City Conversations We should ALL be Having
Storm Clouds Gathering
“Dad, do we have any hope of making Vancouver more livable and affordable in my lifetime?” My son had just finished reading my most recent City Conversations No One Else is Having, describing City Hall’s latest undemocratic policies and actions—there have been so many of late that we were both getting somewhat overwhelmed and depressed. It was his birthday so I wanted to cheer him up.
“Yes,” I replied, “I honestly think we can rescue the city.”
I have been thinking about this subject for a while now. There have been a few positive glimmers in my rants about what I feel is destroying the Vancouver I and many others spent our careers designing and building, where nature and neighbourhoods meet so often and so well. But there are not enough glimmers, at least not yet. The onslaught against Vancouver’s physical, planned character, what makes it such a special place, has been relentless these past several years. As a result, most of my two dozen or so City Conversations starting in the late spring of 2021 have been at best desultory, at worst despairing. My adult son, the foil in many of my City Conversations, has become absent of late—mind you, that may have as much to do with his seasonal replacement of cycling with snowboarding.
Yet I remain hopeful about Vancouver’s future. City Conversations have uncovered a growing network of sympathetic voices—they encourage our modest efforts, more importantly they tell us what others are doing in their own neighbourhoods and day-to-day actions that give us hope for our shared future.
At the risk of embarrassing these good folks, I will mention a few by name, others by passion.
Let’s start with Randy Helten and Stephen Bohus, the masterminds of CityHallWatch (CHW). Awhile back they graciously took me on as a “Guest Writer,” and have since published my City Conversations. To be clear, CHW is their labour of love.
Randy tells me, “It started when I was jolted awake after my family's move to the West End was soon followed by many neighbourhood-busting rezonings and a fraught community planning process. And Stephen has been equally involved since the start, applying his extensive experience in 3D modeling and analysis of urban view, height and other policies.”
For over a decade now, the two have sought to amplify public concerns, analyze proposals and critique civic policies. Their work has evolved from the West End to cover the entire city’s litany of plans that proceed without context, rezonings without respect, developments without heart or a sense of history. They review and comment on every Council meeting and many committee goings on.
While conventional newspaper media often appear to have succumbed to the influence of their advertisers, their Home Sections designed to fool the world into believing Vancouver is other than what it has degenerated to, CHW is resolutely truthful, insightful and comprehensive. Randy and Stephen’s truth to you is to be commended.
CHW’s writing is food for many neighbourhood-, plan- or issue-based ad hoc resistance groups. There are 22 neighbourhood community associations and groups that City Staff have not seen fit to invite or include in their so-called “consultation” about the Vancouver Plan, the Broadway Plan and others. Those communities are beginning to awaken.
The Broadway Plan has given rise to at least one plan-specific organization, the Fairview/ South Granville Action Committee. Among other activities, they have been engaged in scholarly research into the many negative impacts of city staff’s high-rise panacea approach to densification—they have found numerous contrary studies by numerous scholars in numerous places. We will be writing about some of this in future City Conversations—whether you care about climate action, shade and shadow or other livability issues, scientific research (as opposed to uninformed opinion) points in different directions than what we are currently being fed by city management, staff and many politicians at all levels of government.
While we may have limited capacity to write about groups objecting to specific developments, we have current sympathy for Kitsilano for Families, which has arisen around concerns about an un-neighbourly proposal for unsupported “supportive social housing” sprung without neighbourhood consultation or consideration. As a still-registered Architect, I could get in trouble if I commented on its architecture.
The recently revealed Jericho Lands Plan co-opted many local residents into more than two years of thoughtful community input, before blind siding them at the last moment with a density proposal involving a forest of towers that would be three times as dense as the North Shore of False Creek, with nary an affordable home in sight.
And of course, False Creek South (FCS) came within a hair of having its original concept of equal thirds modest, middle class and richer homes set aside for a scheme thought up by the City’s Real Estate Department to maximize profit by displacing residents who have worked publicly and thoughtfully for more than a decade to welcome many more neighbours while preserving the success of their neighbourhood. The jury is still out on FCS’s future—its residents can maybe hope for postponement of further rash decisions until after the next city elections.
This has all transpired under the sad, insidious cover of COVID-19. The face-to-face community meetings and workshops that characterized city development from the 1970s to the 2000s have been replaced by COVID-excused surveys without transparency, polls without identity, Zoom interaction characterized by muted commentary and managed Chat from unknown, often foreign (to Vancouver) sources.
I learned more about this at a recent Broadway area neighbourhood action committee meeting, from a community activist—today that means someone who lives, works in and cares about a community that will be heavily impacted by one of several disconnected planning proposals or spot rezonings, and not in a good way. They are an activist because they are actively trying to save some semblance of the neighbourhood they have been a part of for decades.
To demonstrate the city’s perfidy (that’s a fancy word for deceitfulness and untrustworthiness)—the neighbourhood committee needed a Freedom of Information (FOI) inquiry to uncover the reality of a recent spot rezoning project’s supposed support as reported by city staff. As the committee’s own painstaking analysis of postal code data from the FOI showed (why did they have to do this instead of city staff?), city staff’s reported “52% majority support” for the spot rezoning required that they count the 10% of survey respondents who do not even live in Vancouver—meanwhile, that same data showed that 79% of actual Vancouver residents, be they renters, business owners or homeowners, opposed this plan. Furthermore, 29% of all comments supporting the rezoning came from folks living outside Vancouver. Finally, 45% of comments supporting the spot rezoning were generated from a form letter arising from a single pro-development website.
The project’s spot rezoning was nonetheless approved, but the action committee remains active in the face of several other egregious spot rezonings that are proceeding even before the Broadway Plan is considered in any meaningful way.
There is no excuse for this two-facedness at a supposedly democratic City Hall.
I know there are other existing, emerging and preceding ad hoc groups that I have missed here—one purpose of this inaugural City Conversation We Should ALL be Having is to broaden the resistance network and provide mutual support and expertise as we try to turn the tide in our David and Goliath efforts (apologies for mixed and potentially sexist metaphors—I and my writing continue to evolve).
One long-time east side resister of City Hall’s steamroller in their neighbourhood got a bit angry with me recently—“Where were you when we needed you?” they asked with not inconsiderable annoyance. I have no excuse for being late to the city destruction party, except to say that city staff’s divide-and-conquer tactic has now moved from “pick off the neighbourhoods one by one” to today’s nuclear options.
Going forward, I will continue City Conversations No One Else is Having whenever we come across evidence of the type mentioned above and in previous Conversations—where deceit and deception replace decency, where gain for the few is proposed at high cost to the many who call Vancouver home.
City Conversations We Should ALL be Having will be reserved for the good we find: thoughtful research into what creates and nurtures livable, affordable neighbourhoods; victories over callous collaborations for immediate profit at the expense of livable communities; and plans that truly consider surrounding community fabric over imposed visions that may work elsewhere but have no history, no home here.
As for my birthday son, his thought about what’s written above: “It sounds overwhelming, but at least folks are fighting back! Please thank them for me.”
Please engage with us about the good and the bad in the planning of our city. We owe that to our children, our friends and neighbours, to everyone who calls Vancouver a home worth saving.
Blue skies someday?
Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated 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.