City-wide plan could ‘calm waters and create market certainty’

Vancouver Courier

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city-wide plan
Scot Hein: “The reason a city-wide plan is so important now is it needs to calm the waters and create certainty, both for the market and for community.” Photo Dan Toulgoet

Should a city-wide plan be pursued? Could it be completed quickly? Would it defer or derail development? What would the affect be on the city’s Making Room program and the move towards densifying single-family neighbourhoods?

These are among questions raised as several of the new city councillors have expressed support for a city-wide plan, including the Greens’ Adriane Carr, Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe, and the NPA’s Melissa De Genova, Colleen Hardwick, Lisa Dominato, Rebecca Bligh and Sara Kirby-Yung.

Read councillors’ thoughts about a potential city-wide plan HERE.

Carr, who’s entering her third term in office, has suggested such a plan could be completed within 18 months.

Carr, who’s entering her third term in office, has suggested such a plan could be completed within 18 months.

The Courier checked in with Scot Hein, who worked for the City of Vancouver for about two decades, for his thoughts on the subject.

Hein was the city’s senior urban designer and development planner until 2014, after which he worked as UBC’s campus urban designer. Now he’s an adjunct professor of urban design at UBC’s school of architecture and landscape architecture.

During the civic election campaign, Hein endorsed the Green Party candidates and helped them with their platform, but he also backed candidates from three other political parties: Hardwick from the NPA who has been advocating for a city-wide plan for years, COPE’s Jean Swanson and two candidates who failed to get the nod from voters — COPE’s Anne Roberts and Vision Vancouver’s Heather Deal.

Hein thinks a city-wide plan is a good idea, and that it can be completed relatively quickly if the political will exists on council.

CityPlan versus a city-wide plan

When defining what a city-wide plan is, Hein started by saying what he thinks it isn’t — that’s CityPlan, which was adopted in 1995 to provide a framework for deciding City of Vancouver programs, priorities and actions over the subsequent 20 years. It spun off into the community visions program.

While it was called CityPlan, Hein maintains it actually wasn’t a plan because, for him, a plan is a regulatory tool that can guide new development with certainty, so people know what to pay for land because they know how much they can get on their land. He considers CityPlan more of a policy because it never went as far as to change zoning, while a city-wide plan would.

“CityPlan was not a city-wide plan in a sense that it didn’t go far enough with regulatory teeth to shape new development with approval certainty, if you will,” Hein told the Courier.

“It was a wonderful moment, a lot of great policies, wonderful for engaging community and getting people to think about the city, particularly outside of the downtown. It was on its way but it didn’t conclude on the form and shape of buildings in particular neighbourhoods.”

Because it didn’t do that, Hein said the city has, effectively, had 10 years of “a fair number” of spot rezonings. He said that might have been for the laudable purpose of bringing new rental capacity onto the market, but it also exacerbated the land price issue where “everyone in town would like to do a rezoning.”

“You’re seeing property assembled and you’re seeing land prices jump up because of the prospect of getting a rezoning through under the guise of getting new market rental housing,” he said.

“The reason a city-wide plan is so important now is it needs to calm the waters and create certainty, both for the market and for community.”

A creative design exercise

Hein envisions a city-wide plan as a “highly participatory and creative design exercise” where neighbourhoods participate in understanding what capacity potential exists locally and then imagine how to realize it.

“What that would hopefully establish is clear expectations about the kinds of buildings that can and cannot be approved in a more local way and, at the same time, not over-aiming or under-aiming the development capacity that we need to remain a compact city,” Hein said.

Although Hein acknowledged there appears to be a market slowdown, he said capital is still coming into the city and it’s having a hard time finding a place because we’ve run out of land in the downtown, while there is latent development potential in single-family zones.

The question, Hein said, is how to develop in a way that’s “honourable and sympathetic” and based on engagement with local community. He said it also needs to be done in a way that understands what local amenities are required and uses the development value to meet those needs in an obvious and transparent way.

Setting up for success

The public engagement portion of the design exercise could be done in a relatively short period of time, in Hein’s estimation, if some pre-design work, policy-making and setting up of expectations is completed beforehand to ensure the public engagement piece can be done efficiently.

For example, he said, not every neighbourhood is the same — some are already carrying more density than others, particularly the townhouse-zone neighbourhoods such as Mount Pleasant and, to some extent, Strathcona and Kitsilano.

