Feint by Numbers: 1/3, one third, 1/3 (#79: A new housing target that’s as old as Vancouver’s urban planning success) by Brian Palmquist

(City Conversation #78 was first published 11-Sep-2022)
(For a list of City Conversations by Brian Palmquist on CityHallWatch, please visit this page.)

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September 11th 2022—a break from neighbourhood discussions to refocus on how we can get back to housing affordability and compassion in Vancouver.

False Creek South (FCS)—in this one photo there is seniors rental housing, market rental, co-op housing and strata housing —photo by Brian Palmquist

“What’s with the old black and white photo?” asked my son, looking over my shoulder.

“It’s not old—I took it only a year ago and converted it to b&w— it’s my reminder that we can do this,” I replied. “We’ve done it before and we can do it again if we just say we will.”

He chuckled at the passion in my voice. “Down off the soap box, Dad. Explain what you’re on about…in 1,000 words or less!” I winced at his reference to my occasional (all right, frequent) wordiness. “First of all, what’s the picture’s significance and how does that relate to the city election?” He knows that’s my current, obsessive focus. I smiled, took a deep breath and launched.

“We talked over a year ago about False Creek South’s original planning success, more recently about city staff’s assault on that success to squeeze more revenue from it. You’ll recall that more folks than ever before signed up to speak against proposals to destroy False Creek South, and they were at least temporarily successful—it won’t come back on the agenda until after the mid-October elections.” He nodded after a moment’s recollection—my signal to keep going.

“There was some scientific and economic analysis during the genesis of FCS’s planning. But in the end, the politicians and their planning staff decided that it made economic sense to develop FCS into equal thirds:

  • One third high end housing for wealthier folks, subsidizing
  • One third middle income folks, also somewhat subsidizing
  • One third lower income folks.

“How did that work in practice?” he asked. “Seems deceptively simple.” I replied after a pause for thought.

“You’re correct, there were many moving pieces to the evolving plan and its construction. The key thing is everybody involved was focused on the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 objective—politicians, city staff, even the project managers and developers.”

“The first puzzle piece was the land cost and charges. The city owned and continues to own the land, decided to not sell, rather lease the land, which they could do for much less than if they sold it. In fact, your mother and I thought it was such a good idea that we wanted to buy in, but our parents would not top up our downpayment savings.” He raised his eyebrow at the age old reluctance of parents to stake their children. “Our parents were also skeptical about a land lease, and they weren’t the only doubters. But enough folks and their bankers thought it was okay that everything was sold—it probably didn’t hurt that then-Mayor Art Phillips bought in to the idea he’d sponsored!”

“So he was obviously a high end owner—what about the lower and middle income folks?”

“These became an interesting mix of co-ops and rental housing. Co-ops were formed and from the beginning had a requirement within themselves to mix incomes. It was the same with rental. As you know, we rented a townhouse in a development where we were clearly told that our rent was higher in order to subsidize rents for lower income folks. We were fine with that because it was still an affordable home for us. We used to speculate who was higher or lower income in our development, but frankly, it never mattered. Kids shared the internal courtyard play areas while their parents shared BBQs, wine and talk. All good. There’s even a co-op marina, where folks have a share that entitles them to a boat slip and use of the common facilities.”

“You said land cost was the first puzzle piece,” he continued. “What were the others?”

“I’m biased because I’m an architect and urban designer,” he sighed, needing no reminder. “But in the same way that zoning areas throughout the city make the rules about development clear, in FCS there was a master plan that indicated heights, densities, massing and tenure. The architects studied the site and developed building forms that supported each other.” He looked confused so I continued. “Too often today, existing zoning, which sets those rules about height and density, is set aside for spot rezonings, which is where the applicant rewrites the rules book, but just for their project. Increasingly, relationships to immediate neighbours and the neighbourhood are ignored—one of the reasons why more and more citizens object at public hearings.” He nodded, knowing I’ve been involved in some.

“So what’s your solution to all this?” he asked with a smile, knowing that was a big question. “Can we get back to harmony and simplicity?”

“I think we can if we say we must,” I answered. “We basically have three types of development in the city: area plans; neighbourhood plans; and individual project plans.” He awaited my further explanation.

“Area Plans are places like the Jericho Lands, the development areas around SkyTrain stations, the East Fraser Lands—there are actually quite a number of them. For those area plans, which are regularly amended, usually by the applicant, the city can take the lead and simply amend to say replan for 1/3, 1/3, 1/3, please and thank you.” He raised his brow but I kept going.

“Neighbourhood plans—some exist, some have been discarded, others are still needed. BUT city staff have access to all the data needed to figure out where 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 will work in each neighbourhood. Old inequities can be rebalanced, we can do a little social engineering—we got this!” I took a breath before my punch line.

“As for individual project plans, I suggest a two-part answer. If a proposal conforms to an existing neighbourhood plan, then go for it. Over time those local plans may be amended by the community, but in the meantime, folks who follow the rules should be allowed to get on with it.”

“For the folks engaged in spot rezonings, I say two can rewrite the spot rezoning rules. So you want to build 99 homes in a spot rezoning? If the community’s okay with the concept, or you already have rezoning but no Development Permit (DP), then agree to build 1/3 for lower income folks, 1/3 for middle income folks, 1/3 for whoever else you want to. That’s measurable and achievable. And if you can’t make that work, then this city doesn’t need you.”

He paused thoughtfully. “So back to False Creek South—if the equal thirds approach is shelved, what will become of it?”

“Its fifty-year dream will be gone. Fair affordability will be gone. A once upon a time vision for our city will gone.” He could hear the emotion in my voice, gave me his patented hug, whispered, “We’ve got this, Dad.”

The Time for Action will soon be too late

Please let me know what pre-election activities are happening in your neighbourhood—I will try to order my neighbourhood-based analyses to have maximum impact.

 TEAM for a Livable Vancouver is the only political party pledged to support False Creek South and Vancouver’s other neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s civic election is October 15th of this year. Lots more damage can still be done to our city before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM elects the next Mayor and a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change for the better. A majority TEAM Park Board (4 of 7) will ensure our open spaces are integrated with the city rather than ignoring or fighting it. If you are concerned that the City Conversations you’ve been reading are examples of what’s wrong with our city and want to bring back Vancouver’s livability, join TEAM and work with us to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.

And please let me know what other subjects you are passionate about so we can have that conversation before election day, October 15th.


Today’s question: Do you think the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 formula makes sense? Why or why not? 

I read and respond to all comments made below. If you enjoyed this post, consider becoming a free subscriber to City Conversations at

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By Brian Palmquist

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 for the moment, still teaching and writing, 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.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election. City Conversations are generally congruent with TEAM policy, so if you like the ideas that I’m writing about, please consider joining TEAM.

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