Andy Yan, Vancouver’s own maven of urban data, during which even more of this vital material will be brought into the light of day.
Regular readers will recall that we have been tracking the issues with the Alma Blackwell housing project on Adanac Street. We began last September with the Killing of Alma Blackwell, and followed up with a couple of updates here and here.
I have stayed in touch with the residents in the project, and they are still anxious and concerned about the future of the building and, of course, their own ability to stay in their preferred affordable housing. They have written letters to their housing society and both civic and provincial officials but have yet to receive the assurances they need.
Their latest attempt to bring their problems to public attention has been a useful piece on Global TV News this week which helps explain the community the long-term residents feel for the property:
“I’ve lived in co-ops before, this was the closest I could get to that — being in a community, neighbours helping each other — thinking about not being here is pretty hard.”
BC Housing Minister David Eby assures residents they will have the opportunity to return to the site once it is redeveloped “under the new rent rates.” That is hardly any consolation when “the rent is expected to increase by more than double for some tenants — from $1,600 for a three-bedroom unit to $3,250.”
When and if this re-development moves ahead at City Council, I hope our wider Grandview community will speak up for these women and their families, and help them retain what has become one of a disappearingly small number of successful and affordable spaces in our neighbourhood.
In a short while, if the small business human scale vibe that is Commercial Drive is erased in favour of a homogenized street from anywhere, these are the names you will be able to blame:
The so-called Streamlining Rental report that I have discussed here and here was approved in full last night by all Councillors other than Cllr. Hardwick. It makes a great deal of the Vancouver Plan meaningless by pre-zoning huge areas City-wide.
More immediately for those of us in Grandview — and nothing to do with “streamlining rentals” –, it plants yet another boot in the groin of the Grandview Woodland Community Plan by encouraging greater height and retail spaces more suited to chain stores than local owner-rent-payers. This goes entirely against the Plan’s insistence and promise that:
“Zoning will remain unchanged [on Commercial Drive] … Because of the area’s significance to the community and the strong desire to maintain its low-scale character and form, the plan will ensure that other City policies that may otherwise allow for additional height will not apply.” (p.40)
The Mayor and the nine Councillors who voted for this Motion have obviously decided that promises made to East Vancouver about development hold as much water as their broken promise to keep taxes below 5%. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Let’s make sure we remember at the next election those who voted today to ignore and disrespect the long-considered opinions of the local residents.
One of the items on Vancouver City Council’s agenda next Tuesday 16th November is the design approval for the redevelopment of the southwest corner of Commercial & Adanac.
This will soon enough become this:
The zoning went through a while ago, so this is really just for information at this point. However, it is right next door to the Alma Blackwell housing project, the managers of which are also pushing for a similar height through redevelopment.
This looks like it is becoming a standard, not a one-off.
I have already written a piece about the so-called Streamlining Rentals proposal that is currently before City Council at a public hearing. My concerns there were city-wide and about the continuing elimination of public consultation in planning and zoning matters. I did not think that it applied to Grandview because the map that is so prominently used in public media about this proposal specifically excludes areas such as GW which already have Community Plans:
However, a closer reading of the entire proposal — as has been done, for example, by Stephen Bohus of CityHallWatch and GWAC — reveals that C2 zones within the Community Plan areas are also affected, including Commercial Drive.
The change, outlined in Appendix G, raises the maximum allowable height of a building to 50 feet if the commercial space on the ground floor has ceiling height of 17′. The purpose of the ceiling height change is to “improve flexibility and allow for more variety in commercial uses.” The change proposed raises the maximum height on most of the Drive from 35 feet to 50 feet, an increase of 40%.
There is a lot wrong with this proposal and the way it is being pushed through.
Specifically, it goes against the entire letter and spirit of the Grandview Woodland Community Plan’s statements on Commercial Drive:
“Zoning will remain unchanged in this area … Because of the area’s significance to the community and the strong desire to maintain its low-scale character and form, the plan will ensure that other City policies that may otherwise allow for additional height will not apply.” (p.40)
One of the enduring human-scale characteristics of the Drive is the small businesses operated mainly by local merchants. However, as Stephen Bohus has pointed out, the new ceiling height allowances are designed primarily for chain and other large stores that can pay the enhanced rents that such buildings will attract. This will inevitably change the much-admired character of retail on the Drive.
In his presentation to Council, Bohus also noted that the increased first floor height of new buildings allowed under this proposal will affect the older buildings adjacent to such spaces. The floor heights will not match and design will be compromised.
