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Municipal Politics
Urban Planning + Architecture

The City’s False Promises about False Creek South

Five ways the new plan undercuts what made the Vancouver district a world-famous model.

Patrick Condon 18 Oct 2021 |

Patrick Condon is the James Taylor chair in Landscape and Livable Environments at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the founding chair of the UBC urban design program.

The City of Vancouver’s plans for False Creek South are finally out amidst huge, pent-up expectations. In the past two years, as the fate of the globally acclaimed district has been worried over and contested, I have opined about it here, here and here.

Now we have a plan that calls for an eventual tripling of density, the reduction in the proportionate share of affordable housing there, and the bulldozing and relocating of many of the existing co-op units.

Council will be presented the plan this week. No doubt they will be told that this radically redesigned future for the neighbourhood carries through on promises made when it was first conceived in the 1970s. The greatest promise then was that False Creek South would model a bold commitment to mixing some high-end housing with a majority for low and middle-income residents — even in a beautiful shoreline neighbourhood. The city — and its mayor — say they’ve kept true to that aim. By my analysis, their promises prove false and invite five hard questions.

First a summary of facts from the staff report to council. 

Those are the salient facts from the report. Now a few questions. 

Why was the planning department excluded from planning?

The report originates from the city's real estate department (headed by Nick Kassam) and not the city's planning, urban design and sustainability department (now headed by Theresa O'Donnell). This is unusual as the report fully acknowledges. It is well known that the city's real estate and planning departments often take different views of the city's development goals. The real estate side, typically operating out of public view, almost entirely focuses on extracting the highest monetary value from deals involving city-owned land. The planning side, by contrast, is charged with proceeding with “public consultation, transparency and respect for residents” as former head city planner Larry Beasley recently put it.

It’s virtually unheard of that such a sensitive and sweeping plan be drafted and presented to council even though the planning department, as the report admits, has “not reviewed, considered or approved the conceptual development plan options from a land use planning and policy process."

And yet the mayor was fast out of the gate to endorse the plan — and in so doing appears to endorse the shadowy workings of the real estate department that produced it. Indeed, it’s worth wondering why Vancouver has something called its planning, urban design and sustainability department if it wasn’t up to its elbows in such a major visioning.

What is the real story on who lives there? And who should?

Mayor Kennedy Stewart preemptively asserted his unreserved support for the plan in a commentary in the Georgia Straight, where, among other things, he stresses demographics as a motivation: "But while Vancouver has changed dramatically over the last half century, False Creek South has not. With no new housing built in the area since the 1980s, it has slowly become less ethnically and economically diverse than the rest of Vancouver."

That has become a familiar mantra about False Creek South, pushed particularly by advocates of market-driven densification. But how true is it? Not very when you separate, within the entire district, who lives on city-owned land from those who live on non-city land.

Not surprisingly, since non-city land is more expensive and almost entirely given over to market rentals and condos, those residents skew much higher in income. This fact, one might presume, would compel the city to be again at least as bold as it was in 1970s in allocating lower- and middle-income housing to city-owned land. As we will see, however, the bias is towards increasing the ratio of unaffordable market housing.

582px version of FalseCreekCondonDevelopmentMap.jpg
Map showing ownership of major parcels at False Creek South. Light pink parcels at the east and west ends of the district are privately owned by condo associations. Residents of those parcels skew substantially higher income than residents on city lands — shown in blue. Dark pink parcels are water lots owned by the province. Source: Patrick Condon based on city records.

Is it good planning to place a virtual wall of co-ops to the back of False Creek South, farthest from the shore?

The plan as shown pushes most of the new co-op buildings up against Sixth Avenue, creating a high-density wall of more affordable co-op and non-market rental housing, far from the waterfront and its views, clearly segregating those of lower income from the higher amenity market products that now will hug the shore. This seems very much at odds with the original False Creek South plan which consciously placed low, moderate- and high-income residents in ways where segregation relative to amenity was not distinct. 

