Observations on marathon public hearing, Council approval, 3084 West 4th & 2010 Balaclava (Kitsilano)

(Update-2) With an approval vote at the public hearing stretching from February 11, 16, 23, 24, to March 2 and 4, Vancouver City Council (and chief planner Gil Kelley, as the top person responsible for setting the culture and tone of the planning and rezoning departments), have squandered a valuable opportunity to earn the precious commodity of community trust and goodwill. The net gain with the rezoning is 29 rental units, but it comes at a high cost within a much larger context.

This squandered opportunity is unfortunate in the midst of major planning initiatives currently led by Mr. Kelley and planning staff in citywide consultations on the Vancouver Plan, Broadway Corridor, False Creek South, and much more.

By a vote of 10 versus 1, City Council approved the application for a six-storey building at 3084 West 4th Avenue and 2010 Balaclava Street in Kitsilano. Thus Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the rest of Council can be considered responsible for this outcome.

And though there is some fanfare about an amendment by councillor Lisa Dominato, purportedly “to help address some of the concerns of neighbourhood residents,” it was entirely meaningless since it covered exactly was already in the staff report. It did nothing in terms of addressing local concerns about the scale of the building height, density, setbacks and form of development — points that were clearly opposed by over 500 letters, a petition of 623 signatures, and dozens of speakers.

Mr. Kelley and Council wasted a precious opportunity to show that the City listens to the local community. The neighbourhood and owner/developer had been in positive and productive discussions about the application, seeking a design the neighbourhood could wholeheartedly support, with slightly less height and density and slightly fewer units.

Jan Pierce of the West Kits Residents Association had this comment for CityHallWatch: “We are very disappointed that Mayor Stewart and nine out of the ten councillors (all except for Colleen Hardwick), opted to reject the opportunity to explore the community’s alternate rental housing proposal. They weren’t willing to take a short time to allow staff to explore a more innovative form of ‘townhouse over apartment’ rental housing. This would have provided more livable family oriented units in a more efficient building and would have responded to the neighbourhood context. A lost opportunity for a more collaborative process and an innovative rental project.

From WeLoveKits we received this comment: “We are very disappointed by the outcome. The vote against us was led by Cllr. Dominato (NPA) and Cllr. De Genova (NPA), who supported the rezoning application with one amendment: that the developer pursue ‘architectural excellence’ and ‘explore changes to massing and bulk.’ However, as several Councillors pointed out, ‘architectural excellence’ is subjective, and ‘explore’ can result in no change at all, and without stronger language this amendment had no teeth.

The key point to notice is that the community felt very strongly about the scale of the proposal. And the community had alternatives to propose. But they now will likely feel they have been completely ignored, and that will leave rather strong negative feelings toward City Hall, Mayor and Council, and staff.

Artistic renderings in this post are from Ekistics Architecture

What was gained with this approval?

The City’s news release the next day (copied below, and repeated by Daily Hive) proclaimed, “Vancouver adds 35 more rental homes to the west side.” But it failed to mention the fact that the site currently hosts 6 existing affordable rental units, and the 13 existing tenants will be “demovicted.” So the net gain with this approval is 29 rental units and as we see below, they are very small.

How about the alternative proposal?

The WeLoveKits group had been developing a design that may have produced something approaching that number of units (see note further below), and sought more time to develop the details. They reported that until the public hearing was scheduled, the developer had expressed a willingness to explore an alternate form of development (i.e. smaller rental building, alternate design, larger setbacks, more greenery, etc), but that effort was nixed by staff (see below). Here is a table (click to enlarge) by WeLoveKits comparing some parameters of the current zoning, proposed zoning, and the “Balaclava Option” they were still working on.

What resources did this whole exercise consume without Council addressing any of the community concerns about the scale of the project?

It was a marathon public hearing (link) that spanned six sessions, heard about 70 speakers, received 673 items of correspondence (including 155 in support, 513 opposed, and 5 other), and a petition in opposition with 277 signatures (submitted to the hearing). This was after an earlier petition with 623 signatures opposed (submitted several weeks earlier, prior to the application being considered for referral to public hearing); about 18 months and hundreds of hours of volunteer time by the WeLoveKits neighbourhood group engaging with the community, conducting its own analysis and communicating directly with the applicants (the owners and the architect); and repeated requests to the City for more time to work out a design that would be wholeheartedly supported by the neighbourhood.

Consider also the staff and Council time and energy spent to deal with the controversial application, through correspondence and numerous meetings, culminating in the Public Hearing.

What was the role of City staff?

What was revealed during the applicant presentation was that it was actually City staff, obviously under the leadership of chief planner Mr. Kelley, who played a decisive role behind the scenes in moving the application forward in the form presented and curtailing efforts by the neighbourhood. Before the application was referred to public hearing, the neighbourhood had been virtually pleading for more time. But it became clear during the public hearing that it was actually the City staff who encouraged the applicant to go ahead in this form, and discouraged further consideration of what the neighbours sought. Why would they do that?

It is our guess that Mr. Kelley and staff are trying to reach the target set under Vision Vancouver (obliterated in the 2018 civic election) for the Moderate Income Rental Pilot Program (MIRHPP), a limited pilot program for up to 20 rezonings, and this rezoning brings the approved total to eleven. Note that we have described in separately analyses (see “Excessive costs of MIRHPP” and “Correcting staff denial of windfall profits“) that the taxpayer cost of the program is very expensive, and again, City staff are soliciting or driving applications. Staff appear to have a quota they must meet in order to justify the program. In fact, according to the WeLoveKits analysis (see PDF) this application actually violated criteria for MIRHPP.

