Who Governs Vancouver—Council? Staff? Electors? Pick Only One (City Conversations No One Else is Having #3, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including this 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.”

Update – Click here for the epilogue: “We now Know who Governs Vancouver—Help Us!”

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City Conversations No One Else is Having #3
Who Governs Vancouver—Council? Staff? Electors? Pick Only One

By Brian Palmquist (originally published 5-Jul-2021)

From: Policy Enquiry Process:Approach and Criteria, page 4

“What do you mean, city staff can decide who gets to break the rules!” My son was unusually indignant at the start of our regular cycle around False Creek/ West End/ Stanley Park (the latter just the edge—I don’t ride fast or aggressively enough to do more than edge around Lost Lagoon). I was trying to describe city staff’s latest effort to take control of development in the city, in the form of an innocuously titled report, Policy Enquiry Process: Approach and Criteria, up for discussion at City Council’s July 7th meeting.

“It may not be as bad as all that,” I responded, not wanting him to start out upset. We were breakfasting on Granville Island, facing our favourite building extravagance exclamation point, Vancouver House. “It’s a tough read, but it appears that it would help projects like Vancouver House, with its 20% market rental apartments (80% pricey condos), get approved by staff quicker than, say, a project with a rental/ condo split that staff did not like as much.” He glared at me, so I continued.

“Well, the proposals appear to come out of a good place,” I tried to explain. “Apparently, the development community is suffering from a soft condo market and post-pandemic market uncertainty.”

“Dad, we’re all suffering from post-pandemic uncertainty. And as for “soft” condo markets, I’ve not seen anything become miraculously affordable.”

“Let me finish,” I continued. “In addition to economics, planning staff are saying in this report that their policies are complex, outdated and in some cases, nonexistent. And there are parts of the city where staff’s policies conflict or complete with one another.”

“So, staff are concluding that they should get to decide who gets to ignore the mess they’ve created and go to the head of the line? How is that fair?” He was not sounding convinced.

‘Well, a while back City Council passed a motion (B.7) agreeing with staff that housing construction was an important economic stimulus and asking staff for a list of projects that might help encourage housing construction, even though they don’t comply with current rezoning policies.”

“That’s very nice of them,” he interjected. “But you’ve been telling me about all sorts of studies that show building more housing is not the same as building affordable housing. Am I missing something?”

“Well, maybe,” I continued. “this initiative by city staff is supported by the Development Process Redesign External Group—DPREG for short.”

“And who might those folks be?” he asked with a frown.

“Well, actually, I don’t know. I can’t find who they are anywhere on the city’s website. But they are external to the planning department.”

He zeroed in for the kill: “So an unelected, unidentified group of people who are undoubtedly in the development and construction business agree with city planning staff that some folks should be able to jump the queue with projects that don’t meet existing city policies. Gee, I wonder if any of the DPREG members have projects that qualify to go to the head of the line?”

“That’s not entirely fair,” I responded. “The report does say that staff must respect “…the intent of Council-adopted policy while recognizing some policies may be outdated, others may compete with other higher priority policies, and some policies may contain inherent limitations.”

“Why am I not comforted so far?”

“Well,” I continued, “staff will also need to “…recognize that significant departures from Council-adopted policy will require public consultation to maintain public trust.”

“Isn’t that the public consultation you’ve muttered about being pretty much gone during COVID?” he responded. I pressed on, feeling I was not winning here.

“In addition to those first two action principles, the report also says planning staff will “…recommend outcomes based on sound planning principles and professional judgment, rooted in the public interest; comprehensive / area-related policy outcomes, versus site-by-site planning, will be prioritized above single site considerations.”

“Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” he replied in his most sarcastic tone. “So how does staff plan to move these non-compliant projects along?”

“Good question!” I was relieved. “The report says projects will need to meet at least one of four baseline criteria to be prioritized: reconciliation and cultural redress; delivery of secured rental and a component of below-market rental housing; improves jobs and the economy; or includes a significant public amenity.”

“Let’s unpack those four a bit,” he responded. I hate it when he uses words like “unpack”—never bodes well for me. “Starting from the last—aren’t all rezonings expected to deliver “significant public amenities”?”

“Yes,” I replied, happy he had been listening to my previous rantings.

“And doesn’t every construction project add to jobs and the economy?” He continued. “And as for secured rental, we’ve already established that’s way more than what I pay for my nice but decades old studio. I will admit I like the below-market rental housing component, even though I’d never qualify for it.”

“I’m afraid I’m not even going to touch reconciliation and cultural redress.” He paused, choosing his words: “The words sound nice in a virtue signaling kinda way, but all I see is partnerships between rich developers and indigenous groups that will produce housing I can’t afford in configurations I’d never want to live in. Pardon me if I’m not excited.”

“But,” I jumped in, “We’ve not even got to the seven review criteria and the three pathways coming out of this Policy Enquiry Process!”

“Dad,” he concluded as he mounted his bike, “I think this all comes down not to three pathways but to three choices, or rather, a single choice from three possibilities.”

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. He sighed as he headed off slowly, so I could catch up.

“Either City Council governs the city, or city management and staff, or the electors—that’s you and me! Who do you think is in charge when this is the result?”

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Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.”

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