March 22, 2021

On Planning Directors and Vancouver’s Direction

PT reader Peter C sent in this thoughtful comment in response to the post by  Sandy James on Planning director Gil Kelley’s departure.  

If I understand correctly, you connect our last 15 years of planning department turmoil (three directors in 15 years) to changes that occurred under Vision Vancouver.

I wonder if the differences between the 3.5 decades of Spaxman/McAfee/Beasley and the 1.5 decades of Toderian/Jackson/Kelley can also be connected to the immense housing affordability pressures that have been building for the past 50 years, but which became considerably worse starting around the mid-2000s. These pressures can be tied to several factors, but one of the key drivers of this affordability crisis has to be the extremely restrictive zoning laws that have been virtually unchanged for the past century on the 80% of our residential land that is zoned RS/RT.

Apart from the 1950s-1960s, when a tiny handful of existing low-density neighbourhoods were upzoned (parts of Kitsilano, Kerrisdale, Marpole, and Strathcona), City politicians and planners have left single family neighbourhoods largely untouched.

Around the time that Spaxman began, the City developed/upzoned the following areas: South False Creek between the bridges (formerly industrial lands), Fairview Slopes (after the DTES, the poorest area of Vancouver at the time, so any changes there faced very little effective pushback), and Champlain Heights (the former Vancouver landfill, and otherwise undeveloped at the time). The general attitude at the time of South False Creek and Champlain Heights, based on quotes from Walter Hardwick, was that the rest of the city was basically already built-out. In other words, the 80% of residential lands that had been zoned for single family were to be left untouched.

Under McAfee/Beasley, a similar process continued: upzone/rezone industrial lands, leave the vast majority of residential SFH untouched. Yaletown/downtown/North False Creek were rezoned/developed (and they did a fantastic job on those areas), smaller sections like Arbutus Walk were rezoned (also a fan, but this area was all industrial prior to rezoning), and I’m guessing the initial planning for the River District south of Champlain Heights was started around this time (also industrial lands).

Yes, McAfee lead the CityPlan process of the 90s, but I’d argue this was largely a failure in terms of preparing the city for the future: for most of the single family zones in the City, it resulted in vision/guideline documents that called for effectively zero change.

Spaxman, McAfee and Beasley were largely successful in upzoning/rezoning parts of Vancouver that had no existing residential housing on them. The handful of areas that did see upzonings/rezonings (Fairview Slopes, Joyce Collingwood) were at the bottom end of the income/wealth scale, so incumbent residents were largely ignored. They were also coasting on several decades of federal funding/support for large volumes of social and rental housing from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. This support dwindled during the 1980s, and fell away completely after the mid 1990s.

Toderian/Jackson/Kelley have had to deal with a very different city, one that is reaching the limits of the “Grand Bargain” that Gordon Price has described. At 50-60 storeys, we are reaching the limits of high rise tower developments on the few slivers of land available for high density (yes, we could try aiming for New York style heights, but initial reports from that city would indicate that these types of towers face immense engineering challenges, especially in our earthquake prone region). We’re adding in density where it already exists (West End), and along arterials.

Toderian brought in laneways, as an attempt to densify that 80% of Vancouver that is still SFH, but that was about as gentle a densification as one could aim for. Kelley, as Kevin Quinlan claims, may have brought about the “end” of single family zoning in Vancouver, but the Duplex bylaw change in 2018 was a change in name only. The allowable FSR for any new duplexes on RS lots is less than the allowable FSR for a new SFH plus laneway.

Duplex zoning aside, I’m not aware of anything that Kelley was able to do in terms of upzoning/rezoning low-density SFH. He probably faced so much pushback from certain members of the current Council that he avoided attempts at ‘speaking truth to power’.

I’d argue that Spaxman, McAfee, and Beasley were able to have constructive, effective discussions with city managers and city politicians because they didn’t really have to have difficult discussions around upzoning RS/RT areas. Toderian, Jackson, and Kelley didn’t have that luxury.

I don’t know how/if we’ll see any improvements in this relationship between Council and planners.