I am unaware of any consultation with locals about these proposed changes. I guess our views don’t matter.
More generally, this whole Streamlining Rentals proposal shows up a number of problems that have become endemic with this City Planning staff. The Report is 348 pages long and the public (and Council members) were given very little time to try to absorb the detailed technical aspects. This has been a typical tactic for too many years now.
The proposals to change C2 zoning in places such as Commercial Drive have nothing to do with streamlining the approval process for new rental properties which is the stated purpose of this Report. They are buried in the report and I don’t recall hearing about them when staff made their presentation.
The practice of putting a disparate set of proposals into one omnibus bill serves no one except the Planning staff, and they do it over and over again. Council needs to step up and demand that each item be presented separately for proper debate.
Earlier this week, the Provincial government introduced amendments to the Local Government Act that will reduce public consultation on zoning and planning matters and increase even more (if that were possible) the insider influence of developers. To quote the government:
“The proposed changes will remove the default requirement for local governments to hold public hearings for zoning bylaw amendments that are consistent with the official community plan. The amendments will also enable municipalities and regional districts to delegate decisions on minor development variance permits to local government staff.”
Vancouver operates outside the Local Government Act but , as I mentioned in my own interview with the paper: “What [the Province is] doing is catching with what Vancouver has already done, which is to reduce public engagement as much as they can.”
The Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, which the City now uses to cover a multitude of sins and as an excuse to restrict public engagement, was never a community-driven process. It began as a Planners’ plan and ended the same way as I described in my book “Battleground: Grandview“. Local activists say the same thing about the West End Plan, the Marpole Plan, the DTES Plan.
Pretty soon we will have the Broadway Plan and, eventually, the Vancouver Plan, all of which will be manipulated in the same developer-first way unless we radically change the membership of City Council and, they in turn, instruct Planners to heed the needs of local residents first and profit-driven developers a distant second.
Back in October of last year, I reported on the publication of a City of Vancouver document called Grandview Woodland: Neighbourhood Social Indicators Profile. I mentioned a couple of interesting graphs but didn’t really have time to delve into the details. Today, I was reminded by a correspondent of the document, who pointed out the population and density figures displayed.
As can be seen, Grandview in 2016 had reached a population equal to its previous highest in the 1990s. During the Community Plan, then Councillor Geoff Meggs wrote that Grandview had “flatlined”. He was, as in so many matters, wrong.
Not only were we not flatlining, but we were attracting young families with children who will be the future of our neighbourhood:
“From 2011 to 2016, Grandview-Woodland was a destination for people between ages 20 and 35; there were more than 125% more 25-year-olds in 2016 than there were 20-year-olds in 2011.” (p.13)
Throughout the Grandview Woodland Community Plan process we were told over and over again by Planners that we needed to increase density in the neighbourhood. When the Community Plan was approved in 2016, the same Councillor Meggs declared himself disappointed that Grandview was “not bearing its share of density.” He –and the Planners — were wrong yet again as the City’ own figures illustrate:
“As of 2016, Grandview-Woodland’s population density was 64 persons per hectare, about 18% denser than the City of Vancouver’s average density overall.” (p.10)
Why am I digging up these figures again? Because the Planners when pushing new developments in Grandview continue to press us to take more density than most other areas of the City. They never give the data and just suggest that somehow we are not pulling our weight.
This is particularly important when we look at the massive towers and new density suggested for the Safeway site at Broadway & Commercial. We know that a number of people have declared their support for the Safeway towers based on their belief that Grandview is somehow falling behind in either population and/or density.
These are false beliefs and it is vital that we move forward ONLY based on true and accurate data.
Readers may recall that we have been following the situation at the Alma Blackwell housing project on Adanac Street here in Grandview. It appeared that the managers, Entre Nous Femmes Housing Society (ENFHS) had decided to relocate and/or evict the current tenants, demolish the building and its well-established community, in order to build a much larger facility.
After a prolonged outcry by the residents, a public meeting at GWAC, and media coverage, ENFHS wrote to the residents noting that they were re-organizing under a new Executive Director and that no-one would be displaced until the end of 2022. Unfortunately, it was also clear that their plans for the community had not changed.
The residents have been in touch with Neil Mockton, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, who had apparently agreed to arrange a meeting between the residents and the Mayor. They noted their struggles to get proper maintenance and repairs for the building, the lack of reasonable communication between managers and tenants, and the fact that — during Vancouver’s housing crisis — ENFHS has allowed 15 units to remain unoccupied for many months.
