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City of Vancouver speeds up development process, but it could do more

Need to speed up permitting process one of mayor’s campaign promises
While the city has sped up the permitting process for developers, columnist Michael Geller says ther
While the city has sped up the permitting process for developers, columnist Michael Geller says there's more red tape to be cut. Illustration iStock

One of the most common complaints from developers, homeowners and local business owners in Vancouver is the amount of time it takes to get a project approved at city hall.

Last April, I wrote a column about the impacts of “red tape” on the cost of housing, which included a photograph of rolls of architectural drawings, attaché cases and knapsacks lying on the pavement outside of the city’s Development and Building Department offices.

They belonged to people who were holding their early morning place in line outside in hopes of submitting permit applications that day.

Processing delays are not a new problem. I recall discussing this matter while president of the Urban Development Institute with former city manager Ken Dobell in the 1980s.

At one meeting, following a litany of complaints about how long it was taking to get permits, a frustrated Dobell exclaimed, “What do you want us to do? Work weekends?”

“Yes,” we replied and offered to pay overtime rates if necessary.

Soon most developers were paying the overtime rates. And while approval times were initially reduced, it wasn’t long before processing times returned to what they were before.

Another innovation was the introduction of “certified professionals” to review plans on behalf of city staff paid for by the developers. While the union didn’t particularly like this practice, it did work, and to this day the city continues to allow certified professionals to assist with the review of applications.

However, since then, the number of items reviewed by city staff has increased, and conflicting demands by an increased number of city departments are causing further delays.

Two years ago, the city hired new senior staff, including Kaye Krishna, general manager of development, buildings and licensing, to help solve the problems. She quickly impressed many with her acknowledgement that too often the city unnecessarily prepared “bespoke” documents and legal agreements. She also proposed a “Nexus Lane” for experienced consultants and developers. While Krishna was achieving encouraging results, sadly she will soon be leaving the city to join the provincial government.

To his credit, Mayor Kennedy Stewart identified the need to speed up the permitting process as one of his campaign promises. This week, under his leadership, the city tabled a staff report and released a press statement proclaiming significant results in reducing processing times. It noted that permits for 900 affordable housing units were issued in as little as 12 weeks, and some single family and laneway home permit processing has been reduced from 38 weeks to six weeks.

This has been accomplished by moving more permit applications online, training more than 230 staff in new development policies and procedures, and hiring 42 new staff in 2018, with a further 43 planned for 2019.

Gil Kelley, general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability has promised that the city will do more.

To help him, I would like to offer a few suggestions.

A recent press release from the city noted the number of rezoning applications has increased 97.5 per cent since 2010. Why? Because the city continues to improperly zone land in order to charge developers rezoning fees and Community Amenity Contributions.

For example, every new building along the Cambie Corridor has been the subject of a separate rezoning. This is not necessary. If the city wants to impose charges, fine. But why put everyone through a two-year process?

Secondly, staff should write shorter reports to council. Most Cambie Corridor reports exceed 50 pages, and many reports are much longer. While I wouldn’t dream of commenting on the current councillors, I know for a fact that in the past, few councillors read the entire reports.

Thirdly, make more use of certified professionals. In many instances, they are more knowledgeable than city staff when it comes to the building code.

Speaking of the building code, why is Vancouver the only city in Canada with its own building code?

Finally, become more sensible in terms of what is being asked. For example, my friend was recently asked for an arborist’s report for trees in the front of his house, even though his application was for a laneway house at the back. Is this really necessary?