Council needs to acknowledge that they aren’t architects or planners, and stop micromanaging every single multi-family development application (the latest Kits project being yet another glaring example). It also needs to grasp that a majority of Vancouverites are open and ready for more density.  From the Daily Hive:

“The survey found that 71% of Vancouverites think the municipal government should allow the construction of duplexes, fourplexes, townhouses, and three-to-four storey apartment buildings in areas where only single-family homes are currently permitted.”

There’s really only one or two members of council that are ready to accept/embrace the above, so I hold little hope of any change before October 2022.

At the same time, City Planning needs to be honest and direct with itself, and with Council, about the profoundly negative impacts of restrictive RS/RT zoning on most of the City’s residential lands. Kelley wasn’t even able to mention restrictive zoning as a cause of our affordability crisis in his reply to Council’s motion (Recalibrating the Housing Vancouver Strategy) last summer. That has to change if we’re to have any hope of solving this crisis.


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  1. This “either high-rises or SFH” attitude is what’s putting us in. There is no reason why you couldn’t continue to build 5 stories high, with interesting architecture in existing SFH neighourbhoods.

    Would it change the feel? Obviously, but if you don’t want change move into a museum and don’t live in a city.

    What puzzles me the most is that there are still examples of areas in Vancouver where they seem to have gotten things right, all the way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the land east of Granville Island, with “complete streets”, though no mid-rise buildings. Or, as I discovered over the weekend, the building where The Bayside Lounge is in actually has a shared community garden at the middle.

    Where I grew up in Germany, many city blocks have 5 story housing, with the inner part of the block often build out for communal spaces (or small work shop / businesses). It creates a community feel much better than the SFH “castles” that North Americans seem to dream about.

    I give Vision decent marks for putting bike infrastructure in, but a Fail for completely lacking with the willingness to up zone parts of town that aren’t already and quite frankly, this obsession with cramming more high-rise towers into places like the West End for no good reason outside of “well, we can”.

    At least one good thing that seems to come out of COVID is that a lot of the transient car traffic seems to be banished from the area. I hope that stays that way once they open Beach east bound again.

  2. “the Duplex bylaw change in 2018 was a change in name only. The allowable FSR for any new duplexes on RS lots is less than the allowable FSR for a new SFH plus laneway.”
    Exactly – the fixation with keeping FSR (the max. floor area -a ratio based on a planning number multiplied by the site area) down to existing single family house proportions makes the whole exercise a joke. As Peter says – we don’t need an either/or of towers vs bungalows (and maybe 5 storeys in Southlands is a bridge too far at this point) .
    But the off-Cambie Corridor Plan – allowing townhouses/fourplexes/row housing into the adjacent quiet neighborhood is a good start and could be expanded to many more neighborhoods to the west. Because right now biking or driving thru some of those neighborhoods west of Arbutus is downright spooky.

  3. I fully agree with this analysis and the suggestions concerning Council’s past involvement and how staff should approach Council on the realities of planning Vancouver in order to manage inevitable future population growth.

    1. What about Richmond? Why does Vancouver have to absorb all the regions density, they have done more than their share.
      Richmond has agreed to the Grand Bargain too

  4. A few observations:

    1. The City of Vancouver’s housing stock stands out as having the lowest proportion of single detached dwellings ie one house one household at 19% of its housing stock (CMA 29%). This compares to in other CMA’s of Calgary (63%), Edmonton (60%), Toronto (43%) and Ottawa (48%). The trend in Vancouver has been downward noticeably with single detached dwellings emerging as a more modest part of the housing stock since 1981. Most housing starts now in the City and Region are multiple dwellings.

    2. Referring to our RS zones as single family zones is a misnomer, given the prevalence of so many houses with two or more dwellings ie households living within them or now infill. From a built form perspective, they really are ‘house’ districts.

    3. Our so-called ‘single family’ districts have been less so since 1987 when secondary suites were permitted in almost all RS districts if occupied by a family member and rental suites started to be permitted in some RS districts and then finally in most RS districts in 2004. With the introduction of laneway houses, the zoning permits three dwellings on each RS zoned lot. Maybe we should call them ‘Three-Family Districts.’