Monckton responded by advising BC Housing and CoV Planning Department of the concerns raised, but suggested there was little he could do as no formal re-development application has yet been received by the City. He advised the residents to be in touch with the City’s Renter’s Office from which the current residents have already been turned away with “that’s not our job.” He gave little hope that a meeting with the Mayor would be forthcoming.
In the meanwhile, ENFHS — who have shown themselves unwilling to do basic repairs and maintenance on a building that still houses 30 households paying rent — have issued an advertisement for a new Executive Director at a salary of up to $120,000 a year. No meeting with the tenants has yet been arranged.
Not unlike the leaseholders and co-op residents at False Creek South, about which much ink has been spilled this week, the families in the Alma Blackwell building continue to face an uncertain and nervous future.
Given the way that the City of Vancouver is actively limiting or eliminating public consultation on many developments — and forcing through individual projects in advance that should be subject to the Vancouver Plan — these workshops may be one of the few occasions on which you can at least try to make your voice heard on the future of our city.
Therefore, I encourage everyone to register and attend whatever session makes sense for you.
A few days ago, I wrote about the problems residents were having at the Alma Blackwell housing site on Adanac Street which the Entre Nous Femmes Housing Society (ENF) wants to demolish and rebuild. Today I am happy to report that the tenants’ loud voices, including at the community meeting held last week, have elicited a hopeful statement from ENF.
In their notice to the tenants, ENF note their organization has undergone organizational changes at both the Board and staff levels but that they are committed to “continuing the legacy of providing inclusive, safe, and affordable housing for women, families, and seniors at Alma Blackwell,” and they understand that “the news of the redevelopment was challenging to receive.”
They note that ENF have not yet made a formal development application to the City and thus “tenants will not need to move until Fall 2022 at the earliest.” They further commit to hiring a Tenant Relocation specialist “to ensure a smooth transition for each tenant.”
“In the meantime, we will be continuing to offer relocation options to tenants in our own portfolio when these opportunities arise. We encourage tenants to accept relocation opportunities that suit their needs when they become available – these offers are optional, and all tenants may choose to remain at Alma Blackwell until the end of the Four Month Notice to End Tenancy if they wish to do so. We are not permitted to issue tenants a Four Month Notice to End Tenancy until our Development and Building Permits are approved by the City, and the City will not approve these permits until we meet the requirements of the [City’s] Tenant Relocation Protection Policy (TRPP), including finding alternative accommodation for all eligible tenants.”
They anticipate holding a Tenants’ Meeting as soon as they have the TRPP specialist in place in order to discuss further details.
So, it looks as though the concerned tenants have some breathing room at least, and perhaps have time to persuade ENF that demolition of the current building is not the best solution. Just as important, ENF is now very aware, if they were not before, that both the tenants and the community as a whole will be watching developments with a keen interest.
In the early 1980s, a small group of women decided they needed a safe affordable place to live and to develop a community for women and their children. To achieve their ends, they established a Housing Society called “Entre Nous Femmes” which eventually built and developed the 46-unit Alma Blackwell housing project at 1656 Adanac Street, named after the grandmother of one of the group’s founders.
Alma Blackwell rapidly became the community the founders hoped for. Many women in need and their children lived in the housing project, often for decades. It has continued to thrive as a community and its success created the ability for the Housing Society to build more and more similar projects until today, ENF has eleven buildings in Vancouver.
Although not legally structured as a co-op, the ENF project operated within that milieu: the residents helped build and maintain the buildings, and controlled the Society. However, as the years passed, the governance became more and more removed from the residents, more distant, until today the residents are not only not allowed to be directors of the society, and are routinely refused access to the Society’s minutes, they even find it difficult to find out who is a director of their Society.
That change in governance has been matched by the recent unwillingness of the Society to maintain the property in a fit and livable manner. Moreover, a number of vacancies have occurred over the last couple of years which the Society has seen fit not to fill — even while the City suffers its worst ever housing crisis. This led to suspicions that something big was afoot — but the Society would not explain to the residents except to suggest that the Society did not have the funds needed to keep the building in good repair. When asked for details of the repair costs, the Society refused to respond to residents’ requests.
