c2030 Version 1
City Conversation # 35: A fictional look back at how we got to where we might be by the end of the decade.
This is a fictional description of one of Vancouver’s possible futures seen through the eyes of someone who sounds suspiciously like me. This Version 1 summarizes many of the bad choices we have already or might still make as they affect Vancouver’s livability. Version 2 will describe the alternative future I hope it’s not too late for us to adopt. Reality will likely be somewhere between the two. The forthcoming election in October will be our last collective chance to make many of the choices that will determine Vancouver’s future for the next generation.
Although, overall, this essay is fictional, many of its events are real: the Broadway Plan and Jericho Lands numbers are accurate; Amazon’s move out of Seattle has just been announced; the low barrier housing project at Arbutus and 8th is a real proposal; the city staff head count increase is real; the collapse of Aquatic Centre walls is current; the requirements to sprinkler a character home in order to build a laneway is imminent; the federal government just announced it will not implement a moratorium on real estate purchases by non-residents; and the provincial government promise to override OCPs is promised for the autumn of 2022. If you are concerned about the Broadway Plan, you must complete the city’s survey by March 21st.
He closed their front door for the last time. Its wooden stiles and rails still bore the damage from the latest attempted break-in. He was glad but sad that he had replaced the stained glass in the top half of the door with clear, reinforced safety glass. He missed how the stained glass coloured and softened the daylight, bringing colourful prisms to the interior walls and floor no matter how grey the outside day might be. But reinforced glass, which did not come in colours, was one of a growing list of requirements his home insurer had given him each year for the past five or so. It had withstood the latest break-in attempt a few nights ago. Police were now at least 20 minutes away and burglars knew it.
His insurer was a longtime family friend—he could tell it embarrassed him to require that our home become more and more fortress-like as a condition of reinsurance. Never mind. We could at least still get insurance, although it was not at all clear how much longer that would be possible. The red lines on the uninsurable map inched closer every year. They marked the edges of the rapidly increasing “no insurance” zones in the city, caused by the combination of dense, deteriorating, ungovernable housing, especially high-rise buildings without eyes on the street, random and rampant street and property crime.
These red lines got their sad inspiration from the no-mortgage red lines that appeared in many American and a few Canadian cities in the post war housing boom after the 2nd World War. They defined areas where mortgage companies would not grant mortgages—in Vancouver, they included parts of China Town and the Downtown Eastside. Among their many effects was to prevent red-lined inhabitants from gaining the first rung on the property ladder.
Property ladder. What an innocuous term for such a divisive concept. After the 2022 passage of the Broadway Plan it had newly inspired thousands of Vancouver residents, plus uncounted investors, to join in the rampant speculation around a plan that sought to compress 25% of the city’s current and projected future population into 7-1/2% of its surface area. Matters had further accelerated when the City, Metro Vancouver and the Province had agreed with the Mayor’s 2022 election promise to extend the SkyTrain to UBC. This “energized” the Jericho Lands proponents to expand their concept plan from the original 10,000 residents suggested to more than 25,000 residents based on actually building out the forest of high-rise towers the concept plans showed.
What followed was a gold rush with no gold. For two years after the 2022 election that resulted in the same divided, leaderless Mayor and Council, property was rezoned at a record rate, as it had been during the previous Council’s 4-year term—with the Broadway Plan, a more than 50-year housing supply was enabled in less than a year. Only after every construction crane within a 100-mile radius was sitting on ever deeper excavations did we begin to notice what was not accompanying the cranes to our city—well-paying jobs. Of course there were the transitory construction jobs—the worker shortages caused by rampant construction had raised construction wages and material costs dramatically, thence the cost of construction and end costs to buyers. But who were these buyers?
