Over the weekend I had an article published at Fortune.com that explores how North Shore property developers are adapting their businesses to survive a District of North Vancouver council that has refused to approve any multi-unit housing of any sort. What I didn’t expect was that the story would wind up putting a human face on people who are usually presented as big bad faceless corporate monsters.
Included in the article is Oliver Webbe, president of the Darwin Group, who started the development side of their family business specifically to build projects on the North Shore, and who is now sitting on several pieces of land that he can’t touch. His approach is to just wait out the current council until they either change, or at least change their minds.
“In all honesty, it hasn’t changed our direction or what our vision is for our projects,” he says. “We’re staying the course. The reality is when you’ve got a considerably new council, it’s going to take a bit of time for them to get up to speed with policies that had already been in place for 10 years before they were elected.”
The other person that I talked to was Robert Brown, vice-president of the non-profit Catalyst Community Developments Society. Catalyst had been invited by the previous District council to develop a six story subsidized housing project with senior’s respite facility on land owned by the District. After several rounds of approvals and public meetings the near final plan was rejected wholesale by the council elected in 2018. Brown explained to me that this rejection cost his organization several hundred thousand dollars – not an insignificant sum for a non-profit. His big frustration though was that he’d heard nothing from the District since the vote to shut the Catalyst project down.
“The strangest thing about this is that we went through that process, it got turned down, and we have never received a single phone call or correspondence from anybody at the district to say, ‘Would you like to discuss this? Would you like to revamp the proposal?’”
The thing that really struck me while reporting this was the genuine frustration that both Brown and Webbe felt. They believe that they have played by the rules, have done everything that was asked of them, and that they have acted in good faith. Both of them strived to build below-market housing, to preserve or add more rental housing, and to build projects that will enhance the communities around them.
Those members of council who responded to requests for comments (Lisa Muri, who famously described meetings with Darwin as “keep your enemies close,” had nothing to say.) consistently talked about “traffic, environmental degradation in the form of forest devastation, and a general sense by residents that the project was out of step with their vision of their local community.” The other notable response was from first-time council member and Deep Cove resident Megan Curren who wouldn’t comment on development questions, but instead chose to criticize Fortune for celebrating capitalism.
At the end of all of this, I walk away with a reminder that finger-pointing and name-calling do not build strong communities. Instead, it is critical that all of us, and especially the politicians that we elect to represent us, need to remember that inside every corporation or non-profit group are living, breathing human beings, and that decisions which may look politically savvy do have repercussions on people, businesses, and on individuals far removed from the vocal community associations that tend to dominate these discussions.Read more »