Cohousing project breaks ground. But were City staff and the UDP responsible for unnecessary delays?

Co-housing on East 33rd Avenue
Vancouver’s first co-housing project broke ground in mid-July. Several media reports, including a story in the Vancouver Courier covered the start of the construction phase for the new cohousing complex. However, one of the facts that was overlooked in the publicity for the project at 1729-1735 East 33rd Avenue is the red tape and the difficulty that the applicants had to deal with in getting project approval. Were the proponents behind this project unnecessarily held up by the City and literally held to a much higher standard than other developers?

Co-housing siteThe cohousing project requested a modest increase in height and density on a site comprised of 3 single-family residential lots along a major arterial; further details are on the City’s rezoning webpage and at VancouverCoHousing.com. There were opposing views of the project, one of these are expressed in a letter to the editor in the Vancouver Courier. The Public Hearing for the project was held on March 12th and 13th, 2013 and it included good discussion from neighbours and future residents alike. The application was formally submitted on September 13, 2012. Counting additional time for the pre-submission preconsultation, this project has taken two years before the “shovels were in the ground” (despite the City’s claims to be supportive of cohousing). What took so long?

The proponents behind the project were a group of residents who wanted to build a co-housing community for themselves; they were not established real estate developers. The award winning architect behind the project, Charles (Chuck) Durrett is from out of town and resides in California. The firm McCamant & Durrett Architects is responsible for over 50 different cohousing projects in North America, and hence was a logical choice for a partner (see our previous post Cohousing lecture by Architect Charles Durrett Nov 19, 2012). The first public information sessions were held on September 15th and 22nd, 2012. The Urban Design Panel forced a number of changes on the project, but were these for the better? Is the first version of the project the most polished and elegant solution? Compare for yourself:

models

While the UDP often bills itself as an advisory panel with no authority to make decisions about a project’s status, the UDP did in fact force the applicant to attend three review sessions. There were a number of unhelpful suggestions from the panel, such as “Consider an east/west orientation for the proposal” (the lots are oriented north-south). Could there be a perception that the UDP is biased? Are panelists occasionally much harder on small projects and out of town architects than on projects from large local firms? We’ll note that the second review scheduled for December 5, 2012 was deferred because UDP members wanted McCamant & Durrett Architects to partner with a local firm; could they not have indicated this in advance of the architects travelling to Vancouver? The January 16, 2013 UDP review included a representative from DYS Architecture as well; the panel again gave non-support with a 4-6 vote. We’ll note that the voting records for UDP projects can be reviewed by looking at the meeting minutes. Is there a pattern?

There are times when large projects from established developers are reviewed and these sail through without any changes; the UDP has been observed arguing about the finer points on a public art exhibit while ignoring the policy context or even the design of the project itself (later with a unanimous vote in favour). Has the UDP outlived its usefulness, should it be disbanded or should the UDP be seriously reformed? All members on the panel are appointed in-camera by the Council majority. A number of the panelists and the firms they work for have provided campaign contributions to Vision Vancouver. It’s worth noting that if a project can be held up in the regulatory pipeline, then other projects will get to Council earlier. In the case of the cohousing project, did UDP members water down the original design and create unnecessary delays?

The Public Hearing concluded on March 13, 2013 and the cohousing project was supported by the majority in Council (NPA Councillors George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball were opposed). More than a year passed until the CD-1 bylaw was enacted on April 1, 2014. Finally it took until mid-July for all of the permitting to be ready.  Should City officials really be taking credit for making this cohousing project happen? Or should it be the group of citizens who pushed this project through the system and across the hurdles put up by the City take the credit? By examining the City’s track record on this project, can it be concluded that cohousing project was really tied up in unnecessary red tape and held up by City officials?

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