Vancouver should have been warned when, in 2022, Amazon moved its Seattle workforce of 1,800 out of the downtown to the safer suburbs, citing concern for the safety of their employees amidst an epidemic of “homicides, shootings, carjackings, and burglaries.” Why were we surprised when, six months later, Amazon abandoned their still under construction lease space for 2,000 employees in the old Post Office building, located close to our Downtown East Side? As the narrative went, these 2,000 high paying jobs would spawn countless other high paying jobs elsewhere in the city, definitely along the Broadway corridor—except they didn’t.
Like naive city administrations in Seattle, Portland and other American cities, Vancouver had decided to use their one-time fee income from rapid development to: address climate change issues that are federal or provincial responsibilities; fund affordable housing that is also a senior government responsibility; largely defund the police; bolster social services around largely unstaffed low barrier housing for those with drug addiction and mental health issues. Low barrier meant housing open to anybody regardless of their condition as well as their friends and visitors. Despite ample research suggesting this was an untried approach and should be limited to small groups, Vancouver, aided by the province, had approved in 2022 a new 140-bed “single men only” low barrier high-rise facility next to the Broadway SkyTrain’s Arbutus Station, thereby guaranteeing easy transit access for residents’ friends and dealers left behind in the Downtown East Side. The elementary school across the street immediately posted 24-hour security guards, to protect the children during the day and the buildings at night. The approval of the Broadway Plan’s 40-storey residential towers around the Arbutus and other SkyTrain stations had not magically created safe zones for residents and visitors. The city’s planners had apparently not read the many scientific studies proving that high-rise living separates residents from streets below—no overlook means no safety.
The high paying tech jobs never materialized. Nor did the well-heeled immigrants needed to buy the thousands of condos or rent them from investors. Immigrants arrived in Canada in the promised numbers, were hard working, thankful and are becoming excellent citizens, but more than 80% went to greater job prospects in the east—those who came here competed for the city’s dwindling supply of older, affordable apartments, rapidly demolished to make way for the mega projects’ lure of high-rise millions.
The Broadway Plan, Jericho and Senakw’ were each about half built out before the residential market collapsed just after the 2026 election—just late enough that much of the ineffectual Council from the previous term retained their seats so they might continue their mismanagement. The mega projects had been approved quicker than city staff had originally suggested, possibly because they provided ready streams of development fees to a city administration built for development rather than the services that a city should focus on—infrastructure maintenance, schools, community centres and parks, to name a few.
The many, smaller developments that used to energize Vancouver’s neighbourhood mostly failed—or were never started in the face of the preferential treatment offered mega projects. Somehow the Oakridge redevelopment and the Cambie Corridor rebuild continued—possibly because there were enough nonresidents who could afford them. After all, the federal government had never implemented their promise of a two-year moratorium on home purchases by nonresidents. Few locals could afford studios starting at over $1 million. They couldn’t afford the rents either, even when investors started to lower them to try to recoup losses caused by the oversupply of over-priced residences. But it never became a “buyer’s market,” as confidently predicted by those who argued persistently to “build it and they will come.”
Without local neighbourhood development, the city’s 50 neighbourhoods began to wither and die. First casualties were those like West Point Grey, where all activity had been siphoned into the false promises of the Jericho Lands. Fairview and South Granville were quickly gutted of their older, affordable apartment stock—promises of new,”affordable, below market” apartments after redevelopment outlasted the largely seniors population, who either moved or died. Grandview Woodlands atrophied along with the large project at Broadway and Commercial. Surprise! Increased SkyTrain ridership was not a good match for cloistered high-rises—and the public land showed itself to be the narrow, shaded, unsafe strip that local residents had feared. But rampant speculation caused by the large development froze out the natural, lower density redevelopment of the neighbourhood—lots remained vacant and existing, older homes were allowed to run down as money ran out.
