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Density Is Coming, Say Urban Thinkers, but to Whose Backyard?

Debate series seeks common ground on Metro Vancouver's growth strategy.

Katie Hyslop 22 Jan 2016Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth for Tyee Solutions Society.

This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society. It was made possible through the support of the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Vancity Credit Union, the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, the Vancouver Foundation, and in partnership with Columbia Institute. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit www.tyeesolutions.org for contacts and information.

Density is a heated topic in Metro Vancouver. Rancour over the subject fills newspaper op-ed pages, causes otherwise peaceful citizens to rally and fill council meeting minutes with pleas and threats not to change their neighbourhoods, destroy their character, or build gigantic towers.

So when the Vancouver Urbanarium Society, in partnership with the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, decided to focus the first of its City Debates series on the resolution that no neighbourhood should be off limits to densification, they prepared the audience for the worst.

"Our debate resolutions are by definition and by design controversial," said Leslie Van Duzer, UBC architecture prof and Urbanarium board member in her opening remarks at Wednesday's debate taking place at the Museum of Vancouver.

"They're intended to create oppositional forces, however stark or nuanced the differences between the debate teams."

The Urbanarium debate pitted architect Joyce Drohan and former Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian, on the pro side, against former Vancouver mayor and current B.C. MLA Sam Sullivan, and former UBC business school dean Michael A. Goldberg on the con side.

In fact, both sides agreed on one thing: density is coming. With every city in the Lower Mainland expected to grow by 25 per cent over 25 years -- bringing one million more people to the region by 2041 -- everyone who plans or runs cities for a living sees density as pretty much inevitable.

What's not inevitable is that it happen in all neighbourhoods, or that all neighbourhoods densify equally.

That's slim comfort to many Metro Vancouverites who have made it clear that they don't want density at all. "A poll taken last year," moderator David Beers reminded the audience, "found nine out of 10 people in Metro Vancouver said they wanted no more people moving into their city." (Disclaimer: Beers co-founded both The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society.)

On this evening however, audience members began the program by voting heavily in favour of the resolved policy of opening up every neighbourhood to density: 145 to 39 opposed. The winning debate side would be the one that changed the most minds by the end of the night.

All in on towers

In fact, as architect Drohan noted during the exchanges, both sides wanted density, with a lot of gray area between them and even what sounded like some side-switching.

Goldberg wanted some neighbourhoods left alone, like his former stomping grounds in Dunbar, where he said residents just wouldn't go for it. Yet after the debate was over he acknowledged that he didn't really oppose Toderian's idea of putting laneway houses in the neighbourhood, or even townhouses on its main thoroughfares.

Toderian, who is notorious for defining and implementing the city's EcoDensity charter when debate rival Sullivan was Vancouver's mayor, argued for density everywhere. He balked however at Goldberg's suggestion that Vancouver's industrial lands be densified by mixing residential with warehouse space, as they do in San Francisco and Florida.

Politics and public sensitivities were the real topic of the debate. Foreshadowing the next debate in the Urbanarium series -- on condo towers -- there was no difference between the two camps when it came to towers on main thoroughfares. Both panels supported them, and Goldberg even proposed Marine Gateway-sized towers on Broadway at Commercial, Cambie, and Main -- where he argued that the historic Lee Building, the height of density when it was built in 1912, should be replaced by glass and steel and several more stories.

Densification lite

Where the two sides did differ was on locating medium density dwellings -- including laneway houses, townhouses, and buildings up to seven storeys tall -- inside residential neighbourhoods.

Drohan argued that main thoroughfare density should be widened to permit moderate density structures for several blocks on either side. Her panel-mate Toderian meanwhile advocated for "gentle density," like laneway housing that keeps neighbourhood character intact.

"Not everyone wants to or should live in a downtown condo," Toderian said, while admitting everyone on the stage except Beers and Drohan did. But that's not the only shape density can take, he added, urging a change in the conversation to help the public understand that.

"We need to introduce new language, new narratives, and say it's not about tall towers. It's not even necessarily about mid-rise [buildings]," he said. The reason seniors in Dunbar aren't downsizing from their big homes, he said, is because they don't want to leave Dunbar and there aren't other options, like laneway housing.

"There's lots of ways you can have a conversation about how neighbourhoods can play a role in the growth and change of the city, and not necessarily talk about those big scary forms that gets people awfully excited, to say the least," he said.

But it's just that excitement that concerned the con side. The City of Vancouver infamously botched the Grandview Woodlands Community Plan: a proposal for a tower "up-to-36 stories" at the Commercial Drive Skytrain station, and more mid-rise buildings along the Drive, met with such anger from the neighbourhood that the city was forced to withdraw it.

Sullivan, whose idea for more "EcoDensity" was among the factors in his loss of the Non-Partisan Association's mayoral nomination in 2008, was only half joking when he dubbed himself the first density victim in the city.

"Although it may be desirable to densify all neighbourhoods, the effort may be so destabilizing it could jeopardize the whole densification project," he said. "An agenda that depends on local politicians committing political suicide simply will not succeed."

Squeezing the balloon

Sullivan noted that people living in downtown Vancouver produce fewer greenhouse gasses per person than those living just outside the downtown core, and way less than those living in the suburbs. Failed attempts to densify Kitsilano, Point Grey, and the Cambie Village in the 1960s however, caused residents to flee the city for the suburbs, causing the urban sprawl we grapple with today.

What's the benefit of densification in the outlying neighbourhoods and cities, Sullivan wondered, if they're still going to drive to work in downtown Vancouver in their gas-guzzling cars?

The fear of density is real. Even moderator Beers expressed his willingness to fight against the "hyper density" of the four-storey glass buildings replacing the one storey "shabby chic" he loves in his Main Street neighbourhood.

But as Toderian pointed out, "It's like squeezing the balloon, if you don't put density in some places, more has to go to other places." Choosing to leave some neighbourhoods out of density is a political choice, he added.

Beers pushed back, however, noting it's also a choice that's subject to reversal. City administrations change, and politicians can overturn previous promises to leave some neighbourhoods out.

In the end the con side won the night, gaining eight audience votes in the post-debate balloting, while the pro side lost 18. In this audience however, almost everyone agreed that more density in at least some parts of the Lower Mainland is inevitable.

With 90 per cent of Metro Vancouverites unwilling to cede to that fact, the debates in real life are likely to be a lot uglier.  [Tyee]

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