PT reader Peter C sent in this thoughtful comment in response to the post by Sandy James on Planning director Gil Kelley’s departure.
If I understand correctly, you connect our last 15 years of planning department turmoil (three directors in 15 years) to changes that occurred under Vision Vancouver.
I wonder if the differences between the 3.5 decades of Spaxman/McAfee/Beasley and the 1.5 decades of Toderian/Jackson/Kelley can also be connected to the immense housing affordability pressures that have been building for the past 50 years, but which became considerably worse starting around the mid-2000s. These pressures can be tied to several factors, but one of the key drivers of this affordability crisis has to be the extremely restrictive zoning laws that have been virtually unchanged for the past century on the 80% of our residential land that is zoned RS/RT.
Apart from the 1950s-1960s, when a tiny handful of existing low-density neighbourhoods were upzoned (parts of Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, Marpole, and Strathcona), City politicians and planners have left single family neighbourhoods largely untouched.
Around the time that Spaxman began, the City developed/upzoned the following areas: South False Creek between the bridges (formerly industrial lands), Fairview Slopes (after the DTES, the poorest area of Vancouver at the time, so any changes there faced very little effective pushback), and Champlain Heights (the former Vancouver landfill, and otherwise undeveloped at the time). The general attitude at the time of South False Creek and Champlain Heights, based on quotes from Walter Hardwick, was that the rest of the city was basically already built-out. In other words, the 80% of residential lands that had been zoned for single family were to be left untouched.
Under McAfee/Beasley, a similar process continued: upzone/rezone industrial lands, leave the vast majority of residential SFH untouched. Yaletown/downtown/North False Creek were rezoned/developed (and they did a fantastic job on those areas), smaller sections like Arbutus Walk were rezoned (also a fan, but this area was all industrial prior to rezoning), and I’m guessing the initial planning for the River District south of Champlain Heights was started around this time (also industrial lands).
Yes, McAfee lead the CityPlan process of the 90s, but I’d argue this was largely a failure in terms of preparing the city for the future: for most of the single family zones in the City, it resulted in vision/guideline documents that called for effectively zero change.
Spaxman, McAfee and Beasley were largely successful in upzoning/rezoning parts of Vancouver that had no existing residential housing on them. The handful of areas that did see upzonings/rezonings (Fairview Slopes, Joyce Collingwood) were at the bottom end of the income/wealth scale, so incumbent residents were largely ignored. They were also coasting on several decades of federal funding/support for large volumes of social and rental housing from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. This support dwindled during the 1980s, and fell away completely after the mid 1990s.
Toderian/Jackson/Kelley have had to deal with a very different city, one that is reaching the limits of the “Grand Bargain” that Gordon Price has described. At 50-60 storeys, we are reaching the limits of high rise tower developments on the few slivers of land available for high density (yes, we could try aiming for New York style heights, but initial reports from that city would indicate that these types of towers face immense engineering challenges, especially in our earthquake prone region). We’re adding in density where it already exists (West End), and along arterials.
Toderian brought in laneways, as an attempt to densify that 80% of Vancouver that is still SFH, but that was about as gentle a densification as one could aim for. Kelley, as Kevin Quinlan claims, may have brought about the “end” of single family zoning in Vancouver, but the Duplex bylaw change in 2018 was a change in name only. The allowable FSR for any new duplexes on RS lots is less than the allowable FSR for a new SFH plus laneway.
Duplex zoning aside, I’m not aware of anything that Kelley was able to do in terms of upzoning/rezoning low-density SFH. He probably faced so much pushback from certain members of the current Council that he avoided attempts at ‘speaking truth to power’.
I’d argue that Spaxman, McAfee, and Beasley were able to have constructive, effective discussions with city managers and city politicians because they didn’t really have to have difficult discussions around upzoning RS/RT areas. Toderian, Jackson, and Kelley didn’t have that luxury.
I don’t know how/if we’ll see any improvements in this relationship between Council and planners.
Council needs to acknowledge that they aren’t architects or planners, and stop micromanaging every single multi-family development application (the latest Kits project being yet another glaring example). It also needs to grasp that a majority of Vancouverites are open and ready for more density. From the Daily Hive:
“The survey found that 71% of Vancouverites think the municipal government should allow the construction of duplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, and three-to-four storey apartment buildings in areas where only single-family homes are currently permitted.”
There’s really only one or two members of council that are ready to accept/embrace the above, so I hold little hope of any change before October 2022.
At the same time, City Planning needs to be honest and direct with itself, and with Council, about the profoundly negative impacts of restrictive RS/RT zoning on most of the City’s residential lands. Kelley wasn’t even able to mention restrictive zoning as a cause of our affordability crisis in his reply to Council’s motion (Recalibrating the Housing Vancouver Strategy) last summer. That has to change if we’re to have any hope of solving this crisis.