Not just for policy wonks.  Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) have been a contentious issue on civic-election platforms.  Karen Sawatsky provides an incredibly well-researched analysis with a lot of information never before compiled in one place, accompanied by urban theory and political debate.  The whole post is here.

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Back and forth on CACs

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CACs, in a nutshell, are contributions the city negotiates with developers who seek rezoning. In probably 99% of the cases, the developer is asking  to  build more units than the current zoning allows, i.e. to increase density. And in the vast majority of cases, if granted, that extra density will be achieved through the construction of taller buildings. The amenities requested in return might be green space, public art, affordable housing, or sometimes just the cash to buy these things. There’s been a lot of interesting debate recently about the pros and cons of Vancouver’s CAC system, but … even before this debate, I’d been thinking quite a bit about CACs because the topic came up in the class on “great urban thinkers” I’m taking as part of my master’s in urban studies.
That discussion led me to wonder if there was a comprehensive list somewhere of all the city projects that had ever been funded partly or wholly through CACs. And if not, it made me think there should be. …. Unfortunately, a comprehensive list does not seem to exist, at least not in the city’s possession, and I did ask. Granted, such list would be very long indeed, stretching back about 25 years (for a brief history of CAC policy, see this article originally found on the Price Tags blog).
What does exist, however, are three publicly available (though not easily findable) annual reports that provide details on the benefits obtained through CACs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The city planning department informed me that a 2013 report is in the works, which is good news.  I have compiled the information in those reports into a spreadsheet and posted it here:

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CACs

 

Full spreadsheet here.

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I have also compiled an incomplete list of some Vancouver civic leaders and urban thinkers who either support or critique the current CAC system. “For” or “against” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those listed are unreservedly in support or opposed to all aspects of the current CAC system; it just signifies where I think they best fit.

For

Against

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In addition to being interested in the debate itself, I’m intrigued by the fact that it doesn’t cleave along neat ideological lines, as my list shows. On the side of those who defend the current CAC system we have both Geoff Meggs and Gordon Price, councillors who have represented opposing parties at city hall. Some (not me) would explain this by saying all politicians are the same. Others would point to their common experience serving on council, which gave them the opportunity to spend the money generated by CACs and shape the projects they fund.
However, we have a former NPA councillor on the anti-CAC side too – Peter Ladner. There are also former city planning directors on both sides. Like the “pro” side, the ideological composition of the “against” side is mixed. It includes development consultants Bob Ransford and Michael Geller, as well as Jak King, who identifies as an anarchist and is a former president of the neighbourhood association that represents the lefty hotbed (at least historically) that is Commercial Drive. Interesting. …
The fact that Vancouver has a crippling shortage of affordable housing also figures in to the controversy over CACs. As my list shows, some very informed people have argued that developers just pass the cost of CACs on to the end users of the land (homebuyers and renters), and that CACs are therefore an obstacle to realizing the city’s goal of increasing housing affordability. Others (also very informed) counter that it doesn’t work like that, because as much as they might like to, developers can’t increase prices beyond what the market will support. However, that also begs contentious questions concerning the composition of Vancouver’s purchasing pool and whether the city is in a housing bubble – questions that are beyond the scope of this already lengthy post.
Given all these factors and the city’s policy push for densification, it’s not surprising that CACs provoke debate, both over underlying principles and their particular applications (the Rize project in Mount Pleasant being one recent example). That just reinforces how important and useful it is for the public to have specific and clear information about the results of the CAC policy, so I do hope the reports keep coming (and are made easier to find). I’d like to see this information put in a spreadsheet and included in the city’s open data catalogue.

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The whole post is here.

Comments

  1. “…developers can’t increase prices beyond what the market will support.”
    And likewise developers won’t decrease prices below what the market will support.
    We know what the market will support by looking at what the market is supporting, namely the prices we see now. So if the CACs were reduced or terminated, wouldn’t the developers just make more profit?
    Of course both of those statements are just economic hand-waving from non-economists. I don’t believe either of them and I’m inclined to dismiss both of them as meaningless generalizations.

