As next month’s municipal elections draw closer, debates around development are a common theme throughout Metro Vancouver.
But the nature of the debate varies by municipality, as each faces its own unique challenges. On the North Shore, the focus is the effect of growth on traffic. South of the Fraser, municipalities are struggling to develop without sprawling into rural lands. In Vancouver proper, there are fears of densification leading to the mass bulldozing of residential neighbourhoods.
It’s been seven years — and two mayoral terms — since all 21 Metro Vancouver municipalities unanimously adopted a regional growth strategy calling for 500,000 new homes by 2040 to accommodate the one million additional people expected to arrive in the region.
It took almost four years of work to build a common vision among all the municipalities, said Heather McNell, Metro Vancouver’s director of regional planning.
LISTEN: City columnist Dan Fumano talks about how nine candidates of different political stripes gathered in downtown Vancouver this week to discuss the most important issue, by far, of this year’s election: housing. Dan also details his latest piece on the impacts of housing density in various areas across Metro Vancouver.http://media.blubrry.com/theprovinceindepth/p/archive.org/download/20180914_density/20180914_Density.mp3
“It’s a very high bar when it comes to a shared vision,” McNell said.
While Metro Vancouver works to accommodate tens of thousands of added residents every year, the challenge isn’t unique. According to the United Nations, virtually every country in the world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and “these trends are changing the landscape of human settlement.”
Many goals of Metro’s 2040 plan are on track: By the end of 2016, the region had added 70,000 housing units, an increase of about eight per cent since 2011. And 98 per cent of that development was inside the “urban containment boundary,” meaning not on rural or agricultural land.
“That’s a great coup,” McNell said. About 80 per cent of Metro’s growth in the period was through redevelopment and densification of existing properties. About 20 per cent was construction on previously undeveloped lands, but still mostly within that urban containment boundary, she said.
That compares with the Greater Toronto Area, where it’s a roughly 50-50 split, McNell said, or Calgary, where only 25 per cent of growth is through densification and redevelopment and 75 per cent is on undeveloped lands.
While it’s natural for residents to push back against development, urbanists generally agree that fighting sprawl is necessary.
Andy Yan, director of SFU’s City Program, said the Vancouver region has, generally, done an admirable job of “keeping that serpent of sprawl in check.”
“By containing yourself, you’re able to maximize your infrastructure spend,” Yan said. Containing sprawl not only “improves your ecological footprint,” he said, but also “keeps a good fiscal house in order.”
“‘Vancouverism’ is an internationally known term that describes a new kind of city living,” the city’s website proclaims. “Vancouverism means tall slim towers for density, widely separated by low-rise buildings.”
But while that describes the glass towers for which the downtown core is famous, most of Vancouver’s residential land has, for decades, been zoned exclusively for suburban-style single-family houses.
Now that could be changing. And depending on who you ask, it’s either a radical measure that will ruin the city or a long overdue attempt to make it more equitable.
In June, Vancouver council launched a housing policy called Making Room, seeking to provide more housing options in residential land zoned for so-called “single-family houses.”
It will mean exploring changing zoning across most of Vancouver’s residential land to allow medium-density options, including fourplexes and four-storey apartment buildings, housing types urban planners sometime call the “missing middle” between single-family homes and highrises.
Citywide zoning changes resulting from the policy will be decided by those who are elected next month — June’s council vote directed city staff to report back with “specific recommendations for change by June 2019.”
But Vancouver’s current mayor and council are considering “quick-start actions,” most notably opening nearly all of the city’s single-family zones to duplexes. Council is expected to vote on that shortly.
The plan has already drawn debate, as illustrated by a pair of recent Vancouver Sun commentary pieces. In July, a private sector project manager, Elizabeth Murphy, likened the proposed zoning changes to a “Chainsaw Massacre,” writing: “Demolition of our character neighbourhoods will escalate with proposed policies to rezone the entire city.” Days earlier, housing activist Reilly Wood wrote: “For Vancouverites already comfortably housed, preventing neighbourhood change is often more important than making room for newcomers. But for the rest of us, Making Room is essential and not remotely radical.”
This tension is likely to be reflected in election debates. By Wood’s estimation, “Making Room is about to become the biggest issue in Vancouver’s October election.”
The large field of candidates for Vancouver mayor this year have a range of opinions on Making Room. While some support the plan’s direction, none of the candidates newly seeking office said they’d support it next week if they were on council.
Independent candidate Kennedy Stewart said he favoured deferring a decision until after the election.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of things like duplexes in single-family neighbourhoods,” Stewart said. “But the public needs to have confidence that this plan will boost affordability and not fuel speculation. That’s why I think changes this big should be left to the next mayor and council.”
