c2030 Version 2
City Conversation # 36: An alternative future reality and how we can get there 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 2 describes the alternative future to Version 1 that 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.
2030—Laneway Homes and their inhabitants now fill half of Vancouver’s Neighbourhoods
He closed the front door of their 90-year old character home for the last time as occupant. He smiled at how its 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. He paused, wondering what might have been, almost was for their home and thousands of others throughout the city he still called home. He thought of the city’s rich collection of 50 neighbourhoods, neglected to the point of starvation, now slowly coming back.
Perhaps because the city’s big moves in the Vancouver Plan, Broadway Plan and a variety of neighbourhood plans had so quickly shown themselves to be disastrous oversimplifications of the complexity of cities, it had seemed right for the new administration elected in late 2022 to focus on the city’s neighbourhoods rather than the dual fictions of big moves in one city. They had started by pressing pause to all spot rezonings, mega projects and area plans such as Oakridge. Proponents of the 200+ spot rezonings that had been approved by the preceding council but for which Development Permits (DPs)—permits to proceed with construction— had not been issued were paused for about a year of re-evaluation—interestingly, the city’s rental vacancy rate improved during that period and the costs of all but the most luxurious condos declined as land prices deflated. The 39-storey project that had started as 5, as well as the 16-became-28 and the 8-became-18 had their construction halted pending a review of the processes by which they had so dramatically expanded—two of those three had revisited their approvals and their pro formas. Miraculously perhaps, they had been able to make the projects work at about half the previous heights and densities they had insisted were essential to project economics. The third project had been abandoned, purchased by a co-op and completed as that unique form of affordable housing.
Meanwhile The 150+ spot rezonings that were in process were referred to Neighbourhood Planning Offices (NPOs)—many projects were abandoned or significantly reworked as the NPOs hit their stride. These NPOs had been reconstituted by the new administration, more than two dozen of them dispersed to storefronts in the 50 neighbourhoods. They were staffed by city staff who were qualified and understood and agreed that neighbourhood consultation was a cornerstone of their work thenceforward. Significant numbers of city staff left for (I guess) places where staff could still ignore the public they worked for. After a challenging settling in, the NPOs began to thrive.
Not that the NPOs were pushovers. They had been given the message that the city needed to accommodate its fair share of immigrants, refugees, economic migrants and folks just relocating from elsewhere in BC and Canada. Given the city’s historic 1% annual growth for the preceding two generations, it was actually quite easy to identify how many more folks needed to call the city of Vancouver an affordable home—7,000 or 8,000 each year, needing 3,000-3,500 homes, or 60 to 70 new homes each year in each of 50 neighbourhoods. The imbalances of recent history, such as way more development in the West End, Marpole and Grandview Woodlands, to name a few, were addressed and rebalanced in a transparent fashion, so that each NPO knew each year how many dozen new homes were needed as their neighbourhood’s contribution. These numbers were posted in each NPO and on the city’s website, along with progress towards these real, not aspirational targets. Once neighbours understood the real numbers, they were surprisingly ready to identify opportunities for development, also to support applicants creating new homes or fixing old ones, or both.
Still at the modest neighbourhood scale, NPO staff were given and shared information about where a neighbourhood’s existing zoned capacity was unmet—that’s planner-speak for what existing zoning allows as compared to what’s actually developed. City management had refused to provide that information to City Council, had been dismissed by the new administration for that and other failings.
Once folks understood, for example, that the single storey mom & pop shop was already allowed to become 3-5 storeys of residential atop ground level shops (to use one example), in fact had been taxed as such for years, they understood and accepted this scale, especially when they remembered the previous administration’s block-busting approvals of high-rises scattered like a pox on their communities.
When the previous Mayor’s Making Home scheme for six apartments on a 10m (33’) wide lot had been found to be physically unworkable and unaffordable, NPO staff started to assist homeowners in identifying what they could do with their homes—secondary suite(s)? Duplex? Laneway home(s)? With the new city administration having successfully faced down TransLink’s city-wide attacks on bus stops and routes, NPO staff knew with confidence where transit would continue to be available, allowing densification on a lot-by-lot basis without disrupting street parking.
Meanwhile, at the city scale the 2022 Broadway Plan had been a close run thing—the grassroots opposition that he had participated in had scared City Council into holding a Public Hearing about the Plan—surprisingly, something they were not obliged to do. An unprecedented 500 Vancouverites had signed up to speak about the Plan—about 100 had been supporters, mostly land speculators, developers and those employed by them, many not Vancouver citizens. But the balance, three times the number that had seen off the False Creek South boondoggle, were residents opposed to a plan that would actually allow three times as much development as planning staff deceptively suggested.
