Democracy be Gone!
City Conversation #46: The public hearing about the proposed rezoning of 1477 West Broadway may be the last public hearing ever!
April 20, 2022—The provincial government is threatening to introduce legislation that will allow many of Vancouver’s 180 current spot rezonings that are still in process as well as any rezonings arising from the Broadway Plan and Vancouver Plan to proceed without any public hearings.
1477 West Broadway is at the back of this grouping of towers that the Broadway Plan would permit—all of these towers might proceed without any more public hearings—Image by Stephen Bohus, BLA
“What do you mean, there might never be another public hearing?!” My son was looking over my shoulder at my subheading. He likes to sneak up on me while I’m concentrating on writing. “Is this another of your exaggerations?”
“I never exaggerate,” I responded indignantly. “I sometimes let my emotions expand to fill the writing space available—that’s different.” He smiled. “In this case, a colleague, Stephen, reminded me that it may soon be the case that this type of rezoning proceeds without any public input.”
“So what’s this all about?” he asked. “I know this public hearing has already gone through two evenings—thank goodness you got to speak already, otherwise neither I nor Mom could stand the tension! You’d not have been fit to live with. Does this have anything to do with this carrying on for one or more additional evenings?” he suggested, looking for the simple answer.
“It’s a question of this hearing’s timing in the bigger scheme of things.” He gave me his blank I’m waiting look so I continued. “There’s a legislative gun being held to the head of BC municipalities, including Vancouver. It appears the provincial government is fed up with what they see as the slowness of towns, cities and regional districts in BC considering rezonings like this one.”
“And why does that matter?” he asked with knitted brows. “What business is it of the provincial government how any municipality goes about its business? You’ve told me way too many times that land use is usually a local, rather than provincial jurisdiction.” We both smiled at his remembering one of my too many civics lessons.
“Grab a beer, I suggested, this may take a while.” He returned a minute later with one for each of us. “Sorry,” I continued, “this may be a two beer discussion.” He responded by sinking into the old brown leather reading chair that sits beside my writing table. He took a long sip, gave me the ready nod.
“The BC government appears to have been persuaded that municipalities and their citizens are the villains in the affordable housing mess.” He interrupted: “How do you mean, persuaded? And by whom?”
“At the moment the development industry is carrying the day when it comes to why housing is less affordable. Never mind land owners jacking up their selling prices, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) buying rental apartments wholesale, not to mention real construction material supply chain issues or the lack of skilled building trades at a time when large numbers of trades people are retiring. So far the build it and they will come argument that we just need to build more housing and costs to home buyers will magically come down is winning the day—and, they argue, the biggest villain in the picture is the public and their elected representatives, who are apparently slowing down development by, of all things, listening to their electors when someone wants to rezone a property to build more on it.”
“Is there no truth to the argument that quicker approvals might make things cheaper?” he asked. I was again impressed that he had been listening to my diatribes.
“Absolutely, quicker approvals will reduce costs—time is money,” I responded. “That’s especially true as interest rates trend upwards. The financing costs of delay are increasing. Meanwhile, my construction colleagues tell me that their costs of construction are currently increasing at 1% per month. That’s real money!”
“So the BC government approach sounds like a solution,” he suggested with his am I missing something? look.
“Sounds like is a good choice of words,” I responded. He smiled appreciation until I continued. “The problem is, the BC government approach sacrifices democracy to expedience. Remember, as Winston Churchill put it, democracy is the worst possible form of government…except for all the rest!”
“Enough of Churchill’s wisdom!” he replied with exasperation in his voice. “Please cut to the chase!” I gathered my thoughts before proceeding.
“The province is suggesting legislation that will allow them to impose planning approval wherever a rezoning proposal is consistent with a community’s Official Community Plan (OCP) or, in Vancouver’s case, an Official Development Plan (ODP). If a municipality wants to avoid the province imposing rezoning, they can do it themselves, as the city of Victoria has just done.” He stared at me with his waiting for it face.
“At the moment, the 1477 West Broadway proposal is what I call a spot rezoning, that is, a proposal for a particular property that is different from the existing zoning. In this case, the applicant proposes a 39-storey building where the current zoning only permits five storeys.”
“You’ve explained previously why you think that’s wrong,” he interjected, “but how does that relate to this OCP/ODP legislation?”
“Here’s my nightmare scenario, which many others have also identified—it’s not just me being paranoid.” He listened, more attentive than usual.
“1. Vancouver Council passes, first, the Broadway Plan in mid-May, then the Vancouver Plan in mid-June. Both become ODPs.”
“2. The NDP provincial government passes legislation in the autumn that allows a municipality to skip a public hearing where the proposed project is consistent with an ODP; or threatens to overrule the public hearing requirement whenever it (the province) thinks that’s a good idea.”
“What do you mean, a good idea?” he interjected. “Surely there would be criteria for deciding when an override was in order?”
“Sez who?” I replied. “The City doesn’t get to bully the province, and the province is three years away from an election. But let me continue.”
“3. Our NDP Mayor gnashes his teeth and blames Victoria for overreach, but insists there’s nothing he can do (not true but a good gambit).”
“4. Every spot rezoning that arises from the Broadway Plan ODP or the Vancouver Plan ODP proceeds without a public hearing.” He blanched.
“5. And I forgot—if the Jericho Lands or any other major project make it through the public hearing process and become an ODP, then they also get to share the get-out-of-public-hearing card.”
“What can we do to stop this?” he asked with much more alarm than usual (usual means leave it to Dad).
“Well, you and every other Vancouver citizen can object to spot rezonings such as 1477 West Broadway, and the Broadway Plan and the Vancouver Plan.” I paused to recharge and took a swig of beer.
“If there are no new ODPs, the city’s ability to avoid the judgement of its citizens is much reduced. That might give us the breathing room we need until the October election, where we can make changes to protect our city, our neighbours and neighbourhoods.”
He’d not done this for a while, but he put down his beer, got out of the old leather chair and gave me a big hug, saying, “We need all the hugs we can get!” I hugged back, nodding with the hope that comes from the next generation.
Calls to Action
The fight over ODP override legislation is for another day. In the meantime, there is hope when citizens step forward to express their concerns, such as they are doing for the proposed spot upcoming at 1477 West Broadway, which you can still sign up to speak about until Thursday, April 21st until 5pm. Numbers count—your voice is more important at a public hearing than at almost any other civic event.
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 Vancouver 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 questions: Do you support the province’s threatened legislation to eliminate public hearings? Yes or no?
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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.