The Non-Partisan Association candidate, Ken Sim, said he wouldn’t support the amendments before council next week because he believes “the process is flawed,” although he said: “More density is crucial as our population grows, but we can do that in a way that strengthens our city instead of dividing our neighbourhoods against each other.”
Independent candidate Shauna Sylvester also said she couldn’t support Making Room as it is, adding: “This policy will only increase supply and wealth for landowners but does not actually help those in need of housing without those affordability mechanisms, which I have included and addressed in my housing platform.”
The only sitting councillor running for mayor, Coun. Hector Bremner, won’t comment on how he plans to vote on the matter before Tuesday’s public hearing. But he voted to move forward with Making Room in June, and its direction is largely consistent with his message about increasing housing supply, including, in his words, “a plan to take the lid off Vancouver’s exclusionary zoning.”
Asked recently if he supports the Making Room plan approved by the Vision-majority council, he replied: “Given that it’s what I ran on in (last year’s byelection), yes. I’m glad Vision sought to adopt this approach, even though they opposed it initially. However, I fear that this is more of an attempt at politics than actual policy making.”
Other mayoral candidates oppose Making Room. ProVancouver’s David Chen said his party opposes the plan, “as it creates an open season for developers and in the absence of a city wide community plan, it unleashes uncoordinated development.”
Coalition Vancouver’s Wai Young called Making Room “a reckless plan,” saying it “will drastically and forever change the character of the vast majority of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.”
Such criticisms of liberalizing zoning in single-family neighbourhoods sound “very familiar” to Dan Bertolet, a Seattle-based researcher with the >Sightline Institute, a public policy think-tank.
“To characterize it as a developer giveaway, it’s discounting the fact the city needs more homes,” said Bertolet. Some U.S. cities have toyed with the idea of unlocking single-family zoning, he said, and “in general, urbanists see that as a really important piece of helping to create more equitable cities over the long term, sort of undoing the mistakes of the past when cities locked down huge chunks of their land for single-family houses only, thereby making sure the only kind of housing is relatively expensive.”
In a recent article for Sightline, Bertolet wrote: “If Vancouver’s elected officials can weather the inevitable political storm and put an end to restrictive single-family zoning, their city will set an example for cities throughout North America.”
Between 2011 and 2016, the population of the North Shore — West Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver — increased around 0.68 per cent annually, census data show, almost half the regional annual average. During that period, West Vancouver’s population declined.
But zeroing in on the City of North Vancouver, the numbers tell a different story. The city of 12 square kilometres around Lonsdale Avenue had an annual growth rate of 1.96 per cent, about 50 per cent above the regional average.
That pace of development earned four-term Mayor Darrell Mussatto the nickname Density Darrell. And all that densification — and particularly its impact on people’s ability to get to, from, and around the North Shore — figures to be a big part of this election.
Density Darrell isn’t seeking reelection, but opponents of mayoral candidate Coun. Linda Buchanan paint her as the heir to his legacy. Buchanan said while she has her own vision for the city, she largely defends its direction during Mussatto’s mayoralty.
Her top opponents this year — former Coun. Guy Heywood, sitting Coun. Rod Clark, and local businessman Kerry Morris — have all criticized the pace of development and promised to scale it back.
The key issue appears to be around development’s effect on traffic. While housing affordability is an issue on the North Shore like elsewhere in Metro Vancouver, a poll commissioned this year by the District of North Vancouver found almost twice as many respondents identified traffic and transportation as a top issue over affordable housing.
“We have gridlocked ourselves,” said Morris, who came within 900 votes of unseating Mussatto in the 2014 election. “We haven’t planned our community to deal with the density we are now faced with.”
“If you walk around this community and you look at a person of the age of 45 or 50, and you say: ‘Hey, how do you like your community?’ They will almost to a man or woman tell you: ‘I hate it. I hate this traffic, I hate all this density.”
Asked if he ever hears from North Van residents under the age of 45 who actually like the more urban feel that more density has brought to North Van, Morris acknowledged that “maybe even 50 per cent would give you: yes, they do like it. But, yes with a reservation: yes, but there’s no parking.”
Heywood was a two-term North Van City councillor before deciding not to run for reelection four years ago, to focus on his work in finance. Now, he wants to return to public service as mayor.
Morris and Heywood both say North Van’s city hall has been unduly influenced in recent years by developers.
“We’re not big enough to earn the attention of TransLink, that’s all going to go to the Broadway corridor (subway) and the Surrey light rail,” Heywood said. “Yes, it’s a big problem across the region, but each part of the region has a different ability to take that burden. And up until now, the City of North Vancouver has taken a disproportionate piece of the burden, and North Vancouver as a whole is paying the price.”
For her part, Buchanan said she’s proud of her work on council the past two terms alongside Mussatto, adding: “For myself, as mayor, I’ll want to build on those successes, even as we confront some of the issues of affordability and traffic that, in reality, all communities are struggling with.”