Should the False Creek South tradition of equitable access to housing be diluted?

The proponents of the new plan insist that it respects the original, 1970s-era intention of ensuring that residents of False Creek South would be one-third low income, one-third middle class and one-third capable of paying market rates. Why did the original vision distinguish between middle-class housing and market rate housing? Because even back then, in so desirable a locale such as False Creek South, it was understood that people who could pay market rates for condos or rentals would be upper-middle class or wealthy. That is even more true today.

So here’s how the original vision broke it down:

The one-third for low-income would constitute a mix of social housing and co-ops — because the co-op model makes room for some low-income residents in effect subsidized by the other members.

The one-third for middle class would be the remainder of residents of the co-ops.

The one-third market would accommodate upper-middle class, wealthier residents.

The net result was that social housing and co-ops comprised at least two thirds of the original, 1970s plan for False Creek South.

Now let’s look at how the new plan breaks down its version of one-third, one-third, one-third.

This time around the co-ops and social/supportive housing has been conflated, together comprising just the low-income category, accounting for one-third of the eventual population of False Creek South.

There is no mention of middle-class residents. Rather, the rest of the housing will be either market rental or market condos on leased land. Which is to say, affordable only for people upper-middle class or wealthier. In newly constructed buildings in this part of town, market rents for one-bedroom units currently run over $2,500 per month and two-bedroom units go for around $4,000 per month, rates only the top 10 per cent of city wage earners will be able to affordably pay.  

Will the modest amount of new affordable housing planned ever actually get built?

More troubling still is that the city's commitment to even this reduced ratio of affordable housing is weak. The plan explicitly states on page 5 that absent support from higher levels of government the city would not be able to deliver even the modest affordable options described:

"An important part of advancing the planning for South False Creek will be to seek and secure senior government and partner funding for the co-op and non-market housing, and potentially for other social and cultural amenities and public infrastructure contemplated in the conceptual development plan. Should this funding not be secured, this would have a material impact on the recommended conceptual development plan, in which case the GM, REFM will bring alternative strategy options back to Council for consideration."

This is very hard to credit since the city owns the land. It is well known that the cost of land in Vancouver is now twice the cost of constructing the building. Land cost is the principal reason it is impossible for market developers to provide affordable housing in this city. Marc Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has shown in a recent study that affordable rents can pay the complete cost of construction and maintenance of new units if the cost of land can be mitigated or eliminated. No one debates this. Which means all of this new proposed mid-rise housing could be made available at rent levels affordable to average working families at prices that would consume no more than 30 per cent of their income, without the need for upper-level government cash subsidy.

582px version of FalseCreekDevelopmentGraphicPhase1.png
582px version of FalseCreekDevelopmentGraphicPhase2.png
582px version of FalseCreekDevelopmentGraphicPhase3.png
582px version of FalseCreekDevelopmentPlanTable.png
Three phases of transformation of False Creek South proposed by Vancouver’s real estate department. Source: City of Vancouver.

There is much more to say, and hopefully council will make room for time to ponder all of this. While Mayor Stewart has tipped his hand, the other 10 council members have not.

A lot is at stake in this decision. The city faces an existential crisis, and it is housing. Our service workers, many of whom are our sons and daughters, can no longer afford to live here. A city that excludes the very people it depends on is not worthy of the name. False Creek South is our opportunity to say "this much and no more." No more selling out the city to the highest bidder, spawning a forced migration of our children to nether regions. No more using the fig leaf of our "fiduciary obligations to taxpayers" to hide our own collaboration in the destruction of this city.

False Creek South is internationally famous as a model of social sustainability. All one needs to do to prove that is go, as I have done, to Google Scholar and search False Creek South. You’ll find 141,000 entries. Is this plan worthy of the pioneering efforts of our predecessors? Is it the best we can do at this crucial point in Vancouver’s march towards becoming an investment vehicle for the rich?  [Tyee]

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