History & Heritage
January 23, 2020

Outpouring of Support for City of Vancouver Proclamation for Mount Pleasant’s Davis Family

This week I wrote about the City of Vancouver turning down recognition of the Davis Family who transformed the 100 block of West Tenth Avenue, and who worked tirelessly to bring in the Mount Pleasant zoning that supported maintaining the area’s Edwardian and Victorian houses. Way before the City of Vancouver launched laneway houses, the Davis Family was already making rental units available in the houses they saved from demolition, and oh yes, they built a few laneway houses too.

Every time I think of the Davis Family and their three generations that have promoted neighbourliness and community building I come up with a new initiative they pioneered. One was eliminating the harsh “crotch dropping” of mature street trees to allow for the unfettered access to hydro lines in the trees. The Davis family refused to allow BC Hydro to butcher their street trees, taking the keys to the offending  tree cutting vehicles and not giving them back. The compromise  was taken forward to  City of Vancouver council,  and that was raising the hydro lines in mature trees so that the trees were not brutally altered. That is now civic policy  for mature tree canopies.

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I have written before about  the Davis Family and their remarkable work on the 100 block of West Tenth Avenue. You know the block~instead of indulging in cash-cropping existing Edwardian and Victorian houses into three storey walkups during the 1970’s and 1980’s this extraordinary family restored them. At that time renovating very old houses and using them for  rental accommodation was not the thing to do.

But the Davis Family led by John Senior (who passed away in the 1980’s)  and his wife Nita (Pat)  with sons John and Geoff persevered, and over five decades the extraordinary streetscape of the 100 block of West Tenth emerged.

Pat Davis passed away last summer and it seemed like the right thing to do to ask the City of Vancouver to do a proclamation in February of 2020 to have a day during “Heritage Week” designated as “Davis Family Day”.  There were several reasons for my request~not only did the Davis Family renovate this block and provide rental housing, they stewarded it, and it made sense to get their community building and volunteerism in the civic record for future generations. They were also instrumental in the development of the zoning for this entire area of Mount Pleasant.

The Davis family maintained the street and helped their neighbourhood. Pat or her son John would be out sweeping the sidewalk and picking garbage off the road in the early morning. There was a bicycle with a basketful of flowers next to a city tree, and two adirondack chairs if someone wanted to sit next to the grassed boulevard. They welcomed neighbours and community.

The Davis Family were involved in all of Mount Pleasant’s planning processes in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The RT-6 zoning in the area was a result of their own work, where existing Victorian houses could be renovated into several units with a coach house in the back.  Laneway houses were also originally a Davis Family innovation.

It seemed a slam dunk for the City to recognize the extraordinary contribution of this family to conserving Mount Pleasant’s history and contributing so greatly to community neighbourliness.  I thought a proclamation to have the Davis Family stewardship in the civic record would be a good thing. But I was wrong.

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Andy Coupland was the go-to guy for stats and data at Vancouver City Hall – and who periodically visits Price Tags with comments and corrections.  With John Atkin, he’s been giving us great insights on our past in Changing Vancouver, and on our present in Changing City Updates.

We asked Andy to do a background to The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

So here’s the first post in an Andy Coupland Primer:

 

THE NUMBERS

Metro Vancouver isn’t growing any bigger geographically.  But every year its population grows by an average of over 30,000.  So in the past 30 years, over a million extra people have been added, to reach the current population of around 2.5 million.

The City of Vancouver has grown too – 200,000 more people in the same 30-year period.

Some ask: does the City of Vancouver need to add any more people? Others are outraged that the City limits development anywhere.

A reasonable approach fits into the middle somewhere: we can’t or shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge, but there has to be a managed growth that doesn’t encourage Random Acts of Density in locations where services are inadequate.

 

Within the 2,870 square kilometers of the region, two thirds is effectively off-limits for development.*

That means that effectively there are only 837 square kilometers of land where development can occur (29% of the total Metro area). Within this relatively limited area, less than 10% is ‘green field’ land.

The result: in all the region, only 78 square kilometres have never been developed – an area somewhat smaller than the City of Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver has only has five percent of the region’s total land area – just 116 sq. km.  And less than 12 percent of it is developable area.

By the 1990s almost everywhere in the City of Vancouver had already been built on.  In a few spots in downtown, the buildings being constructed today are the fifth on the site, despite the city’s relatively short history.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver added on average around 5,600 people a year between 2011 and 2016** despite having almost all the developable land already built out and the highest population density of all the region’s municipalities.