Buchanan pointed to the Shipyards redevelopment, new public spaces, active transportation routes, and cultural amenities that North Van has added in recent years, calling them “all those things that create a really urban, vibrant place to be.”
“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we can stop, and put the brakes on things,” Buchanan said. “I think most people actually like the vibrancy.”
A long-awaited report on North Shore transportation was released this week. Among other findings, the report noted the North Shore — once a bedroom community for those commuting to downtown — has added more than twice as many jobs as working-age residents since 2011.
The city needs to provide more housing for everyone from downsizing seniors to young workers wanting to live near their jobs, Buchanan said, adding: “We need to find those creative solutions to find the right type of housing … to support the people that want to be living in our community. And it’s going to probably be a different built form than what was in previous generations.”
South of Fraser
While the pace of densification speeds up in Vancouver and North Van, the lion’s share of population growth is happening south of the Fraser River.
Between 2011 and 2016, the jurisdictions south of the Fraser River — Surrey, the City and Township of Langley, Delta and White Rock — took 45 per cent of Metro’s regional population growth, more than double the 19 per cent in the City of Vancouver.
And while Surrey has a larger geographic area than Vancouver or North Van, its local government must navigate competing land uses, as well as the edges of that “urban containment boundary” that Metro planners like McNell emphasize.
Surrey’s South Campbell Heights provides one example of such challenges. Earlier this year, Surrey approached Metro Vancouver with a development proposal. As part of an effort to develop South Campbell Heights, Surrey needed Metro Vancouver approval because the city’s proposal sought, among other things, to extend the urban containment boundary and re-designate 235 hectares of rural land for potential industrial and residential uses.
In May, Metro’s board sent Surrey’s proposal back to the drawing board. John Becker, mayor of Pitt Meadows, called it “not just a bad precedent in Surrey, but more importantly to all of the other municipalities in Metro Vancouver. … I am tired of hearing from the development community that the regional growth strategy and urban containment boundary are like an Etch-A-Sketch, and you simply turn it upside down and give it a shake and redraft it at will.”
Surrey Coun. Tom Gill, also a Metro director and Surrey First’s mayoral candidate this year, said Surrey city staff consulted, for years, with community groups and others, and the proposal, including the amendments to the containment boundary, was their best attempt at a compromise.
“This is the conundrum that we’re in. I knew that Metro Vancouver would have a problem with these lands being residential,” Gill said this week. “But given the concerns of the landowners, the concerns of the ratepayers’ association in that neighbourhood, the concerns of the environmental groups, they all do not align in terms of a solution that’s going to be fully acceptable to every group.”
Surrey Coun. Bruce Hayne was a member of Gill’s Surrey First party at the time of the South Campbell Heights proposal earlier this year, but he’s since split with the party to run against Gill for the mayor. Hayne said he supported the South Campbell Heights proposal at council with the proviso that it would not be “the beginning of further development to the east.”
In general, Hayne said: “The pace of development in Surrey has been fast, however, slowing that pace would adversely affect housing affordability.”
Another mayoral candidate, Doug McCallum, who wasn’t on Surrey council at the time of the South Campbell proposal, criticized his opponent, saying: “Tom Gill’s attempt to amend the regional growth strategy was misguided.”
McCallum, a former mayor of Surrey, said he was glad Metro’s directors “carefully” considered the urban containment boundaries and rejected the proposal, which he said would have hurt the environmental.
Meanwhile, Proudly Surrey’s mayoral candidate, Pauline Greaves, also agreed with Metro’s rejection of the proposal, saying it “would have set a dangerous precedent around land-use.”
With a file from Jennifer Saltman
Dwellings and population, for selected municipalities
- Figures for past years are from census data and municipal governments
- Projections for 2021 are from municipalities’ Regional Context Statements submitted to Metro Vancouver
2012 dwelling units: 164,935
2017 dwelling units: 191,790
2021 projected dwelling units (as of 2014): 199,950
2021 projected dwelling units (revised projection as of 2018): 208,320
2012 population: 502,725
2017 population: 557,310
2021 projected population (as of 2013): 593,600
2021 projected population (revised as of 2018): 598,580
2011 occupied units: 264,573
2016 occupied units: 283,916
2021 projected units (as of 2013): 309,000
2011 population: 603,502
2016 population: 631,486
2021 projected population (as of 2013): 685,000
2011 dwelling units: 91,383
2016 dwelling units: 98,030
2021 projected dwelling units (as of 2013): 117,800
2011 population: 223,218
2016 population: 232,755
2021 projected population (as of 2013): 270,000
NORTH VANCOUVER CITY
2011 dwelling units: 24,206
2016 dwelling units: 24,645
2021 projected units (as of 2015): 25,600
2011 population: 48,168
2016 population: 52,898
2021 projected population (as of 2015): 56,000
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