Perhaps these citizens were moved to action by the continuing parade of spot rezoning projects that were approved at double or three times the height and density they had been introduced to the neighbourhood as. Or it might have been the reality of that same approach on the Jericho Lands, where the concept plan, carefully guarded from the citizen consultation committee that had participated in its development for more than three years, suddenly emerged as a plan whose forest of high-rise towers city staff explained by saying that they would only permit a full height tower if other towers were built shorter—a “whack-a-mole” approach to urban design that was also being tried on for the Broadway Corridor. In a prescient moment, City Council listened to the 500 speakers and referred the Broadway Plan back to staff for further “consultation” with the affected neighbourhoods, more than the tightly controlled Zoom meetings and “here and gone” open houses, not to mention the exclusive invitation-only presentation to the development community.
But the “build it and they will come” interests were not done yet. The provincial government had threatened to override local Councils throughout the province, approving development without public hearings. The new city administration quickly armed itself with the existing zoned capacity data hidden by previous city management. When the province attempted to override the refusal of Vancouver’s new Council to approve the Broadway Plan, the city’s legal staff took them on—and won, albeit at the BC Court of Appeal, where the Court agreed that the city had the best hand on what population needed to be accommodated.
Turning from his door to face the street we had called home for almost 50 years, he took in the changes that had happened and those that had not. Most change in his neighbourhood was now on the lanes and on the nearby commercial street, no longer the steady tide of demolished character homes. Most redevelopment on the street was now new side-by-side duplexes or renovated up-and-down duplexes, like their own home had become. There were now mostly four separate homes on each 10m (33’) wide lot, which formed the large majority of all of Vancouver’s lots—more on bigger lots.
Since the new civic administration had (finally) eased the fees and time frames by prioritizing neighbourhood development, the average number of homes on the city’s so-called single family lots had increased over the past 8 years from 1-1/2 (main home plus secondary basement suite on 1/2 the city’s lots) to 2-1/2 homes per lot—half the city’s 68,000 lots now had a laneway home, and almost 100% also had a secondary basement suite. This infilling, which YIMBYs decried as too gentle densification, had by itself added a 20-year supply of new homes in the city, the same as all of the spot rezonings that the previous Council had approved. Development of existing zoned capacity on arterials and the like had made up the rest—there had been no spot rezonings proposed since the new Council’s election in 2022.
Rents were still higher than in the the colder parts of Canada, but the rental vacancy rate was a healthy 3%, which dampened most speculation. Meanwhile, the existing zoned capacity of neighbourhoods, unlocked with NPO assistance, had been filled out by encouraging housing over commercial rather than taxing it to death. The Broadway Plan had morphed into a neighbourhood-level review of existing zoning and community plans. Those neighbourhoods that had never completed plans had met regularly in NPO offices to, first, complete their plans, then to monitor their implementation and update them in a locally sensible way.
He enjoyed visiting the two NPOs equidistant from their home, where he volunteered as a neighbourhood design expert—being retired, he did not practice design, but helped folks with the still too complex zoning, development and building bylaws, then referred them to the group of younger architects he mentored in their local practice.
As for he and his wife, they were finally moving into their own laneway home, a concept he had tabled at the first EcoDensity Forum in 2009, but deferred in the face of ridiculous fees and time frames. After these had both been dramatically reduced by the new administration, he waited cautiously until their re-election in 2026 before proceeding with their plans. His son and daughter and their families would move into their character home, now converted to an up-and-down duplex—he wasn’t sure they’d finalized who was on which level, but that was the struggle of another generation. They would continue to rent the basement suite to their longstanding tenant. And they would relax on the lane in their single level, compact home, better suited for folks closing out their eighth decade. They had been concerned about having enough space until they realized they could now have their children in the main house store some of their possessions, just as they had stored their childrens’ over the years—a certain symmetry, that was.
But mostly they would enjoy sharing their yard, their home in their neighbourhood, with their kids and grandkids, their longtime friends and neighbours.
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: Do you support neighbourhood densification such as described above? Why or why not?
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I will be downing my pen for a while, focusing on some upcoming teaching I need to prepare for—but I will continue City Conversations with my readers.
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.
Yes. I was particularly impressed in the early 80's while taking a course in urban design at BezAlel school in Jerusalem, of the Community Planning office structure, for example in the Mia Shearim neighbourhood. All proposals for the community were available for viewing at the office for weeks before permits were issued. A local planner with detailed knowledge of the community, history, architecture etc was available for discussion and opinion of the local residents. This was incorporated into the eventual design. Worked really well.
Further, while your low key densification described is an admirable goal, you neglect to delve into the real roadblock, the 3 levels of building codes (federal, Provincial, municipal) which are applied to this type of construction. Homes that have been safe and secure for 100 years are made to reflect 2022 ideas of safety for new construction, making most of them impossible to break into suites, or even basement suite permitting. I have examples.
Another great piece, even more powerful than the first one showing how badly things could go wrong. I appreciate your using your experience and expertise to give us a detailed look at how things could be done right. How inspiring and hopeful that there is an alternative that looks like it could work!