Yet in the same time period, the city also saw an average of 5,500 new homes added every year. At first, that just sounds wrong – almost a new home for every new resident? There are several reasons.

The 5,500 is not net growth – about a thousand homes a year are demolished and almost always replaced by other ones. So only 4,500 additional homes are added each year. But not all of those were occupied with new residents – at least, not in 2016. Some had ‘non-permanent’ residents – students studying here; temporary foreign workers. Some were used as pied-a-terre; some were second homes, some business-owned.  Some are occupied by suburban parents to use a couple of times a week when commuting home was inconvenient. A few were owned by wealthy foreigners with multiple homes around the globe. Some were on AirBnB. Some were vacant, awaiting sale or recently completed.  A few were bought purely as an inflating investment, with rising value offsetting taxes and strata fees.

Conclusion: in five years there were just over 3,000 more dwellings in the city not occupied by usual residents.

It’s not a huge number, but in a city with very low vacant rental rate and a serious affordability problem, it was considered to be a problem worth trying to tackle. So the City of Vancouver, and then the Province (and soon the Federal Government) are taxing homes that aren’t occupied either by the owner or a tenant. Non-residents pay higher taxes. AirBnB (and similar platforms) are being pursued; the rules about how much of a home can be offered as a vacation rental, and for how long, have been tightened up and are being applied. The CRA is going after speculators who buy and resell properties in a rising market,

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I do hope that those advocating tax relief for ‘small business’ understand that the proposal from the provincial government is a lot muddier than it looks.

The province says the interim legislation would allow municipalities to exempt a portion of the value of a subset of commercial properties from taxation, easing the tax burden for tenants responsible for property taxes through their commercial leases.

If I understand the intent, the City would be able to exempt or reduce the tax on that part of an assessed parcel which has not been developed – the so-called “unused airspace”.   If the zoning allowed a ten-storey building, but there was only a one-storey storefront on the site, presumably the City would reduce the assessment or forgive the amount valued on the ‘unused’ part.

A few things to keep in mind:

The exemption directly benefits the property owner, not the tenant, unless the latter also owns the property.  Presumably ‘small’ businesses (whatever they are) would see a drop in their ‘triple-net leases’ from the landlord which includes the property taxes, though in fact it’s the owner who pays the property tax directly to the City.  And it’s the owner who could well see the market price of the site increase as a result of this exemption of unused density.  (Also, listen to the “This is Vancolour” interview with Tom Davidoff, who explains how our low residential property tax rates have contributed to our unaffordability.)

It may also encourage further speculation since the holding costs will go down as the asset value (hopefully) goes up.  The lower those holding costs, like property tax, the longer the speculator has to appreciate the increase in capital gain, the less need to redevelop the underutilized land, and the more desirable the property for speculative purposes.

Secondly, there is a reason why the ‘unused’ part of a site is included in the assessment: it’s a very real part of the value.  ‘Density’ (or FSR) is not measured by current use but as potential development, whether realized or not.  No owner of a property is going to sell at a price lower than what the market would pay because the site hasn’t been built out to the maximum possible. Nor is a buyer going to get away with offering less since what is being bought and sold is that potential, not just current uses.

The Assessment Authority determines what the market will pay on a given date when it evaluates the property’s worth.  That’s the whole point of a market-based assessment system, which has very significant benefits with respect to objectivity, simplicity and transparency.

If the City accepts the Province’s offer, it’s going to be in the subjective (and probably not very transparent) business of deciding what is ‘small’, what is ‘legacy,’ what is ‘unused,’ not to mention who it will tax (or what services to cut) to make up the difference.  It will get ugly, and there will be unintended consequences.  (If a business has ten employees, does it become big when it has eleven?  If it has two outlets, does it becomes a chain at three, and hence just another Starbucks?)

At the moment, the City can pass off the subjectivity and complications of assessments because it doesn’t do that job.  It’s the reason why we have a separate provincial authority to set the value of each individual property, since it’s less subject to political pressure.  The City’s job is to set the overall tax rates, which vary by class of property (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.) but not to vary the tax rate within a class.

Now it looks like it is going to wade into this very messy territory, which will soon begin to feel more like quicksand than an attempt to drain the swamp.

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It’s not often that a political columnist will delve into the details of urban and regional planning.  Those are weeds too thick for most readers.  

