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Birth of EcoDensity Backlash

Angry residents demand voice in upped growth plans.

By Colleen Kimmett 21 Sep 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Colleen Kimmett is on staff at The Tyee.

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Protesting Norquay resident Jeanette Jones with draft plan. Photo C. Kimmett.

[Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly attributed quotes by Vancouver city councillor David Cadman to UBC professor Patrick Condon. We fixed the error at 2 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, and apologize to Cadman, Condon and Tyee readers.]

Does Sam Sullivan risk becoming the victim of his own success in pushing his EcoDensity brand?

The mayor who tried to trademark the word EcoDensity has promoted the idea that raising populations in low-rise parts of town will cut down on driving and make neighbourhoods more liveable.

Sullivan's re-election next fall may ride in part on whether voters decide his vision for growth can make their lives better.

But at a rally outside city hall Tuesday night, residents from neighborhood associations across the city slammed EcoDensity as an excuse to rush development through while leaving unanswered questions about parks, amenities and transit.

And the top planning official at city hall refused to stick the EcoDensity label on controversial plans to re-zone and densify an East Vancouver neighbourhood.

Norquay Village controversy

Many residents at the city hall rally were from the Renfrew-Collingwood and Kensington Cedar-Cottage neighbourhoods. They expressed angry concern about a city draft plan to develop Norquay Village, an area encompassing about six blocks on either side of Kingsway Drive from Nanaimo to Killarney Street.

The area consists mostly of single-family homes. Under the plan, about 2,400 of these homes would be re-zoned to allow courtyard row housing, as many as six units on a single lot. This zoning is proposed for approximately one-third of Norquay village, and is focused around schools, parks and the perimeter of Kingsway Drive. Proposed rezoning along Kingsway itself would allow for mid-size apartment buildings 12 to 14 storeys high, with commercial space on the ground floor.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver's director of planning, denied that this development is EcoDensity in action.

"EcoDensity is something new and still something very much in the idea phase," he said. "We are in the process of operationalizing the city plan and the community visions."

"If this isn't EcoDensity, what is it?" asks Lance Berelowitz, an urban planner who chaired Vancouver's planning commission. "You're trying to put more people on less land. It looks and smells and tastes like EcoDensity."

Berelowitz is a champion of Sullivan's EcoDensity initiative, but says the mayor and council are right to fear backlash.

"They know that neighbourhoods generally don't want it, says Berelowitz. "If given the choice between densifying and staying the same, most will vote to stay the same. But if [ecodensity] is done carefully and respectfully, it could really be cutting edge, it could really be out there."

'Shocked' at re-zoning

Toderian says the Norquay draft plan is the result of 18 months of consultation with a steering committee made up of city planners and local volunteers and business leaders. The plan is the "operational phase" of the city's community vision program, a program that was intended to give residents a greater voice in planning.

However, residents in Norquay say the re-zoning plan isn't respectful of residents, and doesn't represent a consensus on growth in the neighbourhood. When a copy of the Norquay draft plan landed on the doorstep of Jeanette Jones's Winona Street home in June, she was "shocked."

"They give us justification for this plan, that they are implementing community vision," says Jones.

"But this isn't it. "

In fact, it was a far cry from the Renfrew-Collingwood community vision document that had been approved by council two years earlier, Jones says. That document stressed the importance of maintaining the character of Renfrew-Collingwood, stating, "Most of the area that is now single family... should be kept that way."

Among the mixed housing options discussed in the vision, which also included duplexes, low-rise apartments and small houses on shared lots, sixplexes and carriage row houses received the least support, with approval ratings of 32 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.

Condo affordability concerns

"I've been door to door, and I would say about 90 per cent of the people in this neighbourhood are very concerned," says Jones.

"About 30 per cent of households here are low income, and we don't see low income people continuing to be able to live in this neighborhood," she said.

"I've looked at real estate ads... $600,000 and $700,000 condos and townhouses are not affordable for a lot of people."

"And this is just a zoning plan," she says. "We have heard nothing about amenities; there is no plan to give us more parks and services as a result of more residents."

Toderian says those issues are being addressed, but not at a neighbourhood scale.

"It's the finer grain of detail that you get at that neighbourhood centre scale, like a new greenway or improvement to the shopping streets, or relatively small things. The bigger picture issues, parks and recreation centres, transit, get dealt with in city-wide plans," he says, adding that maintaining these services as the city grows is "admittedly, hard to keep up."

He stresses that the draft is not close to going to council for approval. It was distributed to residents with an attached survey, but the strike has delayed any analysis of those survey results.

"That will be task one once the strike is resolved. Our next step is usually to continue the dialogue to resolve the issues as best as we can. At this point we're just testing ideas. All input is good, but for the input to be useful, it has to be free of fear."

'Playing out all over city'

David Cadman, a city councillor with the opposition party COPE, says residents' fears stem from uncertainty about whether community visions will actually be implemented.

"There is fear that there isn't enough dialogue going on with the community, and their vision that they worked really hard on is being distorted to satisfy the mayor's goal of reaching density," he says.

According to Berelowitz, concerns about adherence to community visions aren't limited to the Norquay neighbourhood.

"I don't know the specifics of [the Norquay] plan and any gaps, perceived or real," he said. "I do know this is playing out all over the city, and I think part of the problem really is the community visioning process set up expectations that [communities] wouldn't have to grow, or not very much at all. People are realizing... this is a lot more growth than we thought."

Alicia Barsallo, who has lived in Renfrew-Collingwood for over 30 years, was part of that neighbourhood's community vision process. She says when plans for a community centre area were being discussed, it was smaller than what has been included in the Norquay Village boundaries.

"This is not the neighbourhood centre, it's one-third of the neighbourhood," she says.

Jones also sees disconnect between that vision and the new plan.

"What was talked about was a small one-kilometre stretch of Kingsway with denser housing to be built. What came out in this plan was a huge area covering about one-third of Renfrew-Collingwood, plus part of Kensington," she says.

Toderian agrees the size appears larger, but says the community centre discussed in the vision was intended to be "conceptional." He says the space grew to allow for more amenities.

The city has identified 18 other "community centres" that will serve as shopping, service and transit hubs for surrounding neighbourhoods. Citizens from some of these neighbourhoods attended Tuesday night's rally, worried what will become of their own community visions as more concrete plans for EcoDensity are laid.

"The mayor and this council are leading a head-on assault on the things we value most in our neighbourhoods," said Dan Murray of Dunbar. "Let's move to an open, democratic dialogue of the future of this city."

According to Cadman, neighbourhood reactions like this aren't going to go away.

"Basically, people are beginning to say, stop it, we want to see the full package of our visions including the benefits of parks and recreation facilities," he says.

However, the money for those services has to come from somewhere, says Berelowitz, most likely from private developers, through taxes or cost levies. Unless those public amenities are delivered as part of the project, he argues, residents are not going to get them.

"The city successfully delivered those in central Vancouver. But it's very hard to do, extremely hard to do."

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