Stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland does a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town.
Random Acts of Density
Can the city or the region build itself out of the current ‘housing crisis’? The proportion of rental households actually went up in Vancouver between the 2011 and 2016 censuses (and in the rest of Metro too, although with a lower overall proportion renting). The past five years have seen over 33,000 starts in the city – the past four years have seen over 28,000.
But for the city to achieve an average 8,500 new units a year (the target the mayor has mentioned) would mean moving away from the caution we generally see.* Perhaps it won’t be as difficult as it seems. It was a bit surprising that there wasn’t pushback when Wall built a huge complex on Boundary Road, quite a way from the SkyTrain. That was the most extreme example (in Vancouver) of a street of modest houses replaced by over 1,000 condos in 32 floor buildings.
The take-up of the Cambie Plan also shows a different approach – not so much the six-storey buildings along Cambie already mentioned but the more recent additions. The City now has a method to fast-track rezoning for 1.4 FSR townhouses. One existing house can become six or even eight units, half of them 3-bed family-sized. There are already 32 projects as current rezonings – all but two approved in the past year. There are nine other sites already at Development Permit stage, and they represent 341 townhouses – which for Vancouver is a huge change. The same sort of thing is happening in Marpole and Grandview Woodland, as those plans took the same forms and density.
That will be another way in which Vancouver will continue to grow in ways other municipalities don’t, because there’s actually a lot of change happening in some of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, which really isn’t the case in other municipalities. It would be interesting to know who is buying them. The family homes generally cost well over $1 million each – so more affordable than most existing Vancouver houses, but still a pretty steep haul to finance as a young couple.
It will be interesting to see the take-up of the newly permitted rental townhouse idea – around schools and parks, and near arterial. Will they be built? If so, by whom? The financing for building these multi-million dollar rental townhouse complexes can’t be easy, although with mortgage rates as they are, there’s probably never been a better time for developers: huge demand for the product and affordable financing.
Arguably it’s the first attempt to take up the broadly accepted idea of where growth could occur in the city. Most of the CityPlan Visions tended to stick the growth ‘over there’ on arterials, but most also agreed to adding townhouses or low apartments around schools and parks. That seemed to be a really good way to add density in the least disruptive way, in the places that would also benefit from the amenity of those facilities. It’s possible to see what that might look like in the Norquay Plan area. The new forms of townhouse there seem to work pretty well, given that we can’t re-create a house with a big private yard for everyone and still achieve a reasonable residential density.
Not all the growth is on transit, or gently boosting the density of the detached home neighbourhoods in Vancouver (They’re really not single family any more). There has been a lot of opportunistic rezoning – but it’s pretty much confined to arterial streets. That’s because part of the Grand Bargain that evolved from the Visions – precursors to plans that didn’t really settle quite how the City of Vancouver would accommodate future growth) – was to reluctantly allow growth on arterials.
Large sites with old motels (Eldorado, right), supermarkets (Granville Safeway, Arbutus Village), old hospitals (Pearson), unwanted transit yards (Oakridge) or underdeveloped malls (Oakridge) allowed large-scale and larger density interventions. Some came from policies in node plans after the Vision – Knight and Kingsway (another ex-Safeway), Main and Broadway from the Mount Pleasant Plan. There were very few of those plans, and rolling them out has been slow and often painful. Housing growth has occurred, often many years after plan approval (like the buildings now being developed from 2nd to 7th on Main), but it isn’t going to be enough meet the ambitious development targets the City says it wants to achieve.**
There are still several really big interventions to come. As well as the previously mentioned Pearson Hospital site, there’s Langara Gardens, the Bus Barns (below), more of River District, more of Southeast False Creek, the whole of Northeast False Creek, and, once there’s a plan, along Broadway.
There should be plans formulated to replace those three-storey aging, energy-challenged rental walk-ups with more dense rental, without forcing tenants into higher rent alternatives. That could yield a lot more rental around Kitsilano, Fairview, the West End and Mount Pleasant, if the City can get it right so it’s not horrendously disruptive to existing tenants.
Outside Vancouver there are still some large sites around SkyTrain stations, which will allow the mega-clusters to grow denser. But to get significant numbers, other municipalities are going to have to renegotiate the Grand Bargain or see dwindling growth, as the easy sites get built out. That won’t be in the immediate future, but in a decade or so it seems possible that with a new Citywide Plan, Vancouver could have a variety of new ways to modestly continue to densify the low density housing areas of the city, and maybe a few bigger moves where transit expansion continues. Will that be true in other municipalities, or will it stay as business as usual?
One really intriguing change on the near horizon is the imminent arrival of 10,000 well paid Amazonites. Will they all live in Senakw, the proposed Squamish Nation project of mostly rental towers. Will there be unmarked shuttles running from their offices above the Georgia Street Post Office over Burrard Bridge? The new arrivals (and there are plenty of other more modest new tech expansions in the wings) could seriously disrupt the affordable housing we have that’s in private hands. The pressure for more rental could be even greater if the dramatic surge in insurance costs for stratas starts to impact the market.
Having lived in London for many years, it’s always amazed me that the owners of old, tired former hotels didn’t gradually run out their tenants floor by floor and refurbish the buildings as ‘the Balmoral and Regent Lofts’ at four times the welfare rate. Only a few landlords have done that, although enough that the stock of welfare rate housing hasn’t expanded as fast as the need.
Getting enough housing to meet the demand is one challenge. Getting the right mix between wefare rate, subsidised social housing, market rental and owned homes is even more difficult.
*In nearly 70 years of CMHC data, housing starts in Vancouver reached 8,500 in only one year, 2016. The average for the past decade is just over 5,000 a year.
**It’s a similar story outside Vancouver. Brentwood Mall, Lougheed Mall, soon Richmond’s biggest mall, underdeveloped retail near Metrotown, and soon Metrotown itself are all seeing projects with a forest of really tall, often large footprint residential towers being added.