October 25, 2021

False Creek South Shell Game? Report to Council Skips Public Involvement & Process

If the strategy was to get Vancouver residents rallying for or against redevelopment of housing on city lands, the report on the future of False Creek South  presented to Vancouver City Council last week did not disappoint.

The report prepared solely by the City’s Real Estate and Facilities Management and by the  Deputy City Manager  on “The Future of False Creek South: Advancing a Conceptual Development Plan and Addressing Lease Expiries” brings up more questions than answers.

This plan upsets existing seniors who had hoped to age in place in their older co-op units by proposing to shell game  those residents to new proposed locations along Sixth Avenue, and demolishing the existing seaside  buildings.  Those current 721 units of subsidized housing or co-op housing would be demolished, replaced with more higher income  strata and “affordable” rental units creekside which of course would glean the city a better market land rent.

Add in a fifty story tower located near Granville Island, triple densities to a proposed build out of 6,600 units, and what you have is a realtor-like plan which optimizes the City’s leasehold revenue on the 32 hectares (80 acres) of city owned land.

Fold in the lease agreements of co-op and non-market housing at the same time which just happen to be up for renegotiation and renewal. Plan to let folks live in their current buildings for twenty years or for what you negotiate in a lease extension. With that lease extension get  those subsidized housing or co-op housing tenants to accept the switch to “new” to be built accommodations  along busy Sixth Avenue in exchange for a signed agreement,  and the way is clear to rebuild higher paying units along the waterside currently enjoyed by those existing units.

The eventual build out proposes 1,600 non-market units, 1,850 strata market units, and 1,700 units of “affordable” housing. If  you have looked at what is deemed affordable housing, that is a two bedroom unit in the $2,600 to $2,900 rent range, or a three bedroom around $4,000 a month. You can review the city’s approved  rental rates here.

From a financial perspective it is a good plan for the city to receive increased  land lease rents. From a planning perspective it presupposes and makes assumptions about where massing and type of housing will be located. The previous policy statements for this plan assumed a robust consultation with impacted residents and others in the city.  Instead this report informs the planning department to make the policy and regulation around the form of development  Real Estate and Facilities Management have proposed all by themselves.

The  City should not be working like that.

There’s really been no public process except for meetings that occurred prior to the pandemic, and this plan has not been public or been discussed with the current leaseholders. It appears that a developer consortium has hastily pulled together where to locate the plum units, which of course is by the water.

The intent of the one trick pony plan, its execution, and how it has been presented to Council simply reads as a developer driven dream rezoning proposal for the south shore of False Creek, and that has been how residents have responded with close to two hundred signing up to speak to Council .

In the past False Creek South was a refuge of affordability for many people who were able to raise their family there, and is one of the only places in the city where three and four bedroom subsidized rental units were available. Many of the people who moved to False Creek in the 1980’s are now aging  in one bedroom units as their children grew and they downsized for other families; they fear losing their homes.

But the crux of how this report ended up at Council says volumes about the direction of the City. There has been no involvement with the planning department on a robust public process or proposed massing. There is also no discussion on the fact  that this area’s potential new building sites are  on former industrial lands with dirty not remediated soils, as those clean up policies were only developed post 1986.

Vancouver city planners in leadership positions for decades rarely speak out against City actions or proposed policies. Larry Beasley who was co-director of Planning with Ann McAfee until 2006 broke his silence on the lack of public involvement in the south shore of False Creek in this article in the Globe and Mail in September 2021.

Mr. Beasley notes

“The problem may have started in 2018, when Vancouver City Council decided to put community planning on hold to focus on negotiating new leases. Surprisingly to the community, the nature of their relations with city hall immediately changed. From then on, everything was handled as a real estate matter with a bias to look primarily at the city’s financial needs rather than wider civic perspectives…

A confidential “redevelopment asset plan” (real estate speak for what planners would call a “community plan”) was recently generated by city consultants, reputedly with design options for up to four times current densities. Residents have yet to even see that plan.”

Saying it was time for City Hall to see residents as “partners rather than tenants” Mr. Beasley recommended that the City be open about their process of lease renewal and land redevelopment, guarantee the tenure of current residents by renewing leases, and get the planning department to do its work “using well-established processes of open community planning, with a comprehensive agenda but protecting the area’s broad social mix and character.

This should have been part of the discussion of the Vancouver Plan which was to look at overall housing capacity and accessibility in the city, providing clear data on what needed to be located, and where.

Now reports on public policy and this huge swath of public land are being considered in departmental silos, with control of every aspect  by one city department and not a sharing of thought, principled process and timelines across many.  This of course is expedient to a Council in a hurry before the elections of October 2022, but shows how eroded formerly open public processes led by the city have become. The public who have lived in False Creek South  for over four decades have had no say.

Mr. Beasley gets the last word: “There is no question that appropriate value should be achieved for this public land for the next generation. But should that not be balanced with the value to the whole city of saving affordable housing for the people already living there and reinforcing the intangible benefits of a stable, self-supporting neighbourhood? False Creek South is a heritage treasure and vibrant, thriving community that just has to be renewed.

