Opinion

Debate: Should Vancouver Change How It Zones Big Projects?

Experts Gordon Price and Patrick Condon spar over good and bad of 'spot zoning.'

By Patrick M. Condon and Gordon Price 13 Aug 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Former Vancouver NPA city councillor Gordon Price is director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and publishes an online journal about urban issues, Price Tags.

Patrick Condon is chair of Urban Design and a professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia.

[Editor's note: On July 14, The Tyee published an opinion piece by University of British Columbia urban design professor Patrick Condon proposing that Vancouver's way of "spot zoning" for new projects was playing havoc with the character of neighbourhoods and principles of democracy and transparency. Condon argued that Vancouver would do better to include citizens in a process leading to a one-time zoning of the entire city. His critique, which branded city hall's project-by-project approval process a path to "soft corruption," produced buzz for and against.

Many experienced voices argued that Vancouver's approach -- trading permission to build for public amenities and other city input -- was key to the city's success at evolving to accommodate changing pressures and needs. One of the most knowledgeable and experienced of those defenders of the current approach is former Vancouver NPA city councillor Gordon Price, now Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

We arranged an email exchange on the topic between Price and Condon and asked if we could look in. Here's the result.]

GORDON PRICE:

Patrick,

So, I'm supposed to defend spot zoning, am I? Maybe I should start out with something more sympathetic, like duckling abuse.

Seriously, you're asking me to defend 'soft corruption,' on the assumption that the motivation for rezoning, whether soft or hard, is to tap the millions in Community Amenity Charges, resulting in ever-bigger, and hence inappropriately scaled, development.

Stop me before I rezone again!

But let me suggest that there's a need for spot rezonings and regulatory changes in a world where we won't or can't anticipate the future. Let me use an example that occurred when I was a council member in the 1980s.

There is at the southeast corner of Davie and Howe Street a rather bland residential high-rise, just under 20 stories.

It's not distinguishable now, dwarfed by the high-rises on all the other corners -- but it sure was back when it was built in 1988, approved as, yes, a reinterpretation of the zoning bylaw. The planner at the time, Ray Spaxman, wasn't about to approve anything other than what had come before: office and commercial with a few floors of residential.

But Andrew Grant, president of the PCI Group, was convinced there was a market for rental accommodation in this unlikely neighbourhood of parking lots and auto-body shops: "Downtown at your doorstep for $395." He spent a lot of time trying to convince staff and eventually council to let him take the risk.

Council in response changed the rules at a single meeting -- as much to see if Andrew was right. Which he most certainly was. That building was the beginning of what we now know as Downtown South: the thousands of units, condos and rentals that successfully accommodated so much of the growth in the core in the 1990s -- and took development pressure off the West End.

It is also, as you note, where we began to employ Development Cost Charges -- another innovation that came with Downtown South once the blocks between Homer and Burrard were massively upzoned to accommodate residential high-rises, along with design guidelines and public-realm improvements. That avoided the need to negotiate separate amenity requirements with each developer.

But note the words "massively upzoned" -- something that was only possible on low-density industrial land like Arbutus, Concord, Coal Harbour, Collingwood Village and all the other megaprojects where we accommodated growth without intruding into residential neighbourhoods.

Your call for a city-wide plan to avoid the need for spot rezonings, I can bet, will not result in those kinds of 'massive upzonings.' Like CityPlan, it will most likely result in a reiteration of the status quo, with some token recognition of change, but mainly a call for further amenities and more affordable housing, without any practical way of achieving of it -- certainly not by changing the character of the community with new forms of development.

That's fine for those of us who already have a piece of this precious place. But if in the future, we believe there's a need to try out new forms of development, then it will likely be done initially through spot changes -- just as we did with Andrew Grant.

And that's a good reason to keep it in the tool kit.

PATRICK CONDON:

Hey Gordon,

I am not asking you to defend soft corruption my friend! When you were on council we were in a different world and Vancouver was a different city. It took some bold moves in the 1980s to make Vancouver what it is! But that was then and this is now. What worked for downtown is not working for the rest of the city. You seem to say that council has to step in because city staff and citizens cannot be trusted to do the right thing. But I respectfully disagree. Every other city in the region seems to be able to involve citizens when they create or update their Official Community Plan. Why can't Vancouver? Sure they occasionally allow variances from their OCP. But at least they have a plan! Surrey has a plan that anticipates very large increases in population. Why can't we?

GORDON PRICE:

Why can't Vancouver do what other cities in the region do?

Land, Patrick, land.

Vancouver doesn't have any large greenfield sites. It's relatively easy to allocate growth in places like Langley's Willoughby or Brookswood, Coquitlam's Heritage Mountain, or South Surrey and South Clayton. But Vancouver City doesn't even have the brownfield sites of the recent past that we used for megaprojects in the 1980s and '90s.

Our Official Development Plan is the Zoning and Development Bylaw, accompanied by the local plans and policies that set direction. But regardless of the legal framework, woe to the council that proposes 'bold moves' in existing neighbourhoods. (Hello, Grandview.) Even a single development proposal can create a crisis. (Hello, Mt. Pleasant.)