  2. I think the arguments are much more nuanced that a simple for and against CAC position suggests.
    For example, I don’t think Spaxman has said he is against CACs, or the general principle of development contributing to community amenity, especially through site-specific rezonings. But he is dismayed by and clearly against the ad hoc “selling of zoning” in the absence of an overarching plan to do so within clearly stated certain limits, the absence of which has led to unprecedented levels of density being landed on many city sites to the consternation of various communities. Way in high single and double digit FSRs in many instances.
    And yes, the use or misuse of this tool as a series of enormous one-offs has led many of us to consider the CAC approach to be an attractive cash cow for the City and Council, and as crack cocaine to other observers (including Lewis Villegas). Density increases or bonusing have been around since Ray’s time in office as part of discretionary zoning (e.g., Central Broadway, Fairview Slopes) and rezonings, but always to a known upper maximum.
    Others, perhaps including Geller, aren’t necessarily against the principle either, but want the $ contribution to be explicit at the outset, not as a one-off and protracted negotiation. I think Brian Jackson has stated from the get-go that he intends to see some form of predetermined CAC policy and rates to be implemented at some point as well.

  3. Gordon, Thanks very much for what you said about my post and for reposting it here.
    To respond to Frank, I agree that the debate over CAC policy is a complex one, which is why I provided links to the source material. Interested readers can follow up and read what each person said in full. Also, as I said by way of introduction to the list, “’For’ or ‘against’ in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those listed are unreservedly in support or opposed to all aspects of the current CAC system; it just signifies where I think they best fit.”

    1. Don’t forget that CAC and Density Bonusing are technically two different mechanisms. Additionally, in terms of the broader discussion concerning the value of CACs, that amenities such as libraries or community centres to which developers contribute may significantly increase the attractiveness of their neighbourhoods, resulting in a higher sale or rental price. The issue is when CACs do not result in significant changes in neighborhood services or amenities.

    1. Interesting – wish I knew how to do that. I haven’t had a chance to really look at the numbers myself yet – not beyond what it took to get them from the pdf files.

      1. Not that hard to do, at least if you have had some exposure to coding of some sort. I can give you the code that built the map if you are interested.

