December 2, 2021

The Grand Bargain in Action: Vancouver and Seattle

Here are examples of how two cities absorbed population and housing growth over the last decade – illustrating the de-facto deal we call the Grand Bargain, where the majority of urban growth is concentrated on a small percentage of the land available, leaving established neighbourhoods relatively untouched.

The first is Danny Oleksiuk’s talk on Sam Sullivan’s Urban Lunch series.  (We’ll cover Dale McClanaghan’s excellent summary of the non-market housing history of Vancouver later.)


Danny introduces his ‘basic big idea’ at around 4:00 – “We should build the most housing in the best places where most people want to live” – and then describes the Grand Bargain with some good data and illustrations, its consequences and failures, and why it won’t likely survive.

Where I depart from Danny’s analysis is his emphasis on ‘the Growth Machine’ – the idea put forward by critics that the city is basically run as a land or real-estate business for the benefit of local elites and/or homeowners.  Ergo, as the number of homeowners declines because future aspirants are priced out or become renters, so will homeowners’ political power – and the city’s single-family neighbourhoods will be rezoned as the Grand Bargain is broken down.

Don’t count on it, Danny.  The Bargain isn’t just about values expressed as housing prices; it’s about stability and certainty too – the desire by those who have lived in a place long enough to want to keep it more or less the same, regardless of their tenure.  You’ll fine the renters, leaseholders and homeowners, seemingly with different interests, will all unite around that basic desire, as illustrated most recently in neighbourhood plans and politics, whether in the West End and Grandview-Woodland or the South Shore of False Creek.  They will fight for both security of tenure (like rent controls, the rollover of leases, or low residential property taxes) and slow rates of growth with maintenance of ‘character’ even as they rhetorically call for more affordability and diversity.  They may not like the scale or character of the designated growth areas, whether downtown, in regional centres or along transit/arterial corridors, but they’ll accept it so long as it doesn’t infringe on their green streets or involve the displacement of lower-income renters.

As for local elites and the growth machine, it’s easy to diss the developers; it will be more problematic as First Nations – notably MST Corporation – become the biggest developers in the city in alliance with existing real-estate interests to carry on with the Grand Bargain a la Senakw and Jericho.


The second illustration of the Grand Bargain in action is a report in the Seattle Times:

Seattle’s 19% growth in the housing stock was still a little smaller than the increase in population. The number of city residents grew by 21% in the 2010s, a gain of about 129,000 people. Seattle’s population reached 737,000 in 2020.

A closer look at the census data shows Seattle’s growth in housing units was far from evenly spread out across the city. In fact, one section of the city — Central Seattle — absorbed more than half of the 60,000-unit increase. …

The number of housing units in Central Seattle increased by 32,300, or about 30%. That’s more than 10 percentage points faster than the rate of growth in any of thecity’s other three quadrants.

This was by design rather than by chance. A greater share of Central Seattle is zoned to absorb high-density growth when compared with other sections of the city, which have more neighborhoods zoned primarily for single-family homes. …

The second-fastest growth in housing units in the 2010s was in South Seattle, which added 5,500 units — a 16% increase. That brings the total number of units to nearly 40,000. Much of the new development in South Seattle is along the Link Light Rail line, which runs through the Rainier Valley.


Whether because of political expediency or demographic realities, the Grand Bargain has performed well enough over the last half century for leaders across the ideological spectrum to sustain it, retreat to it or defend it.  Anyway, it’s effectively built into our regional visions and neighbourhood plans.  That’s a lot of inertia.

Critics of the Grand Bargain (an easy target in the face of unaffordability) who argue that this particular bargain ain’t so grand still have to come up with something better, something that acknowledges the near universal desire for certainty and stability by present residents, whether expressed as the value of their house, the cost of monthly accommodation, the maintenance of character, or the rate of change over time.  It won’t matter whether you’re a NIMBY or a YIMBY, a supply- or a demand-sider, a homeowner or a renter, an east- or west-sider, you gotta come up with a bargain.

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  1. Concentrating urban growth on the small amounts of available land equals condos (for the most part). These condos are the most expensive housing form you can build, and we are doing this in one of the most expensive real estate markets on the planet. Something is seriously wrong here.

    The best thing we can do for affordability is to go into single family home neighbourhoods and build stacked townhouse, or 6 plexes. This housing type is far cheaper to construct than condos. And we should construct as many as the market demands. So I hope the forthcoming Vancouver plan has the courage to go into the RS zones and basically rewrite it, and make Vancouver a viable option for middle class families (again).

  2. Thanks as always, Gordon. Great insights. I am a bit more optimistic than you (and closer to Danny) for 2 reasons. Compared to 30+ years ago when our kids – and their dozens of pals – walked to school at SES or PW, there is not a kid to be seen on the sidewalks, while the schools and surrounding streets have become parking lots in am & pm. From 100’s, our doorbell rings twice on Halloween. Very depressing. We would gladly vote for reasonable density increases in Shaughnessy/most of the West side to make more affordable – bringing back young families / neighbourhood vibrancy. Secondly, we have no interest in downsizing from a quiet neighbourhood to a noisy high-rise condo overtop of Broadway or Cambie or whatever subway station. Just replace too-large single family homes with smaller duplexes/triplexes/quads – and we would be ecstatic to downsize & make room for young families. Much of the West side (especially Shaughnessy/Kerrisdale) has become completely ghettoized by older adults with no kids, paying exorbitant pty taxes – because we have nowhere (quiet) to go. Very depressing. Sadly, we are 20 years too late in many respects – imagine the vibrant community 1st Shaughnessy could have become without the expensive Heritage rules forcing ever-larger mansions. But there are still lots of homes that have not yet been torn down & rebuilt that could be rebuilt in multi-family, affordable ways, bringing life back to the West side.

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