But Sun Victoria correspondent Vaughn Palmer did so today, perhaps because he got fed a report on what could be, in fact, a pretty big deal: a direction for the urban and economic planning of British Columbia. 

If taken seriously, backed up with action and able to survive changes in governments, it could be for the province what the first regional planning was the GVRD (now Metro Vancouver) in the 1970s.  That is from whence came the Livable Region Plan, or ‘Cities in a Sea of Green.’   We adopted it, stuck to it, and a half century later can the results.  It worked out pretty well.

This ‘economic framework’ is more the structure on which such a plan could be built.  It seems to be a result of departmental thinking aligned with the priorities and strategies of the government – in other words, not just an NDP political exercise to justify what they wanted to do anyway. 

Following are excepts from Palmer’s column, found here in its entirety.

 

An economic framework recently distributed by the provincial government outlines strategies to accommodate future population, trade and business growth. Key elements of the plan include developing Surrey as a “second downtown” for Metro. ECONOMIC PLAN CALLS FOR DISPERSING GROWTH

The John Horgan government has adopted an economic plan to shift growth and investment away from Vancouver and toward less congested parts of the province.   … Key elements will promote the development of Surrey as a “second downtown” for Metro Vancouver, anchoring a “growth corridor” extending into the Fraser Valley.

Part and parcel of that push will see development of an updated transportation and regional land-use plan in co-operation with local governments.

While the plan mentions few specifics, it does quote favourably from a recent B.C. Business Council paper, which called for “a new Fraser Valley innovation corridor anchored by a commuter rail system running from Chilliwack to the city of Vancouver.”

“Squamish, the Tri-Cities, Delta, Tsawwassen, Langford” (yes, Horgan’s hometown) “and others offer significant advantages for technology startups or satellite office locations …  “Kamloops, Rossland, Nelson, Canal Flats, Campbell River and many others are seeing transformational growth in the technology sector from businesses and workers purposefully seeking out the cost and lifestyle advantages of a smaller community, while staying connected to their B.C. and global customers through high-speed internet.” …

To help persuade investors to locate operations in the north, the province cites access to “B.C.’s clean affordable hydroelectric grid that can power industrial development.”  The latter pitch depends in part on successful completion of the hydroelectric dam at Site C on the Peace River. The New Democrats discounted the project as unnecessary during their opposition days, but it now dovetails conveniently with their new economic strategy. …

Also in the works is “a regional inventory of investment-ready opportunities, including transportation, energy, educational, internet connectivity, community and other infrastructure needed to support quality economic growth.”

But the inventory is no more public than the plan itself, which, as noted here Tuesday, was crafted mainly for the eyes of the public service and selected stakeholders. …

As to the rationale for all this, the plan notes that the province is scheduled to add a million people over the next 30 years. …

“B.C.’s population grew by close to a million people, with much of the population increase concentrated in the Lower Mainland.”

The region was unprepared for growth of that scale.

“Demand for housing, public services and infrastructure exceeded supply, with particularly acute impacts for housing affordability. Higher demand led to sharp increases in the cost of rental and market housing, and those with lower incomes were squeezed out — or sometimes forced out through ‘renoviction’ — of housing they could no longer afford. Families moved farther away from their work in order to find housing within their means, resulting in longer commute times and growing congestion problems.” …

The fallout from runaway and unplanned growth is one reason why the New Democrats picked up 10 seats in Metro Vancouver in the last election and the B.C.

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It is not often that a  Vancouver person’s  working life has a half century of documentation and film.  In 1964 Vern Frick was documented in this YouTube video which was produced for CBC and described his daily work as a postman. In the video he stops on Granville Street for his morning coffee. The original postal station D was on Broadway close to Fir Street, and you can see the Fir Street off ramp for the Granville Bridge in the video below. You also see a different Vancouver, with wooden houses, front porches, and a mailman who knows everyone on his route.

Vern Frick later worked as a postal inspector and ended up in safety management with the Post Office. Although he retired over 20 years ago from the post office, he kept on with his second job which was as an usher with the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition). And what a life he experienced with that job. This  2018 article by Susan Lazarek with the Vancouver Sun describes Vern as the “longest-serving employee of the PNE, who has been on shift as a part-time usher for virtually all the shows at the annual exhibition venues since the summer of 1963, is working his last shift on Labour Day.”

He was at the Beatles concert as an usher in August 22, 1964 (which ended after twenty minutes when fans rushed the stage).