So you're right: what worked for the downtown core in the past won't work for the rest of the city. It won't even work for downtown.

That's why small interventions, like spot zoning, is the default mechanism of change.

PATRICK CONDON:

Ah Gordon. Your examples are cherry picked. The City of North Vancouver, New Westminster, and Burnaby are similarly "built out" yet they have Official Community Plans. They even mostly follow them! The new 60 storey (yikes!) towers at Metrotown replaced low rise rental units, all in conformance with their OCP and area plan. No spot zone required. We can't do that?

And I am surprised that you use our most notorious public process train wrecks to make your case: the Rize project and the Grandview Woodlands plan. The "bold" move at Grandview Woodlands came after a long deliberated low/mid-rise plan was trashed. Not bold enough it seems. Not enough high rises! Add ten! Table that plan tomorrow! Plenty bold. Some would say arrogant and counterproductive, especially since the changes did not add density, only height. This is planning mayhem, not courage.

GORDON PRICE:

I've never believed there's any substantive difference between a ZDB* and an OCP** once the latter is translated into something as useful as the former. They are both expressions of what a city expects for the future based on the permissions of the past.

I suppose we could get into the weeds on the Grandview process (no argument, the city screwed it up). But the point is this: You will not get boldness, regardless of the process, if communities will only accept the most modest changes that, as a beginning assumption, will not change their character. If neighbourhoods have priority over city and region-wide plans, and can effectively veto their broad-based, long-term visions once implementation is required, why bother pursuing them in the first place?

* Zoning and Development Bylaw
** Official Community Plan

PATRICK CONDON:

Yes this might get into the weeds, and that's unfortunate; because this issue fuels the anger now rampant in our city. I happen to think that the Official Community Plan process used elsewhere is forward looking, while our Vancouver Zoning Bylaw and map only looks back. If it were forward looking we would not be changing the damned thing for every project that comes down the pike.

Gordon, with deep respect, you say we will never "get boldness, regardless of the process, if communities will only accept the most modest changes". But our City of North Vancouver neighbours are advancing a draft OCP that anticipates projected 50 per cent increase in population in only 25 years! And it maps locations for all these new homes to boot.

Now that's bold! That's forward looking! That's what city councils should do! Not spot zone.

GORDON PRICE:

I can understand your desire, Patrick, for an Official Community Plan for Vancouver, so long as it sincerely involves the people of Vancouver in a determination of their future and provides everyone, neighbourhoods and developers alike, with some certainty about what's allowed.

I'd still maintain that it will not eliminate the need for spot rezonings. No plan can predict with sufficient certainty the forces that will shape our built environment, and there may well be times when changing circumstances or innovation justify an unanticipated intervention. All would agree, however, that spot rezonings should not be the customary mechanism of change.

But to avoid that, and still provide the latitude to accommodate the growth we can reasonably expect based on past experience, means planning for a scale of change that might well be a shock to those who rather like things as they are, or to those who acknowledge the need for change but not if it means change in the character of their community. Yet an Official Community Plan should, if it is a serious document, recognize that the city will be, in some profound ways, a different place as it accommodates those not yet here, and whose voices cannot yet be heard. It is a rare document that does so after emerging from a process of current stakeholders, and is sustained over time when the growth acceptable in theory becomes a white sign on a lot that threatens someone's self-interest.

It is for that purpose -- to accommodate forms of change not yet evident, to deal with growth not yet imaginable, to hear voices not yet present -- that spot rezonings will and should remain an option.

PATRICK CONDON:

Gordon, I know that you have stood up for the things you believe in many times, often withstanding harsh personal and political consequences. You well express how hard it is to plan a city for those who are not yet here, against the innate conservatism of those who are. You may think me naive; but based on my own experience I think you too readily assume folks won't do the right thing when they get the chance. When you opened this debate you dismissed the CityPlan effort of the '90s. This surprised me. When given the choice between no-growth, growth only downtown, unplanned growth everywhere, or growth in numerous neighbourhood village nodes, over 63 per cent of the 10,000 people involved opted for the later. I believe this spirit of inclusion still lives, if we could only find the right process to unleash it.

I, like you, am motivated by a love for this city and a fear for its future. I strongly believe that what worked within the small area of the downtown won't work in the vastly larger city beyond. If we accommodate all our new growth through large spot-zoned projects we may get the housing numbers we want, but it will be in two cities. The one city will be formed of widely separated high-rise complexes, attached to the Skytrain, but cut off from everything else; an interior world of shopping centers capped with glass towers. In between these shopping centres will be another city, the leftover city of the streetcar era. An unaffordable and car dependent city -- static and depopulated -- with emptying schools, struggling shops and underused transit.

There are different paths. For example, the Kitsilano district has added very substantial density in a way that works with, not against, its innate structure. There are scores of neighbourhoods like it. We could easily double our population and find that our neighbourhoods looked better, worked better, and were more equitable as a result.

But it takes an effort to understand what this city should look like. That's why I think our acceptance of spot zoning, and the CAC money it produces, is so indicative of our current affliction. Absent a coherent vision of the future, the more we depend on CAC taxes the further we drift from the city that is -- the further we drift from the future city that could be.  [Tyee]

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