What alternative outcome could there have been?

WeLoveKits and the West Kits Residents Association say they were never able to get as far as the detail to get a count of the number of units possible with a different design, and it would depend on the final size of units. The proposal approved by Council contains 35 units, but they are rather small (studios 323 square feet, one-bedrooms 402 sq ft, two-bedrooms starting from 560 and with just one over 700 sq ft). At these sizes, the two bedroom units would be rather small for families.

By comparison the townhouse units in the community proposal would have been larger and more suitable for families, and may have included lock-off suites inside some of the units. They say they were easily able to get 10 or more smaller apartments across the bottom and 15 or more larger, more livable townhouse style suites across the upper floors. They were also looking at further reductions in parking spaces to get some of the units to be for “moderate income.” This could have been a joyful development on all sides, supported by the City, applicant, and neighbourhood, consuming must less City Council time, and may have been able to produced nearly the same number of units, probably more livable inside.

Some open questions

The result of this Council decision is to further deepen the sense of frustration with City Hall and our current Mayor and Council. Is there a better way? Can City Hall listen more carefully to neighbourhoods? Can this friction-filled pattern at City Hall be rectified during the current consultations for Vancouver Plan, Broadway Corridor, and more?

It will take more time and effort to change the culture at City Hall, that much is clear. Those who are disappointed with this specific outcome should not give up!

Current scene

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SOCIAL MEDIA

The Mayor himself is part of the problem, and shows no recognition of the community concerns. On the day of the Council vote, he sent out a promotional tweet, to which we responded.

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Other coverage:

“35 rental homes in Kitsilano approved by City Council after marathon public hearing” (Kenneth Chan, Daily Hive, Mar 5 2021)
https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/3084-west-4th-avenue-2010-balaclava-street-vancouver-2

Perhaps Burnaby can teach Vancouver something here:
“Slowing down to listen boosts housing progress: Burnaby has taken a fresh approach, says Mike Hurley.” (Vancouver Sun, 6-Mar-2021)

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News Release from City of Vancouver, 5-Mar-2021

Vancouver adds 35 more rental homes to the west side,
including below market homes for city renters

Today, the Vancouver Council approved eight moderate income rental homes under the City’s Moderate Income Rental Pilot Program (MIRHPP), as part of a new, six-storey rental building at 3084 W 4th Avenue (and Balaclava).

The building contains a total of 35 rental units, including 8 moderate income units (20% of the residential area) for households with annual incomes of approximately $30,000 to $80,000. All 35 units are secured as rental housing for 60 years or the life of the building.

This is the eleventh MIRHPP project approved by Council, bringing the total number of units approved under the Pilot Program for moderate income households to 272, plus an additional 1,061 secured market rental units.

“Building a city that works for everyone means supporting projects like these with homes guaranteed for people like nurses, retail workers, and seniors,” said Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “After years of being squeezed out, I can’t wait to see more middle-income renters return to Kitsilano thanks to these homes.”

These new market and below-market rental homes will increase housing options in a neighbourhood where half of the residents are renters and the vacancy rate has historically been below 1%. A vacancy rate of 3-5% is generally considered to indicate a balanced rental market.

“Adaptive change is needed across the city to address the shortage of housing for renters and support our economy. Innovative programs like MIRHPP that bring more affordable, secure rental options to all areas of Vancouver are a key element in supporting this change, as we try to meet the needs of our residents and the city’s growth,” said Gil Kelley, General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability.

Construction of the project is expected generate approximately 122 off-site and on-site jobs, supporting the City’s goal of simulating Vancouver’s economy while meeting urgent housing needs. City staff and the proponent will continue to refine the design as the project moves forward through the Development Permit Process.

More details on these proposals can be found on our rezoning page.
More details on the MIRHPP can be found here.

About MIRHPP

MIRHPP is a limited pilot program that enables up to 20 rezonings for new buildings that provide 100% of the residential floor area as secured market rental housing, with a minimum of 20% permanently secured for moderate income households. The MIRHPP was approved by City Council in November 2017 along with the Housing Vancouver Strategy.

Under the Pilot Program, moderate income starting rents are set at a maximum average of $950 per month for studios, $1,200 for one-bedroom apartments, $1,600 for two bedrooms and $2,000 for three bedrooms. As reported by the CMHC in 2020, the average market rents in Kitsilano were $1,261 per month for studios, $1,553 for one-bedroom apartments, $2,231 for two bedrooms and $3,079 for three bedrooms.

For more information, visit: http://www.vancouver.ca/rentalhousing

Housing and economy quick facts

· Just over half (53%) of all Vancouver households rent their homes, and 40% of all renter households have annual incomes of between $30,000 and $80,000
· 1/3 of Vancouver renter households (approximately 52,000 renter households) spend over 30% of their income on rent. Of these, over 80% earn less than $50,000/year
· Over 90,000 renter households across BC have applied for the Temporary Rental Supplement
· Across BC the property development industry was estimated to employ 233,600 people in direct and indirect positions.

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