In April this year, Vancouver City Council approved a motion that doubled the height of buildings allowed in certain zones, including the RM-3A zone in which Alma Blackwell sits. Almost immediately thereafter, plans to demolish Alma Blackwell and replace it with a much larger building were bruited and the residents were given, by a consultant hired by the Society, an unofficial official eviction notice.
Since that time, the Society has essentially refused to speak with the residents except to pressure several of them to accept relocation to other facilities. The Society has no formal Tenant Relocation Plan, is not offering any compensation, and in at least one case offered a resident a mere 24 hours to decide whether she and her child would move from the their decades-long home and move to another building, the details of which were not disclosed.
This story, and plenty of others, were movingly told by Alma Blackwell residents at last night’s Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) meeting. All the talk was about how great a community had been fostered at Alma Blackwell; people have lived there long enough to have children and grandchildren. They are a close-knit family-like community with good and close ties to the rest of the neighbourhood. Many of the residents are teachers at Britannia.
It seemed a unanimous opinion of the large gathering at the meeting that it is simply ridiculous to destroy a perfectly good low-income community just to build a larger facility that will have to start from scratch once again after a gap of who-knows-how-many years. It is pointless from a neighbourhood point of view, and it is highly destructive to the current residents, families who have spent years developing and nurturing that community.
Councillor Jean Swanson attended the meeting and will be asking a number of questions of staff. However, she was pessimistic about the chances of reversing the course of this development, given the current majority on Council and the previously-approved zoning adjustment. No matter. The wider Grandview community needs to speak up about this, and I hope we can speak so loudly that we cannot be ignored.
This morning, CityHallWatch sponsored a 70 minute conversation between Scot Hein and I about the past and future of the Grandview Woodland Community Plan. Scot Hein is an adjunct professor in the master of urban design program at University of British Columbia. He was previously the senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver.
Further to my earlier post regarding the development of 1766 Frances, I want to point out a method by which the Planning Department in Vancouver uses doublespeak to push through developments that cannot be approved in any other way.
The Planning Department’s Recommendation for 1766 Frances claims that it “meets the intent of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan with respect to the delivery of social housing” and therefore should be approved. However, this claim was immediately challenged and the head of Planning, Gil Kelley, felt the need to issue a memo dated 5th February (but which was not made public until yesterday) clarifying that the project should be approved under the terms of section 7.1.3. of the Plan.
During the questioning of staff by Councilors, Planning was specifically asked whether this project would have been approved had it been anything other than social housing. The answer was a firm “No.” It was, they said, approved because of 7.1.3.
After the staff presentations and the applicant’s presentation and a dozen or more public speakers had concluded, the Councilors made their closing remarks before voting. Almost without exception, they praised the development and — having drunk deeply of the Planning Department’s Kool-Aid — said they were going to approve the project because it met the Grandview Woodland Community Plan guidelines.
So let us look at the infamous section 7.1.3. of the Grandview Community Plan. The relevant bullet point states:
“7.1.3: Consider modest increases in height and density for the delivery of non-market housing to assist with project viability” ( p.131)
The key word here is “modest”.
The change in zoning that was approved last night increased the allowable height from 10.7m to 29.28m — an increase of 273% — and increased the allowable density from 1.4 FSR to 4.06 FSR — an increase of 290%.
Perhaps that is an unfair comparison as the rezoning had to be taken from the pre-Plan starting point. Under the Plan, the allowable number of storeys is 6; the approval is for 9 — an increase of 50%. As for density, the Plan allows for 2.4 FSR and so the increase agreed to last night was 70%.
Only in George Orwell’s dystopian world of doublespeak could increases of 273% and 290% or even 50% and 70% be considered “modest”.
It is as if the Planning Department in Vancouver is speaking a language known only to themselves and their developer friends; a language designed to confuse the rest of us and to thwart the terms and conditions of the social contract known as the Community Plan. It is a sad business that Vancouver City Council allows themselves to be dragged by the nose by their staff.
This evening was the Public Hearing for a development at 1766 Frances Street. It is a development that places a 9-storey building in the middle of a small residential side street with a height that is 50% above the limits established by the Grandview Community Plan, and more than 100% above the average height of buildings in that block.
While some Councilors, Carr and Hardwick in particular, bemoaned the battering that the long fought-over Community Plan was sustaining (this not being the first such outrage), the vote was unanimous in supporting the development.
It has to be said that the development ticked a lot of good boxes: it is from an indigenous organization designed to serve low income indigenous families; it includes a daycare facility and other cultural attributes such as a sweat lodge; and the design of the building is quite fetching. None of that is in dispute.