As the steady injection of developer contributions in the form of Community Amenity Contributions and Development Cost Levies began to rapidly dry up in 2027, city staff economized. Choosing between climate emergency actions and basic infrastructure maintenance and renewal, the latter was suspended. Offered a choice between funding police or funding low barrier housing, staff selected the latter. The conscious spreading of such housing throughout the city spread the diminished policing even thinner, making increasing areas of the city unsafe for women, for children, for the elderly—such was the depth of ideological commitment by the largely female City Council that they continued to insist streets were safe for women in the face of dramatically increasing assaults on their sisters, their elders and the youngest amongst us.
Turning from his now double locked front door to face the street they had called home for almost 50 years, he took in the changes that had happened and those that had not. Perhaps the new, wealthy home buyers who had flooded into his neighbourhood over the preceding 15 years had the right idea. He had dismissed their fortress-like faux stone blocks as insensitive—they now looked to be the safest homes on the block, although the thin, cream coloured stones were much covered in anti-immigrant graffiti. At least there was no longer any street parking problem, as their cars were parked in secure garages on the lane. Only those like him, without garages, were forced to park on the street, risking increasing break-ins while paying an ever growing street parking tax—he and his wife had managed with one car for more than a decade, despite constant erosion to the transit he had happily used during the last decade of his employment downtown.
As to what had not happened, one only had to look at the pot-holed streets and broken sidewalks to see where ever-rising city taxes had not gone. It was unclear where taxes had been spent other than for an ever expanding bureaucracy—city staff head count had been increasing at an average rate of 100 per year for the past 15 years. Yet streets were not fixed, parks were not maintained and what efforts individual citizens made were constantly stymied by the folks whose salaries he paid. The Aquatic Centre had long been demolished after most of its walls had quietly collapsed due to the same lack of maintenance and renewal that had characterized the city for the past generation. Contrary to popular belief, buildings usually collapse from quiet disrepair rather than explosive demolition.
As the originator of the laneway housing idea back in the halcyon days of 2009, he had awaited publication of the city’s guidelines for their design and construction. When they were revealed a year after he had tabled the original idea, he was dismayed to see more than $30,000 in permits, fees and unnecessary infrastructure, which had only grown in the years since. He did not proceed with a laneway home behind their house—it was barely economical in 2010, nonsensical with the extra fees and ever increasing requirements. It made no sense to sprinkler their almost 90-year old character home so that firefighters, who refused to access a laneway home from the lane, could safely carry their kit from the front street to the lane in order to attend a call-out in the sprinklered laneway home. They had long ago shelved the aging in place idea, with themselves in a laneway home, children sharing the main home and their grandchildren enjoying the green spaces their own children had enjoyed while growing up. What might have been four homes remained a lonely one.
Like so many others, young and older, his locking of their door was symbolic as well as practical. They were moving to what they hoped was a safer city better managed than Vancouver—more difficult than it should be, even with his urban design training. In late 2022, the provincial government had made good on its threat to overrule local governments and eliminate public hearings, approving large developments wherever a community’s Official Community Plan (OCP) permitted the potential for future higher density development—there had not been a public hearing in Vancouver since, although almost a thousand spot rezonings had been approved by staff and City Council all over the city. Now, in addition to evaluating the traditional elements of a neighbourhood’s liveability—places to shop, to walk, to learn, to participate in community activities—he had to review each community’s OCP to determine if what appeared to be a charming place to live might be destroyed overnight by bureaucrats and politicians in Victoria, as had happened so quickly in Vancouver. Fortunately, he knew how to make that evaluation, but was truly tired and saddened at the need for it.
Calls to Action
Vancouver’s civic election is in late October of this year. Lots of damage can be done by the current Council, city management and staff before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM for a Livable City elects a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change. If you are concerned that what you’ve just read is an example of what’s wrong with our city, and want to bring back its livability, join TEAM and work with us to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.
Today’s question: Have you completed the city’s Broadway Plan survey? 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
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.
Defunding the police seems extremely unlikely. The policing budget has increased every year. And anyway, cops don't make us safe.
I have completed the survey. Probably an exercise in futility, but I think it important to let those at city hall know we are not all in favour of this plan.