When will it be too late for Vancouver? Part 1 (City Conversations No One Else is Having #5, 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.”

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City Conversations No One Else is Having #5
When Will it be too Late for Vancouver? – Part 1

By Brian Palmquist (first published 17-Aug-2021)

Photo credit: Brian Palmquist

“When will it be too late for Vancouver?” asked Rob. He and I are part of a small group of concerned citizens who Zoom periodically to discuss Vancouver happenings and politics. But this question was out of left field, even for Rob. He continued:

“Vancouver has a unique character. At what point does it become unrecognizable as Vancouver? Killing the view corridors? Erasing what remains of affordability? Destroying the character of the city’s neighbourhoodsEliminating all meaningful citizen engagement around the policies, plans and guidelines that have shaped Vancouver over the past fifty years?” Heavy stuff, I thought.

“Let’s start with who helped make Vancouver into the place that we’re now afraid of losing,” I answered. “Let’s recall that from the early 1970s until about 2006, Vancouver as a planned city evolved around two axes of complementary thinking. The first was the downtown area urban design principles that former Director of Planning Ray Spaxman initiated from City Council direction and his successor, Co-Director of Planning Larry Beasley, continued, refined further and described in his book Vancouverism. The second was the neighbourhood planning work outside of downtown that the Co-Director of Planning, Dr. Ann McAfee, focused on, culminating in the CityPlan initiative, possibly the most comprehensive exercise ever in neighbourhood-based consultative community planning. While Beasley focused on the downtown areas and the early precedent-setting projects such as False Creek North, Coal Harbour, and neighbourhoods such as Downtown South, McAfee worked through community visioning and planning exercises that served as the basis for neighbourhood plans that underpin development around the rest of the city. At least until now. Their retirements in 2006 were a great loss to the city’s institutional planning memory.”

“On the one hand,” I continued, “Ray and Larry developed an approach to mega projects involving rezoning that was built around exhaustive public consultation—all good. But on the other hand, there were also business negotiations between the city and proponents resulting in cash and in-kind (land) contributions to fund the necessary community amenities for new development—park and school expansion, road and other infrastructure improvements, community centres, etc. These are called Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) and they only apply to rezonings , but each is separately negotiated. Even with policies and guidelines they consume much staff time, create uncertainty for proponents and often convey to the public the impression of deals being done behind closed doors.”

“And they are not always successful. For example, a recent rezoning that involved considerable social housing benefits collapsed when the city proposed a multi-million dollar CAC increase just before public hearings. The applicant withdrew the application and collapsed the project—nothing new has been built on that site.”

“I get the CACs concept,” responded Rob, “but get confused with, what are they, Development Cost Levies?”

I smiled at Rob’s consternation…been there. “DCLs, as the planning and development community call them, are the other special levies the city collects from almost every project that requires a Development Permit, certainly incremental development such as a neighbourhood four-storey commercial/residential project replacing, say, a one storey shop with perhaps an office or a couple of housing units above. They are intended to fund specific infrastructure improvements a new project may need. DCLs are applied to rezoning projects in addition to CACs.” I took Rob’s Zoom stare as permission to continue.

“DCLs are charged based on the proposed floor area of a new proposal, and the unit rates are published. In other words, a proponent knows going into city hall how much DCL money will be collected by the city. But,” I raised a Zoom finger (not a middle one), “nothing is as simple as we would like.”

“Many neighbourhoods think that both CAC and DCL monies will be spent in the local area of the development. Politicians and city staff imply that all the time, but it’s not really so. DCL monies only need to be spent in the project neighbourhood in four areas of the city: False Creek North; the Central Waterfront Port Lands; False Creek Flats; and South East False Creek. But even in those neighbourhoods that logic only applies to commercial or institutional development. DCL monies from housing development in any area of the city can be spent anywhere else in the city.”

“What about the CACs?” asked Rob. “Surely they’re for local neighbourhood investment?”

I smiled. “Here’s where it gets both tricky and devious. There is a general statement on the city’s website about how CACs help the city build and expand a range of facilities such as parks, childcare, community centres, transportation, arts and affordable housing. But in fact, because the list of possible CAC uses is a “facilities like” list, since 2009 CACs have become just another general revenue item in the city’s budget. They can in fact be spent on whatever city staff and management propose and City Council approves. The only exception is for non-housing development in the four neighbourhoods mentioned above—so the CAC/DCL fees charged for a private daycare in the False Creek Flats must apparently be spent on amenities in that area. For every other kind of development in every other area of the city, CACs and DCLs can be spent wherever and however city staff, management and Council deem appropriate.”

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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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