  4. DENSITY: ENEMY OR ALLY?
    Before we can conclude on the yes or no or maybe regarding CAC’s, we really have to come to grips with whether we want the density. Most expressed sentiment from many Vancouver residents both east and west sides is that more density in our neighbourhoods, city and region is an unavoidable contagion. I see it as the opportunity and vehicle by which Vancouver can become a more diverse, resilient, sophisticated metropolis with a healthier, more sustainable physical environment, a more robust economy, a more vibrant cultural scene and an improved ability to address the variety of community social and infrastructure needs that challenge us. All this PROVIDED (and this is a big proviso) that these increases are creatively managed as smart, compact growth that gets to the core of sustainability and energy efficiency (one example: high density, mixed-use development located at and fully integrated with transit hubs) AND adheres to best practices of comprehensive long range planning and (this is CRITICAL!) urban design that not merely maintains livability, but improves it. This means getting on quickly with long range URBAN (not suburban) planning that strategically provides for and locates where in the city the needed added density, services and infrastructure will best accommodate anticipated future growth and is co-ordinated with neighbouring municipalities. This also means that some single family homeowners whose properties are located on or directly behind identified major arterials or near transit hubs might be unhappy with proposed inevitably larger scaled buildings, however modest the increase.
    Patrick Condon, in a recent post, reminds us not only that the true capacity of thousands of typical single family lots is for 3, 4 or even 5 dwelling units with little change in scale, but also that for the densities needed, development around, for example, Canada Line’s identified station hubs should be intensified, even to include hi-rises if appropriate in the specific context. He cites Cambie & 41st (Oakridge Centre) and, as well, Cambie & 57th this latter location where the timeline for delivery of this identified “future” station will be speeded up – and its cost subsidized entirely or in part by the developers – with the development of the huge 25.4 acre Dogwood-Pearson lands (high density mixed-use master plan with Vancouver Coastal Health facilities now approved with residential hi-rises up to 28 storeys) and the 20.8 acre Langara Gardens site (now in planning stage, integrating its four existing rental towers).
    Which brings me back to CAC’s and Oakridge Centre’s (28 acre site at Cambie & 41st) recently approved rezoning which will include 11 hi-rises from 19 to 45 storeys, with mid rise buildings on its west edge transitioning down to the lower scale neighbourhood. The hi-rises have been positioned to free up area for a 9 acre public park on the roof of the mall, which, as part of the developer’s CAC, will be deeded to the City, designed to ensure it publicness (this was and continues to be an issue) in its variety of functions and access (multiple access points, including public escalators and elevators), all to the satisfaction of the Park Board who will program the park’s activities, but the cost of maintaining the park to be borne by the Mall owner. Other major components of the CAC package include: a 70,000 sq. ft. Civic Centre integrated with the park containing a Community Centre, expanded Library branch, Child Day Care and Seniors’ Activity Centre; 290 Social Housing Units; and 290 secured market Rental Units, all of which the developer will build on-site to the City’s satisfaction.The total value of this CAC package as calculated by the City (Real Estate Services) is $148,000,000. Frankly, as taxpayers we should be pleased to see the cost of these much-needed or desirable public facilities and amenities and social and rental housing coming out of the developer’s pocket rather than City coffers.
    Of course, we all understand that this “voluntary” contribution is underwritten by the value to the developer of the increase in density (land lift) approved by City Council that will allow the construction of 2,000 plus condos, a notable portion of which will be in the towers, the views from which will further enhance their value and marketability. While we may debate whether the developer, even after building and paying for all the CAC public benefits, will, in the sale of these condos, reap a justifiable profit (he’s not in it for his health) or a windfall (having hood-winked City bureaucrats in the negotiation?- I don’t think so), the fact is this huge bump in density is EXACTLY where we want it! As for the hi-rises, the site is large enough to absorb them, with overall built form properly transitioning down to its neighbours and have allowed for a public open space serving the entire neighbourhood, provided the detail design of the park and its public access performs as intended and committed.
    Oakridge provides a useful example of how densification on large sites adjacent subway or SkyTrain stations (existing or planned) can support sustainable growth while contributing to neighbourhood amenity. And where such sites can incorporate hi-rises which free up area for public open space that improves overall neighbourhood livability, we should not forego
    their benefit on the basis of a visceral negative reaction to this building form. Where such urban design benefits are possible, the City must use its powers to ensure not only energy efficiency (what is the next step up from LEED Platinum?) but architectural excellence, given their greater prominence, as prerequisites for hi-rise approval. This last point is important since any urban planning advantages cited in justifying their merit will be negated by the insensitively positioned, or fat or clumsy rather than slim and elegant, or architecturally ordinary or formulaic rather than dynamic and evocative hi-rise design.
    Where the highest quality planning, urban design and architectural parameters are upheld in the preparation of neighbourhood or precincts plans, with proper public process, or in the review even of a one-off, large enough rezoning proposal which holds to the same high standards, the present CAC system, with adjustments that address issues of uncertainty both from residents’ and developers’ standpoint, can still work. Having master plans in place for identified candidate areas for densification is the best circumstance for dealing with the valid concerns raised in the most recent examples of CAC’s. This has been amply demonstrated in the past in the downtown where, with concept plans in place for each precinct and neighbourhood, development proceeded accordingly, allowing for 65 acres of new parks and public open space (not including completion of the continuous Seawall and with much more yet to come on Plaza of Nations and with the removal of the Viaducts). And so, despite apparently daunting densities, with the addition of this extensive Public Realm – in effect, the lungs of the downtown – and the array of community facilities achieved through CAC’s, downtown livability even for families with children has been improved. This is not advocating an indiscriminate, careless influx of hi-rises in lower density neighbourhoods outside the downtown which would contextually inappropriate and unnecessary. It merely points out where the CAC process has previously worked when high quality Planning and Urban Design parameters have been clearly stated and maintained.

