Planning Hazards in the Age of Zoom

City Conversations No One Else is Having #13

Public Input—Going, Going, Gone

“Dad, I think you may be overreacting!” As he sometimes does, my son led off our pre-bike ride with a bit of a zinger. “I did a bit of research after our last chat about the Streamlining Rental report going to Council on Tuesday.” I nodded understanding.

He continued. “I’ve just read a piece from the Wosk Centre for Dialogue called Changes May be Coming to Public Hearings which refers specifically to the BC government’s legislation that “gives local government more tools to increase housing.” It looks like it answers most of your concerns.”

I raised my eyebrows, impressed at his research. “You’ve caught me flat footed—can we just have our breakfast and bike ride, then take this up next time?”

“It’s a deal!”

***

“I got one of the details wrong, but, unfortunately, my conclusion remains the same.” It was a few days, another pre-ride Granville Island breakfast later.

“Okay,” my son answered, “I’ll bite, certainly into breakfast. What did you get wrong and why are you still so pessimistic? You know, my friends who read your Conversations are taking pity on me, thinking you must be very hard to have as a Dad.”

“So,” I responded after a short pause, “does that translate into free commiserating beer for you?” He smiled his answer, adding, “Is Commiserating a new micro-brewery, maybe with a lager called Crying?” We both laughed.

I continued. “The detail I got wrong is thinking this legislative amendment allows BC municipal governments except for Vancouver to decide not to have public hearings for proposals that are consistent with local Official Community Plans (OCPs). Those are the documents, updated every several years, that lay out what kinds of development are permitted where—in some cases the OCP may contemplate development that is different from current zoning.” He looked puzzled so I tried to unmuddy the waters.

 “Let’s take the example of a part of a BC municipality currently zoned for low-rise, but with an OCP that contemplates high-rise in that neighbourhood.” He nodded cautiously. “If a proposal is brought forward for, say, high-rise in a neighbourhood zoned low-rise, but the neighbourhood’s OCP contemplates high-rise, then existing provincial legislation already allows local government to decide whether or not to have a public hearing.” He waited for me to continue.

“Apparently, local governments have been able to do that for some time but pretty much never opt out of the public hearing process, presumably concerned about ballot box backlash if they are seen to ignore the voters—all good, in my opinion. This proposed legislative change gives local government some senior government political cover by amending the legislation to, quote, “remove the default requirement for local governments to hold public hearings for zoning bylaw amendments that are consistent with the official community plan.”

He looked confused, so I continued. “So where a proposal is compliant with the current OCP but not necessarily the current zoning, then a public hearing has never been required and still is not. BUT, where a proposal is NOT compliant with the current OCP, then a public hearing is still required.”

 “I think I get it now, confusing though it is,” he responded, “so why do you think this is such a big deal for Vancouver, which is not covered by this legislation?”

I paused for a moment, gathering my thoughts. “The thinking underlying this excellent article talks about a number of important current issues: equity concerns, where marginalized communities do not feel able to contribute to public debate; public hearings themselves, where historically, few citizens attend and speak and some of those who do are, as the article states, likely to unleash racism, classism and misinformation into the process.

“The article also talks about how many communities expect proponents to undertake significant pre-development consultation with the communities where they want to make substantive changes. You’ve heard me often enough talk about the exhaustive public presentations and meetings we engaged in around the OCP for False Creek North—they’re well documented in Larry Beasley’s excellent book, Vancouverism.” He rolled his eyes in acknowledgment of my False Creek North war stories and waited for me to continue.

“This public communications system—pre-development consultation; city staff sponsored meetings, workshops and surveys; and a civilized public hearing process, usually with a minority of naysayers because their concerns had been dealt with in advance—has broken down during the pandemic, although it was showing problems even before COVID-19 arrived.”

“But,” he responded, “doesn’t the current system do a better job with equity, broader input, etc?”

“Theoretically, yes.” I answered, “But not in reality.” His stare told me to carry on.

‘Let me give you some concrete examples. We’ll start with the Vancouver Plan, which has been inching forward for years, is now scheduled for a full reveal early in 2022. I’ve been trying to have input to the draft Plan for a couple years. Until just now, my options have included: taking surveys crafted so that even “No!” means “yes,” which are then used to report to City Council that all is moving forward; being excluded from “workshops” that involve development business interests and are in camera, meaning their attendees and results are not reported in detail; being excluded from “workshops” that are only open to special interest groups, whose attendees and results are also in camera.”

He interrupted. “You said “until just now”—what’s happened just now? Are you finally being heard?”

I laughed. “So this is the once in a generation Vancouver Plan that’s supposed to guide the city’s development for the next 30 years. In late October the city advised there would be many communications activities in November—I admit I was temporarily excited to finally have some input—until I discovered that the entire West side of the city and the entire Downtown area were each allotted two “neighbourhood workshops” in November, one each of which was literally the next day. I immediately tried to sign up, was advised that the workshops were “full” and I would be “waitlisted.” Is this not the most important plan in a generation, or is it just a football game or restaurant?”

“So how’s the waitlist doing?” he asked, hesitating at my annoyed tone of voice.

“It turns out there are only 90 spaces in each Zoom workshop—not surprising they would be quickly full. That’s 1/40th of 1% of the city’s population, clearly a representative sample—I’m being ironic. But what’s strange is the speed with which these workshops become full. The West side residents associations were only apprised of the first West side workshop the day of, had received no earlier contact from city staff—not a bit. So much for neighbourhood consultation! Only one representative of one association managed to gain “admission” to one workshop and they reported not recognizing any of the attendees, and having their questions, in fact their voice, muted.” He raised his eyebrows at that—my signal to keep going.

“Such is the power of Zoom, which the Director of Planning has advised she’d like to continue to use even after the pandemic is finally over! Why not? Planning controls the surveys and the workshops in a fashion that pre-pandemic planners could not contemplate—most, in fact, would be horrified at this manipulation of public input. It’s so easy to invite just who you’d like and mute everybody, or at least those staff don’t want to hear. That happened to me at a recent Jericho Lands “workshop” wherein we were offered two high density development options to vote on—area residents who have been involved in the planning process for two years told me they knew nothing about the incredible density of development until 10 days before the workshop reveals—their input to density was not asked for then or ever. It was always portrayed as “coming soon.” To say they feel ambushed and disrespected is a major understatement.”

“I hesitate to ask,” said my son, “How does the Vancouver Plan and all the rest of the Plans relate to the proposed changes to public hearings in the rest of BC?”

As I said to you previously, Vancouver could ask the provincial government to amend Vancouver’s Charter to provide for the same public hearing options as the rest of BC. When the Vancouver Plan, the Broadway Plan and the many other major development plans become de facto OCPs, then city staff and Council need not ever again seek public input—they can work directly with developers and whatever special interest groups they feel like, to the exclusion of everyone else, as they have been doing for some long time.”

“Do you really think they’d do that?” My son was incredulous.

“They’ve been doing it for years—just look at all the spot rezonings where public input is limited to “virtual workshops” whose attendees are unknown, surveys whose respondents are unknown and whose tabulation is not transparent, and now the occasional opportunity for one-on-one meetings with planning staff, whose reporting of results is opaque to the likes of you and I.”

“I get it, Dad. I was excited when I thought you were wrong about the rezoning/OCP thing, only because the alternative seems straight out of “1984.” But sadly, it seems you are right on.”

“Let’s grab some of that Crying beer you were talking about. I’ll even buy!”

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, 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.