The point that many of us made was that there are other parts of Grandview (some just three blocks away) where such a large building would be both welcomed and would still be in line with the Community Plan. It should not be that the social contract represented by the Community Plan can be brushed aside simply because ticking certain boxes meets others’ desires. Doing so demeans and cheapens the hundreds of thousands of hours Grandview residents put into negotiating the Plan.
The next big fight will be over the Safeway site. That development has none of the “good boxes” to tick that this one did, but you better believe that the Planners and this Vision 2.0 Council will find some excuse or many to override the Plan yet again. As I said in my remarks tonight, the only certainty a Community Plan gives us is that developers will ask for more than is in the Plan and that Vancouver City Council and City Planners will approve their demands.
This evening, for the first time in a while, I will be speaking to City Council at a Public Hearing on what many of us consider an out-of-scale building that shows no sensitivity to the neighborhood and which disrespects all the work that was put into the Community Plan just a few years ago. Preparing for the hearing triggered thoughts about the wider context in which development is taking place in Grandview.
In most cases, stately and adaptable Edwardian buildings are being replaced with cookie-cutter back-and-front duplexes. There are serious issues both with why this is occurring and the effect they will have on the long term social fabric of the neighbourhood.
The houses being demolished generally started life as single family properties. But they were large and spacious and their interior structure allowed them to be configured to suit multiple uses. The single family house often developed into a multi-generational home, then perhaps into a rooming house or complex of individual suites, and many saw further use as a renovated SFH with a basement suite helping the mortgage. Families and neighbour community were encouraged by this kind of architecture.
The replacement duplexes, with their lack of basements and attics and their fixed regular patterns discouraging or inhibiting family growth, are designed for the modern two-person tech couple isolated within their own cells and digital networks. Families and community groups are being replaced by “household units.” This is a fundamental and unwelcome change in the social fabric for a family-friendly residential neighbourhood such as Grandview.
Why is this happening? A generally accepted view is that the planning and development process has been so damaged in Vancouver (we have all heard of relatively trivial projects taking years to complete through the bureaucracy and with tens of thousands in fees attached) that developers are deciding against innovation and are sticking to templated duplex designs they can get through the process with a minimum of fuss and delay. There still seems to be a market for these at around $1.4 million per half-duplex and a slightly lower profit margin is preferred to the risks of serious delay with any other kind of development proposals.
But should we really be changing the nature of our communities just to suit a failure of competence in the planning process?
The immediate consequences of the trend to demolish old Edwardians and replace them with duplexes are to reduce density and increase housing costs — absolutely contrary to the shrill claims of the build-build-build brigade.
On a block on Venables that was recently ravaged, we have firm knowledge that two of the houses demolished housed twelve people. They have all been displaced. The four duplex units that have taken their place will generally have no more than two people living in each, for a total of, say, 8 people. That is a 33% reduction in density. The affordable rentals were replaced by $1 million+plus price tags. If they are put out for rent, I would be surprised if they were offered at less than $3,000 a month — that’s a 100% increase in the cost for someone used to paying $1,400 or $1,500 a month to live in that space.
We would do a let better by allowing and incentivizing current owners to increase the number of units on their lots, adding internal suites, laneways, etc. This will increase density while retaining the current neighbourhood look, feel, and scale. It will reduce costs both by eliminating the need for land acquisition and reducing the bureaucratic burden (especially for heritage homes) that makes such renos and improvements almost impossible these days. It will increase affordability by creating incentives for rents to remain at income-suitable levels. A further benefit would be an increase in work opportunities for smaller local builders who could handle projects of this size.
Whether you agree with these specific ideas or not, it should be clear we cannot keep doing what we are doing.
Since my post about the new group opposing the appallingly large towers at the Safeway site at Broadway & Commercial, the usual YIMBY crowd has suggested that community groups don’t know what they’re talking about, and that developers/planners know what’s best for us.
For their edification, here is Scot Hein who was head of the design group for CoV Planning and is currently professor in the Masters of Urban Design program at UBC talking about this site:
“We imagined, he wrote, 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.”
Source: “Battleground: Grandview” (p.67-68), quoting comment by Scott Hein at Price Tags, Vision: The end of the residential highrise? 2014 Nov 10
Update: Scot has asked me to clarify that he was supporting two modestly scaled towers for the Safeway site, with lower tower buildings for nearby transitional sites on 10th, which I am happy to do.