‘Ecodensity’ Mayor Sam’s Newest Plan

By The Vancouver Sun,  June 17, 2006

Vancouver needs to become home to many more people than the 700,000 currently planned for the city if it is to help save the planet.

That was the message from Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan Friday, as he launched an “ecodensity Vancouver” initiative aimed at getting residents to accept the idea of more people in all of the city’s 115 square kilometres, not just the downtown.

“I would like us to decide that densification is official city policy,” said Sullivan, whose announcement comes on the eve of the United Nations World Urban Forum, which is focused on ways to make cities more environmentally friendly for the future.

“We know that we are living in a way that is unsustainable. If everybody lived the way we did, it would take three to four planets to sustain us.”

Framing his initiative in the language of environmentalism and the “ecological footprint” concept that was developed here in B.C., Sullivan said even though the city has been through a decade-long planning process aimed at increasing housing choices and density, Vancouver can do more.

“I think we may see people be a little bit more ambitious, we may see people making a little bit different choices,” said Sullivan, who added that he wants to see high-quality density brought to other city neighbourhoods, and not just downtown.

Sullivan’s announcement was praised by environmentalists, academics, a developer and a community representative.

“The most important thing you can do to make a more sustainable world is to add the D word, density, to your city,” said Patrick Condon, a University of B.C. professor who champions sustainable urban development.

Michael Geller, a developer currently overseeing the creation of Simon Fraser University’s new residential neighbourhood, said it’s not just about the environment, either. It’s also about providing people with affordable housing and a chance to stay in their neighbourhoods once they don’t want to take care of a big single-family house any more.

“I suspect some people might say the mayor is doing this for the developers. But I believe he’s doing it for the people who are leaving the city because they can’t afford it,” Geller said.

But it’s not clear what exactly will happen, since Sullivan didn’t announce goals, set targets or even suggest specific options that Vancouver might consider on top of what it is currently doing.

Instead, the mayor stressed that he is just launching a process.

That’s due partly to political reality.

In spite of the quasi-prime ministerial ambience at Sullivan’s announcement, mayors in Canada can’t make unilateral decisions, since they represent only one vote and have no formal powers beyond that.

It’s also for strategic reasons. Sullivan has been interested in pushing for greater city densification for most of his political career and he started off a few months ago wanting to do something more dramatic and definitive. But he was urged by many not to set up a confrontational situation with nervous residents who might be stampeded into a backlash if he started talking about number targets or whole-scale rezonings.

What he can do is make announcements like this one, which spark debate and create momentum for councillors and residents to make decisions in the next few years that can bring about change.

The first comes June 27, when council will decide how to deploy five teams of planners that are now available. By putting those planners into the work of neighbourhood rezonings, the city can set the stage for new development.

Sullivan’s NPA teammate, Coun. Suzanne Anton, will introduce a motion to council in July proposing an Ecodensity Charter for the city, which will be produced after a public consultation through the fall and winter culminating in a forum next spring.

Councillors from other parties are unlikely to oppose his ideas. But they do question the way his announcement was made and what impact his initiative will really have.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal said non-NPA councillors didn’t find out about the planned announcement until they got a press release along with the rest of the world Thursday. And they wouldn’t get any details about it unless they went to his media conference.

As well, once they did get details, it still wasn’t obvious what exactly Sullivan wants to do.

“I’m not clear on what is new,” Deal said. “Ann McAfee and other city planners have done a remarkable job over the past few years. I’m curious about what the mayor is intending to add to that.”

That question — what more can or should the city do? — is likely to be the main topic of public discussion around Sullivan’s ecodensity initiative.

The city has been embroiled in debate around density planning for the past 30 years, even since the then-revolutionary TEAM council swept into power and pushed for policies to open up Vancouver’s downtown to more residential uses.

As a result of that, Vancouver’s downtown population has doubled in the past two decades from the 40,000 who lived primarily in the West End to 80,000, with new communities on the north side of False Creek, in the Downtown South and in Coal Harbour.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, questions of density and affordable housing also reared their heads in the primarily single-family neighbourhoods outside the downtown peninsula as house prices rose and developers looked to build townhouses or redevelop former low-cost apartment buildings.

The NPA councils of the era, fearing a backlash from the west-side voters who were their primary support base, proceeded cautiously. They introduced legalization of secondary suites, but allowed each neighbourhood to vote on whether to accept them, with the result that they were mostly rejected on the west side.

Some pressure was relieved by a new zoning policy that allowed four-storey buildings along arterials that combined residential and commercial uses — the zoning that has turned West Fourth and parts of Broadway into European-style streets.

The result was that, between 1991 and 2001, Vancouver saw about 36,000 new units of housing built — 23,000 of them in the residential areas — that accommodated 73,000 new residents.

Then, in the early 1990s, then-mayor Gordon Campbell introduced a CityPlan process intended to get the city as a whole as well as each neighbourhood to discuss how many more people it was willing to accept and in what kind of housing.

After a decade of CityPlan and neighbourhood Vision processes, the city is now prepared to build 80,000 new housing units on top of the 254,000 that now exist. That means room for about 140,000 people more than the estimated 570,000 now living in the city.

So what more could be done and will it happen just because the city wants it?

McAfee said the city could create a lot more capacity just by doing the necessary planning work to carry out what people have already said they want in the city.

“We now have 18 neighbourhood centres where people have said they would like to see more housing sites,” said McAfee. “There’s a willingness in many communities, but the resources just aren’t there. The most effective thing we can do is to have the zoning in place.”

It might sound like just policy-wonk talk, but the reality is that when developers may build without going through a lengthy rezoning process, there’s a payoff in real dollars because it reduces the cost of housing and increases the number of units that can be built in a year.

At the moment, developers in Vancouver build an average of 3,800 housing units a year. Just to keep them at that level is going to be more difficult in future, as they have to work with smaller or more challenging sites than in the previous decade, when a huge number were incorporated into towers in downtown megaprojects.

Outside the downtown, land is owned primarily by individual homeowners and small businesses, so it’s going to be harder to put together contiguous lots where high-density housing can be built. As well, most demand outside the downtown is not for highrises, but some form of housing with even a small piece of land attached to it, rowhouses and townhouses, which don’t add density as quickly as towers do.

So if the city can streamline the process for building dense neighbourhood centres with rings of rowhouses and townhouses around them, that helps create density faster.

McAfee also thinks there’s a strong chance that neighbourhoods will be receptive to the idea of incorporating even more density than their citizen-planning groups originally agreed to.

That’s what happened when planners started working on the neighbourhood centre at Kingsway and Knight, with the result that the original node has now been expanded because of feedback planners got from local people saying they wanted to see more opportunities for dense housing.

If the Sullivan-initiated public process goes as planned, it’s also likely that other ideas will be thrown up for discussion. Some came up briefly Thursday as supporters talked about: coach houses along lanes; reduced parking standards, which could reduce the cost of housing considerably at $40,000 per parking stall saved; streetcars along main streets, which would make living along those streets even more attractive; corner stores allowed in the middle of residential areas, again to make high-density living more convenient.

Many people also said they think Vancouverites are less fearful of density than they were in the contentious 1980s wars over secondary suites, the Molson lands, and townhouses in Kerrisdale.

They’ve seen the high-density downtown become one of the most interesting (and highest-priced) quarters in the city and they’ve seen some attractive new housing forms in traditional neighbourhoods.

“I think Vancouver has come a long way,” said Anton, a Kerrisdale resident who is standing solidly behind Sullivan’s initiative. “I think citizens in many neighbourhoods are ready for this.”

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