Intro: Vancouver City Council is expected to decide on the 30-year citywide Vancouver Plan during a standing committee meeting on July 6, 2022. In contrast to Public Hearings, correspondence to Council for a standing committee meeting does not get published on the City website for the public to read, so besides the fact that most citizens do not even know about the meeting or its importance, correspondence from people who happen to have heard and written Council about the meeting simply goes into the “black box” at City Hall. No civic reporters in mainstream media have provided advance coverage about this critical meeting that will determine the fate of Vancouver. Hence the importance of us posting letters like this one.
The writer of this letter to Council is Stephen Mikicich, a Registered Professional Planner (RPP) with 30 years of experience in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. His broad and diverse experience includes community planning, land development, urban design, economic development, business improvement areas, tourism, heritage conservation, and housing. He has led many ‘first of their kind’ initiatives in community development, and his work has been recognized with several awards of excellence.
July 5, 2020
Dear Mayor and Council,
RE: OPPOSITION TO THE DRAFT VANCOUVER PLAN
Thank you for allowing me to voice my concerns about the Vancouver Plan and to provide my comments for your consideration:
A BACKWARDS PLANNING PROCESS
I assume there are strategic and political reasons as to why consideration of the city-wide Vancouver Plan would follow adoption of the Broadway Plan; and why that plan would be considered following the rezoning of a single property at 1477 West Broadway. This has really come across as a ‘backwards’ planning process, where we are considering a future direction for the city after major precedents have been set.
What is clear from each level of planning is the disengagement felt by local area residents, and the apparent dismissiveness with which their input has been received.
A DISENGAGED CITIZENRY
Staff point to “extensive” online and digital engagement on the Vancouver Plan, but from what I can see engagement has been focussed on the development industry, advocacy groups, and targeted “equity” groups. But, shouldn’t we be listening to all voices?
I have heard the current planning debate in Vancouver described as a “battle for the soul of the city”. On the one hand we have a group advocating for massive densification across the city as a path towards equity and housing affordability. On the other hand, we have neighbourhood residents who feel they are not being heard or respected in the planning process, and that their communities are being targeted for redevelopment.
I believe the ‘soul’ of Vancouver lies in its neighbourhoods. Vancouver residents identify with and take pride in their local communities. This is something that has been well understood by elected officials and city planners for decades, and is reflected in a legacy of thoughtful local area plans created with the support of residents.
I see this unnecessary ‘battle’ as a response to ‘top-down’ planning that clearly negates the value of established neighbourhoods and puts forward a generic vision for the city’s future. In fact, the Vancouver Plan does not even honour established neighbourhoods by name.
This is really an echo of Vancouver’s urban reform era, when citizens rose up to save the historic neighbourhoods of Gastown, Chinatown, and Strathcona from forced evictions and wholesale demolition for a major freeway. That battle brought about change at City Hall and ushered in an era of fine-grained, participatory planning.
Rather than create division, would it not make sense to bring Vancouver’s neighbourhoods to the table to plan the city’s future together? We have the time to get this Plan right and to build a future city that truly works for all of us. Unlike the Broadway Plan, there is no timeline dictated by a Supporting Policies Agreement or other such considerations.
Bringing the Vancouver Plan forward for consideration in July (when most people are thinking about their first summer vacation in two years) does nothing to instill faith in the City’s regard for citizen input.
A PLAN THAT PUTS HERITAGE AT RISK
I attended a staff presentation on the Vancouver Plan for the City’s key heritage bodies a few weeks ago. At that meeting, it became readily apparent that (other than the heritage planner in attendance) the Planning Department had little if any understanding of the city’s heritage, and that heritage conservation did not factor into Plan policies in any meaningful way.
That leaves me very concerned about the future of Vancouver’s historic places – both those listed on the Community Heritage Register, and other heritage assets not yet formally recognized.
NEIGHBOURHOODS AT RISK
The Director of Planning has described Vancouver’s existing local area plans as dated and confusing for developers. However, the real issue with these thoughtful plans is that they do not support the level of density that the City is presently striving for.
Density proponents point to large swaths of the city being occupied by single-family dwellings, and that these should be replaced with more intensive housing forms. In reality, there are no single-family neighbourhoods left in Vancouver. Existing zoning provides for up to three dwellings per lot, and this can take a variety of ground-oriented forms and tenures.
Is there room to further densify these neighbourhoods? Absolutely. However, we should be looking at the full gamut of ground-oriented ‘missing middle’ housing options that can be well integrated into established neighbourhoods, rather than a one-size-fits-all “multiplex”. For more significant development opportunities, we should be looking at much-lauded precedents such as Arbutus Walk, which many experts believe is density done right!
The Vancouver Plan proposes a “multiplex” designation for all of Vancouver’s lower density neighbourhoods. This building typology comes with few details, but will have significant implications:
- Shifting land use to a true multi-family designation will increase property values across city neighbourhoods – meaning increased assessments and property taxes for homeowners;
- Speculation and land assembly will fuel redevelopment and displacement pressures; and
- With an outright ability to redevelop a property with up to six dwelling units, we can expect a significant loss of perfectly livable homes, not to mention heritage and character buildings, as there would be no economic incentive whatsoever to retain them.
It is important to recognize that many of these existing buildings include secondary suites that accommodate a range of household types including families – that is, ground-oriented housing, typically with access to a yard or garden. And, many properties now include coach houses as a detached rental unit.
I cannot see how the “multiplex” designation supports housing affordability. I suspect that one reason this Plan pushes for densification in lower density neighbourhoods is the ability for the City to extract cash in the form of Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), which it cannot do under current zoning
Council has approved numerous rezonings across the city, and thousands of housing units will be added to the rental and ownership markets in the very near future.
I am concerned that Council is advancing the draft Vancouver Plan for approval during the waning days of its term – in a further effort to push housing supply, but without a full understanding of the Plan’s implications.
In my humble opinion, the draft Vancouver Plan is a ‘bomb’ ready to annihilate Vancouver’s established neighbourhoods, and the legacy of thoughtful planning that has made Vancouver the livable city that it is today.
Stephen Mikicich (Vancouver Resident)