The key, he said, is to determine how much capacity the city wants to generate under a city-wide plan and then how to allocate those capacities across the board.

“It’s pretty easy to do that in all the R-S areas, to sort of treat them all the same, but once we get beyond the R-S zoning, the single-family zoning, it gets a little trickier in terms of how much density and new housing capacity we think a particular neighbourhood might need to carry in comparison with the balance of the city so all neighbourhoods see themselves as being treated fairly,” he said.

In any case, Hein said those decisions need to be “an input” in a city-wide design process, as does an inventory of neighbourhood amenities such as community centres, daycares and neighbourhood houses. That includes whether they are civic, provincial or private amenities, what new amenities are needed in particular neighbourhoods, and when they need to come online, as well as an understanding of the costs of expanding infrastructure. Since a lot of that work has already been done, Hein said it should be simple to insert the information into a city-wide design process.

“The idea [is] that, as you’re having a conversation about new density and capacity, and you’re using the market to create economic value, you could also be saying to local constituents that by achieving this much density, we’ll be able to deliver a library branch in your neighbourhood within five years or 10 years. That kind of thing,” he said.

“You don’t want to have a conversation just about new population, you don’t want to have a conversation just about infrastructure costs or just about amenities. But if you can link them all together so that the conversation out in the community is more aspirational and less polarized — because people are seeing the public benefit of considering new development, along with Vancouver’s fair share in the region of carrying new capacities toward a more sustainable compact region — my sense is that Vancouverites will rise to the occasion.”

Getting down to work

Exactly what it would take to staff such an endeavor remains to be seen, but Hein says the City could draw on design talent from across Vancouver, particularly through the professional architecture and landscape architecture offices.

He also sees it as an interdisciplinary exercise, not just a planning exercise, involving departments such as engineering, the park board and, perhaps, the school board.

“I see it first as an interdisciplinary exercise and then I see it augmented with a lot of private sector urban design talent — with a series of designers going out into the neighbourhoods, with staff working through it based on certain established parameters,” he explained. “With that, I don’t think it has to be a big staff-up at the city. This can be done fairly lean and nimbly but it will collapse under its own weight if the front end of it is not set up properly — it won’t yield productive results that can be enshrined in regulation. It can be done fast but the set-up piece is going to be key.”

If council is bold in the first couple of years of its term, and gets it underway quickly, Hein believes a plan could be realized. If it gets hung up politically along the way, or if there’s indecision and it drifts into the fourth year of the council’s term, he said it runs the chance of being frozen and then extended into the next election cycle and then, “who knows?” he said.

A denser city

Achieving a denser city has become a fraught endeavor in Vancouver.

According to Hein, the market and the machinery of city hall is calibrated towards approving bigger projects, but he thinks density could also be also achieved through smaller projects that are still comparatively dense.

Firms currently doing laneway or infill projects could start to take on bigger projects that are still on single-family sites, he said.

“You can do five or six units on a 33-foot, single-family site in the form of a rowhouse that is actually not inconsistent with some of the buildings that were built in the streetcar era and that remain decently contextual but double and triple the units per acre,” he said, adding that such projects wouldn’t require big site assemblies or large marketing campaigns and all those soft costs could be applied back into affordability. Hein also thinks it could be business as usual for development until new zoning gets on the books.

He supports the “spiritual intention” of the city’s Making Room program, which council approved last June to increase the supply of medium-sized, medium-density housing throughout the city in single-family neighbourhoods — he said it sets up a city-wide plan because it signals more density is coming.

“But I think we need to be much more aggressive with our single-family neighbourhoods and you can do it in a way that’s compatible, contextual and neighbourly so it’s [about] demystifying the fear,” he said.

Hein is optimistic the outcome of a city-wide plan, if it’s a design exercise, would be positive.

“Design is an aspirational act. Planning — it’s hard to see where words will go — so by designing, you create certainty,” he said.

“One could say… [that] to design the city, that’s an unwieldy undertaking but if you break it down and you do it with particular expectations established where they’re non-negotiable — you need to land this amount of capacity in this area — then it’s a question of finding out how and where to do it, and for city hall to meaningfully engage citizens about how and where to do it. They have to accept that the capacity is coming. And that’s the tough political choice, where the courage comes in. If there’s a way for the council to get past that, then there is certainly a way for them to work with local community.”

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