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With thanks to Duke of Data Andy Yan for the reference, here’s a memory for those of a Certain Age that were taking transit in Vancouver in the 1980’s and 1990’s. At that time, the city seemed to be covered with ubiquitous places where you could get muffins, most near transit hubs. Muffin shops also carried coffee, not the fancy stuff of Starbuck’s creativity but the kind that came straight out of a glass carafe, and usually had the consistency of caramel.

Karon Liu in the Star wrote last spring about the muffin trend, stating that “the bar (was) set by Toronto-based muffin chain Mmmuffins (full name: Marvellous Mmmuffins). In the chain’s ’80s and early ’90s heydays, almost every Canadian mall had a location that offered a rotating menu of flavours. Everyone had their favourite: some liked the cornmeal muffin, others peach bran, while my mom loved the seldom-seen pineapple muffin…”

Marvellous Mmmuffins started in 1979, was franchised, and peaked in the 1980 to 1990 years. By 2019, what was once a bevy of stores had shrunk to only two with one of them, the Second Cup, picking up on the new trend towards espresso and specialty coffee.

It may seem a weird trend now where people are careful about ingesting carbohydrates , but in the late 1980’s Liu observes that the muffin had the three ingredients necessary for the  “yuppie” (“Young Urban Professional”) lifestyle.

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The New York Times published a wonderfully interactive perspective on “A Decade of Urban Transformation” – the changes in the American urban landscape (with enough applicability to much of urban Canada), as seen from above.

 

Vast new exurbs have been carved from farmland, and once-neglected downtowns have come to life again. The tech industry has helped remake entire city neighborhoods, and it has dotted the landscape with strange new beasts, in data centers and fulfillment hubs.

The Exurbs Boom Again

At the beginning of this decade, for a short period after the housing bust, it looked as if the exurbs were over. Housing construction and population growth there ground to a halt. Briefly, central cities and denser suburbs were growing faster than exurbia. But the exurbs eventually boomed again, a pattern we can see in rings of new development around most major metro areas in this map, especially in the Sun Belt:

For more images:

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Planning for Non-Planners: What You Need to Know About Community Planning

What you’ll learn

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Describe key objectives of the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy and other region-wide initiatives
  • Explain the basic process and structure of urban plans and policies in municipalities
  • Identify the tools planners can use to influence development of communities

3 Thursday evenings: March 2, 9, 16

6:30–9:30 p.m.

SFU Harbour Centre

Instructor: Eric Aderneck, VP Planning and Development, iFortune Homes Inc.; Industrial Land-Use Planning Consultant

Register now

 

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I have been writing about Leading Pedestrian Intervals  (LPIs) and spoke on CBC Radio this month about why this innovation should be adopted everywhere.

For a nominal cost of $1,200 per intersection, crossing lights are reprogrammed to give pedestrians anywhere from a three to ten second start to cross the street before vehicular traffic is allowed to proceed through a crosswalk. There are over 2,238  of these leading pedestrian crossing intervals installed in New York City where their transportation policies prioritize the safety of walkers over vehicular movement. New York City had a 56 percent decrease in pedestrian and cyclist collisions at locations where LPIs were installed. NACTO, the National Organization of City and Transportation Officials estimates that LPIs can reduce pedestrian crashes by 60 percent.

Since 75 percent of Vancouver’s pedestrian crashes happen in intersections, and since most of the fatal pedestrian crashes involve seniors, it just makes sense to implement this simple change to stop injuries and to save lives.

There has not been much political will in the City of Vancouver to adopt Leading Pedestrian Intervals, and there are only a  handful in the city. Kudos to the City of Surrey’s Road Safety Manager Shabnem Afzal who has tirelessly led a Vision Zero Plan (no deaths on the roads) and has been behind the installation of Leading Pedestrian Intervals at over seventy Surrey intersections.

As reported by CBC’s Jesse Johnston, Leading Pedestrian Intervals  “allows pedestrians to establish their right of way in the crosswalk.”

Quoting Ms. Afzal, “”It puts pedestrians into the crosswalk far enough to make them more visible to drivers. We normally implement them around T-intersections where there may be a potential for conflict between a vehicle and a pedestrian…It is a no-brainer really that we have to try and protect those most vulnerable road users. Especially given that it’s low cost and we can implement LPIs anywhere where there’s actually a signal.

Kudos to Surrey and to Road Safety Manager Ms. Afzal for getting this done.

When can we expect the same kind of response  from the City of Vancouver?

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