    1. That sounds wonderful but in reality you can bet that the residents of the new Oakridge (the handful of units that will be occupied full-time anyway) will complain as soon as noise or transients’ activity begins to occur in their “park”.

  5. Ralph – I can agree with most everything you say with the exception of one thing: the Oakridge developers have gotten away without providing the 2.8 acre park they were required to more than 20 years ago. This Council, as far as I know and despite the assurances from the development planner at the public hearing that the rooftop open space was NOT a park, has approved and defined the space open space as a “park”. Leaving a significant PUBLIC amenity in the truest sense of the word off the table. If this is true, it is a mockery of what is needed there and promised so long ago.
    I feel the same way about a future larger park once the viaducts are removed – promises, promises. Give me what’s is owed NOW in NE False Creek.

    1. I haven’t seen the final plan, could you explain why the rooftop green space isn’t a park? Simply because the city won’t own the land or?

      1. Mike – it is not a park in that the City doesn’t own either it or especially the land under it. There is public access only. Not the same thing at all.

  6. Correct Ralph. Density is a contagion according to the people.
    Vancouver is already a diverse, resilient, and sophisticated metropolis, why do we need to have more, more, and more?
    Density does not make Vancouver a healthier, more sustainable physical environment, with a more robust economy, and with a more vibrant cultural scene. It makes neighbourhoods into a never ending construction sites.
    Increased density increases demand for community amenities and infrastructure; it doesn’t solve these issues it creates these issues.
    How is growth in Vancouver co-ordinated with neighbouring municipalities? Not and never.
    How is a 9 acre park on a roof top mall surrounded by towers anything more than someone’s backyard?
    The City has long used a set of formulas to negotiate contributions from major projects, is there an additional contribution at Oakridge? Is there a new precedent to brag about?
    Density is a contagion. Perhaps we should be building new towns, rather than constantly rebuilding old towns. It’s a wasteful practice. How can such a process ever produce affordability?

  7. Frank – First, Concord’s behaviour in NorthEast False Creek:
    I am as disturbed and angered as you at Concord’s poor judgement in stubbornly refusing to put in place even a temporary park on a portion of its lands in N.E. False Creek. By imperiously arguing that it is not obligated legally to provide the required park until its final NEFC towers are approved, it is squandering any good will it legitimately earned in the past when it agreed to open up the extensive waterfront Parks and plazas in earlier phases of North F.C. even before completing many of its buildings. This short-sighted attitude is something I have not seen before from Concord.
    Like you, I have been skeptical of a rooftop open space purported by the Oakridge Centre developer to be a public park. And I can’t help wondering if the City Staff authors of the Oakridge rezoning report and conditions of rezoning approval to be met by the developer have learned something from their unfortunate NEFC experience. I see an explicitness in the unequivocal language of the legal and other requirements securing the rooftop park that heighten the certainty of its delivery as a bona fide 9 acre public open space, ensuring that this, and any future Council understand the deal that was made here. Of the 10 Conditions of Rezoning Approval specifically for the park now in place that must be met, these 4 (somewhat paraphrased) stand out:
    19. a) conveyance to the City of an air space parcel (equivalent in law to ownership) for 6 acre portion, with the balance of the 9 acre park (i.e. 3 acre) secured in favour of the City by a Statutory Right of Way; (Note: While a Statutory R. of W. is not ownership, it secures public access to this area for the intended purpose – see condition 19. h) below);
    19. b) the entire 9 acre park will be permanent public park for the life of the development;
    19. f) the park will function like any other park in the City of Vancouver with respect to access, use and hours of operation………;
    19. h)………there is no distinction between the City’s rights to program, operate and control portions of the park within the air space parcel portion versus the Statutory Right of Way portion.

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