The Vancouver Plan—Now You See it!...No, You Won't!

City Conversations No One Else is Having, #14

November 15, 2021—city staff conducted their second West Side Community Workshop—I made some notes:

You’ll get your turn…not!

“So how did the workshop go, Dad?” My son was referring to a Vancouver Plan workshop I had been invited to at the last minute—my earlier efforts to sign up had been met with a “you’re waitlisted” reply, so I was delighted that somehow I had gained admittance to the event, limited as it was to 90 people.

“Well,” I answered, “it was very instructive.” He paused with his scone halfway to his mouth, clearly indicating I should continue. “How so, or dare I ask?” he offered, hesitantly.

“First off, the most folks who were ever on the line numbered 67, of whom fully 15 were city or their communications consultant staff.” He did the mental math. “So there were never more than 52 citizens at a full workshop with 90 spaces?”

“Correct?” I continued. “There was about a half hour presentation from a Vancouver planner, followed by panel discussion, then reconvening for Q&A and wrap up.”

“Sounds not unreasonable,” he offered.

I kept going. “So here’s what that really meant. During the planner presentation we were all muted—I guess I’m okay with that. But any comments or questions we had were only visible to the 15 staff, not to other participants—that’s a function available in Zoom, but I have to ask, if we’re all muted, is it also reasonable to mute our chat as well?”

Now you see me…but you don’t!

“I’ll bite,” he answered, as he took one of his scone. “What’s the implication of muted chat as well as voices?”

“The planner made a number of assertions, such as that the city needed to plan for major growth (no idea what he meant by major). I asked, before I knew chat was muted, what the data basis of that assertion was, was told chat was muted during the presentation. After that, I shut up.” He raised an eyebrow in disbelief that I would ever shut up.

“So,” he asked, “they wouldn’t let you talk at the beginning, but surely you could talk later?”

“After the presentation that we could not ask questions about,” I continued, “we were divided into small groups, each with one of the 15 staff and consultants as a moderator and note taker. Our group was six altogether.”

“Six sounds good,” he replied. “So how did your small group discussion go?”

“After short self-introductions, the moderator asked a series of questions—I don’t know how many there were, but we only got to #3 before we were brought back to the larger group. We each got to answer each question and the moderator made notes—not sure where those notes went to, but I’ve not seen them again.”

“So who was in your small group?” he inquired.

“We were five participants. We only had one renter, a lady from the West End; the rest of us were West Side and Marpole homeowners.”

“That doesn’t seem very balanced,” my son suggested.

“Well, it was a workshop supposedly for the West Side—but I’m glad the West End renter lady was there for balance. It would have been nice to have more renters, but perhaps they had even more difficulty registering than I did.”

“What were the questions and answers?” My son continued his interrogation.

“The first question asked us to agree or disagree with a statement that “Vancouver needs more housing choices within its lower-density neighbourhoods (across the city).” The question was just if we agreed or disagreed with that assertion. We were all over the map, from Strongly agree to Somewhat disagree.”

I continued. “The second question was a three-parter: “What types of housing, if any, do you think are acceptable in these areas? Where should these types of housing be located? Why?” Lots to mull over.”

“And how did that go?” asked my son.

“Definitely more uptake than the first question, but a bit all over the map,” I answered. “Other folks in the group focused on the need for more duplexes and triplexes, how to capture excess land lift profits and the possible need to consider more density. Our West End renter noted that most new rental buildings are unaffordable for current renters.”

“And what did you contribute?” he asked.

7-12 storey “Mid-rise” 2nd from right—image only available at workshop

“I limited my comments to noticing that the city has now redefined mid-rise as 7-12 storeys. I saw that first in the recent Jericho Lands reveal—repeated here it can only mean that this is the new Vancouver city staff planning mantra.”

“Okay, I’ll bite,” he answered. “What’s wrong with the definition?”

“The issue is both the description and the way it’s described. We have a friend who lives across the street from the future Jericho Lands. Hers is an 11-storey building and it’s called a tower. Historically that’s an accurate descriptor; 11 storeys has been considered a tower in Vancouver and most other BC cities for decades. To now suddenly call that mid-rise is at best disingenuous and deceptive.”

“Whatever,” came his quick response. “Is that really such a big deal?”

I was gathering steam now. “The other thing this casual redefinition does is switch height measurement from meters or feet to storeys.”

“Well,” he retorted, “a storey is a storey is a storey, isn’t it?”

“I would have said so until recently, when I discovered that the city is currently considering two spot rezonings, one 13-storey, the other 14-storey.” His stare invited me to continue. “Problem is, both of these buildings are higher than another current 17-storey project!” His eyebrows raised. “The 17-storey project, like the 11-storey tower our friend lives in, has conventional 2.4 meter (8’) ceilings, what we’ve become used to as typical for all but penthouses. But the 13- and 14-storey building proposals have about 3 meter ceilings—each storey is about two feet taller than has been typical until now.”

“Why do you think the storeys have grown?” He looked truly interested.

“Well, as I mentioned when the Streamlining Rental policy came forward for public hearing, city staff are suggesting they will allow 11 feet floor-to-floor heights even in three and four-storey housing, enough for an extra two storeys even in what they call low-rise. I don’t know whether that’s just poor math, or they’re leaving leeway to allow greater heights, or squeeze in extra floors within a greater height limit, or…”

He interrupted me. “I get it, although it does sound a bit deceptive—both the new definition of mid-rise and the elasticity of storeys. What was the third question your panel answered?”

“We finished with: Are there particular features (shops, services, amenities, etc.) that could help make these areas more successful? What are they?” He shrugged. “That seems innocent enough. What did your small group think?”

“I kept mum on this one, thinking I had maybe spoken too much.” He raised his eyebrows, disbelieving I could ever be quiet.

“But I must say I was delighted that others, while agreeing that the quantity and mix of shops and services has declined in some areas, have clearly got the message that small business is being taxed to death in the city—I quote:”

“There has been a tremendous turnover in retail. We need to enable them to stay. Taxes are an issue.”

“We need to disconnect the value of potential development above shops from the taxes the shops are paying.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself!” I exclaimed.

“So whereto from here?” my son asked.

“There was a brief summary of group discussions and a few of the “chat” questions were addressed in the last few minutes of the workshop. Then we wrapped up. Frankly, I don’t see any value to these workshops other than for staff to pick out a few quotes that might support what appear to be their foregone conclusions.”

“Which are?” he asked.

“I wish I knew. There’s been very little concrete, conventional planning work presented. Lots of illegible maps and pretty pictures, general discussion about the economy, climate, complete neighbourhoods, etc. But frankly,” I paused wearily, “this feels like an exercise in justifying a preconceived plan that ordinary citizens won’t actually see until all has been decided—any by then, it will be too late for anything remotely resembling the liveable Vancouver we moved to and you’ve grown up in. I wish I could be more positive.”

Perhaps sensing my sorrow and dismay, my adult son gave me a longer hug than usual. As he mounted his bike, he paused, looked back and said, “I hope you’re wrong,” then smiled a softer version of his special, dazzling smile as he rode off.

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.