Let’s do that hand in hand with those who live there. “


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  1. I hope that Council will reject the recommendations of this report. The core of the recommended plan is to “demolish and redevelop” the existing housing and community. The underlying concept is gentrification – the land is now too good, too valuable, for its current residents, so they are to be evicted and resettled – to take advantage of the “opportunity” to redevelop the site for market housing for wealthier residents, possibly also including a minor component of affordable housing.

    The real estate consultant and staff have a development pro-forma that shows that the recommended “demolish and redevelop” plan is financially feasible, possibly even making money for the City. The pro-forma is confidential – Council and the public are not allowed to see it. No matter, it doubtless contains high level and risky assumptions about unknowable costs, such as environmental remediation and the cost premiums for constructing new infrastructure and buildings on a site with such poor load-bearing capacity.

    We know from experience that development pro-formas for False Creek are fraught with risk for the landowners. In the case of both the north shore of False Creek and the Olympic Village, the landowners (Province and City) received no net monetary return for the land they sold freehold for development. That’s even though the development was mostly for expensive market housing for the affluent and wealthy. In those cases, there was nevertheless some public benefit – the land had been vacant and development created wonderful new public amenities.

    The situation in False Creek South is far riskier. The pro-forma includes the demolition of a thriving model community which has already provided wonderful existing amenities (park and seawall) for the public. In other words, there is more to lose and less to gain than in the other 2 cases.

    It also needs to be acknowledged that, unlike False Creek South, the north shore and Olympic Village developments have not provided as much affordable housing as initially promised. Strangely, after 3 decades, 6 sites set aside for affordable housing are still vacant on the north shore of False Creek.
    A focus on getting that affordable housing built would be preferable to the current focus on demolishing existing affordable housing in False Creek South.

    Lastly, what about climate change? No Carbon Emissions Analysis has been presented for the “demolish and redevelop” real estate plan. Nevertheless, it is obviously best from a climate change perspective to preserve viable buildings and to pursue new development on vacant land.

    1. Here are links to a couple of relevant articles regarding building demolition and new construction vs building retention. It is interesting that a significant percentage of carbon emissions comes from building construction, and that building conservation can have an important role in combatting climate change.

      The carbon and business case for choosing refurbishment over new build

      Accelerating building reuse would help Canada meet its climate targets

      1. I’m less convinced of retention than these articles portray and there is some definite cherry-picking and deception going on. At one moment they are making the case for wood framed houses and small buildings but then switching to office buildings to finalize their case. Finally they don’t seem to factor in external benefits like higher density promoting more walking, cycling and transit over personal MVs.

        In the case of wood frame buildings (which all of False Creek South is) a deep energy retrofit is going to require everything but the foundations and structural wood frame to be gutted to bare materials. They may be able to salvage internal partition walls too if the floor plans are up to current standards. All the cladding, doors, windows, fixtures, cabinetry, appliances, tiling, flooring and drywall would be removed. There would likely be framing damage that would need replacement.

        These buildings were built in the 70s and 80s and the quality of construction and energy performance in North American buildings of the time can only be described as pure crap. 2×4 walls, aluminum window frames without thermal breaks and poor air sealing mean they are subject to mould and ludicrous amounts of heat loss.

        There is definitely a case to save more robust buildings. And ones with more architectural merit would be worth the high cost of a deep energy retrofit. But we need to get *all* our buildings to net zero by 2050. If we don’t start now we will *not* get there.

        A stipulation for all new buildings in False Creek South (and everywhere) is that they be net-zero.

        1. Anyone, who has ever walked along the seawall in False Creek South, would be aware that many of the leasehold buildings are concrete construction. It’s incredible that someone commenting on FCS would say they are all wood frame. That being said, wood frame construction buildings should not be scorned as disposal housing. The ones in FCShave been well-maintained and renewed, and will be viable for decades to come.

          1. You are correct – I should have said most. On the fringes there are concrete buildings but don’t be fooled by the freehold buildings which make up the majority of those as they are not in play here.

            My point is that the wood buildings are not up to the energy standards needed if we are to meet our climate goals. But they are up for lease renewal which makes it a good time to consider making sure that they are, one way or another. If it is to be a deep energy retrofit to get them to net zero one must seriously question if retaining them is the most sustainable way. Leaving them as the energy hogs that they are should not be considered.

            Horgan just announced that all new buildings will need to be net zero by 2030, two years earlier than the previous plan. I’d wager that date will be advanced again. But it’s not going to be good enough to have most of our buildings wasting heat and spewing GHGs just because they are old. That isn’t a sufficient response. We are running out of time.

  2. The proposal seems sensible but unfortunately relies on the goodwill of co-op boards, who will not hesitate to throw their poorer residents under the bus so that long-established and wealthier residents are not inconvenienced. I’m also uncertain of the purpose of consultation other than to take 24 months to listen to people say, “don’t do it. change nothing.” Fine. Sure.

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