    4. Wealth and Class- this seems to be a subtext in discussions but not sufficiently considered. Stroll or ride your bike through Vancouver’s west side neighbourhoods dominated by houses. One finds a lot of wealth there and can anticipate most will prefer to live in single detached one household house. We can contemplate building the ‘missing middle’ there, but given very high land values they will only be affordable by wealthy or two income professional households. The housing market is driven by money, as well as zoning. These households have lots of money and I think we can predict what choice they will make in these areas.

    5. Norquay – I recommend having a stroll around the residential side streets of Norquay to observe the addition of ‘missing middle’ housing. The mid-90’s CityPlan championed by Ann McAfee envisioned Neighbourhood Centres offering a broader choice in homes and that is what is being developed there. I’ve promised to follow up with a PT article on Norquay once I complete several current projects.

    1. Hi Michael G,

      Regarding your observations:

      1. “Most housing starts now in the City and Region are multiple dwellings.”

      Nope, wrong. 57% of the Residential Floor area built in the City of Vancouver from 2010-2019 was Detached Single Family or Laneway. A measly 19% came from new low-rise and high-rise apartment construction:

      2. This is a distinction without a difference. From a built form perspective, they are still what most people, including planners and architects, would describe as detached or SFH.

      4. Yes, the whole point of exclusionary zoning was to divide up the city, implicitly, by class (and race, back in the day). In that regard, it has been incredibly successful.

      That restrictive zoning has also gone a long way to massively subsidising and creating that wealth (I recommend googling: “Reserve Bank of Australia: the Effect of Zoning on Housing Prices”). Whether or not new missing middle housing is affordable depends entirely on what kind of densification is allowed per lot. Duplex only? Sure, won’t change a thing, as we’ve seen. 4-6 storey 6/8/10/12+ plexes allowed on all lots, including in Shaughnessy? That’ll start to move the needle.

      5. Norquay, as even the CoV planners who spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy on it years ago have grudgingly admitted, is a mess. Experienced Vancouver developers say the same:

      “I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of months looking at every project in norquay. 2 broad conclusions:

      (1) the RM-7 zoning sucks (said this many times before). The inability to provide courtyard townhouses is a major problem …this has largely kept experienced developers out of the neighbourhood and has resulted in an oversupply of poor quality, poor amenity stacked townhouse projects. These have sold slowly and a number of projects have stalled out or taken years to come to fruition.”

      1. 1. “Most housing starts now in the City and Region are multiple dwellings.”

        Nope, wrong. 57% of the Residential Floor area built in the City of Vancouver from 2010-2019 was Detached Single Family or Laneway. A measly 19% came from new low-rise and high-rise apartment construction:

        Sorry Peter, your statement is wrong. First of all you’re quoting ‘data’ (from a twitter feed) about the floorspace constructed. It doesn’t tell you about how many units were constructed.

        CMHC publish how many units are started every month. In the 10 years from January 2010 to December 2019 in the City of Vancouver, there were 61,084 dwelling started. Over 75% of them (46,387) were apartments. And, while there were 11,859 single family dwelling constructed in the city, several thousand would have been rental laneway homes, and almost all the remainder would be redevelopment of an existing single family house that had been demolished. City records show 10,409 demolished residential units in that 10 year period. Most would be houses – a few were apartments.

        Michael’s also correct about the entire region; within Metro Vancouver in the same 10 year period 66% of the 216,545 housing starts were apartments.

        Your wider point about earlier Planning Directors having things easier in terms of adding density because they could pick off isolated industrial areas like Arbutus brewery, Joyce warehouses, Coal Harbour and the Expo lands are very relevant. Burnaby and Richmond are doing something similar. Vancouver is adding a lot of new rezoned density on lower density large sites (Oakridge Mall, Arbutus Mall, the W41st bus barns, the ex RCMP lands etc etc) but there are very few of those left to redevelop. It’ll be much more difficult to add the sort of growth that’s been seen in the past couple of decades going forward, without impacting a lot more people in ways that some will make it very clear they’re unhappy about.

        1. CC,

          1) “First of all you’re quoting ‘data’ (from a twitter feed) about the floorspace constructed.”

          If you’d prefer, here’s a link to the City of Vancouver’s own report from last year:

          Look at page 5. This looks at 2014-2018 vs 2010-2019, so the numbers are very slightly different: 55% vs 57% for single detached.

          55% of the livable floor space that was built in CoV between 2014-2018 was single detached. In the middle of an extreme housing affordability crisis (we also have climate crisis, but that’s for another time), more than half of the livable floor space built in Vancouver was of the most expensive kind possible. A further 14% was duplexes/townhouse/low-rise apartment floor space (this figure includes a handful of low-rise apartments, but as the CoV report points out “very few four storey residential-only developments are built in Vancouver.”).

          That’s a failure of city policy, of city planning and zoning. City planning/zoning places artificial restrictions on what can be done with residential land. This government policy heavily subsidises buyers and builders of single detached housing, as they are able to purchase valuable city land at a per sq ft rate that is 50-75% cheaper than it would cost if it were zoned for higher density.

          Government shouldn’t be in the business of subsidising the most expensive, most climate unfriendly floorspace possible.

          2. “Burnaby and Richmond are doing something similar.”

          Yes, this is the model followed by virtually every municipality in Canada (and North America). Housing affordability is a country-wide crisis.

          Yes, of course it will be difficult to up zone/rezone the vast RS/RT lands. But most city councils have avoided having a serious, open discussion about this since the 1970s. And city planning, based on Gil Kelley’s reports/comments to council last year about housing data and housing affordability, are clearly not providing the clear and honest guidance/long term planning that city leadership needs to inform their decision making.

          Yes, a vocal number of the coddled, protected, and subsidised incumbents living on 80% of our residential land will be unhappy. That’s fine. Let’s at least have an honest discussion about the fact that they’ve been subsidised for decades, that much of their wealth has been created by city government policies that artificially restricted the natural densification process that occurs whenever land becomes valuable, and that they are partly responsible for the housing affordability crisis we’ve been dealing with for decades.

          1. I can see why you’re so hung up on single family homes because you think they are occupying land that could be developed as something else, with a higher density. Obviously they could, and maybe after a new City Plan, they will be.

            But you’re misled by the construction floorspace data if you think there are any more of them. There are fewer every year. Those that get built almost always replace existing houses. With plans in several parts of the city that allow redevelopment to denser forms, (Marpole Plan, Cambie Plan, Grandview Woodland Plan for example) some are demolished and replaced with apartments every year.

            The census data shows this. Between 2011 and 2016 there were 6,100 fewer single family homes in the City of Vancouver, and 7,100 more up-and-down duplexes (those are houses with a suite, and the suites) – in other words there were 3,550 more homes with a suite in 2016 than in 2011. There were also an additional 480 side-by-side duplexes. So that’s a net loss of over 2,000 ground-oriented detached or semi-detached dwellings.

            In the same period there were 805 more rowhouses, 3,955 more low-rise apartments (4 stories or less) and 12,980 units in buildings 5 storeys or more.

            In summary; 2,000+ fewer detached homes in the city over 5 years, a modest number of townhouses added, and nearly 17,000 more apartments (nearly a quarter in low rise buildings).

    2. 4. Wealth and Class-

      Tired of this lame excuse. Have you ever visited Georgetown in D.C., Brooklyn Heights or Yorkville? Luxury 3 level townhomes can exist all over the Westside. We don’t need to preserve single family homes for satellite families.

      1. CMHC data shows that in the City of Vancouver there were 850 single family and 330 semi (duplex) units started last year. The single family includes laneway homes, which is probably about 500 of them. There were 2,825 apartment unit housing starts in 2020.

  5. Thanks Michael
    – a few comments
    1. Yes – Vancouver has a lower proportion of SFR than other Canadian cities. But my first impression is the proportion of land area that these SFR structures take up – must be > 80% of the available land area, even if they are only 19% of the housing stock.
    3. Yes – ‘three family districts’ but that’s still a ‘house’ with a suite in basement and a laneway out back. The thinking needs to change.
    4. Yes – 100% – but how to encourage change? I enjoyed reading about the evolution of the Athens ‘polikatoikia’ – quickly built condo projects in which the developer paid the landowner not in cash but a percentage of the built units. Maybe unrealistic today but … how many west side projects sit empty and dark – waiting for their owner to reclaim them?

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